An American Editor

October 15, 2018

Indexes — Part 5: Names in Indexes

Ælfwine Mischler

A potential client recently asked me what an index is. Does it contain every name and event in a book? How is it different from a concordance?

A concordance maps every occurrence of words in a work or corpus, usually with the surrounding words to provide some context. A concordance might categorize the words by parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) or by form (run, running, runny). There are, for example, concordances for the Bible, Shakespeare, Old English literature (which has a limited corpus), and the Qur’an (in Arabic). For most books, though, a concordance is not very useful.

Imagine a book about aardvarks — do you really want to know where every occurrence of the word aardvark is? Wouldn’t you rather want to know where to find information about the diet, habitats, mating habits, diseases, and natural enemies of aardvarks? That is what a well-written index provides. Indexers create entries for the topics discussed in a book and — if they do the job right — break long topics into subentries so readers can easily find what they want. Nobody wants to check all the pages in a long string of page numbers (or other locators) to find particular information.

What about names of people — should every instance of every name appear in an index?

Not usually. A computer-generated index might pick out all the words beginning with a capital letter and index them without differentiating between those that are passing mentions and those attached to substantial information. If a page says that Fay Canoes went with Bob Zurunkel, and that Fay did X, Y, and Z, and Fay said “yadda yadda” and “blah blah blah,” Fay is going to be indexed for that page, but not Bob. He is just a passing mention there. If Fay appears many times in the book, a human-produced index will usually have subentries for Fay, but a computer-generated index will not.

Often, a trade book or one that has limited space for the index will have longer strings of locators — and, thus, fewer subentries — and fewer details in the index.

As I said, usually not every occurrence of every name will appear in the index. There are exceptions, of course, and indexers should anticipate the needs of the reader. For example, in local histories, even passing mentions of every person or place (building, street, town, etc.) should be indexed because they might serve as clues for later researchers. In a handbook of literature, every author’s name might be indexed even if they are only mentioned in passing, but book titles might be indexed only if there is substantial discussion of them. What constitutes “substantial discussion” is sometimes a subjective decision.

Authors used as sources may or may not be indexed, and practice varies from one field to another. In the social sciences, it is common to have a separate name/author index that includes all sources, even if they are named only in parentheses, without subentries. The indexer has to refer to the bibliography to get the first name or initial(s) of authors, so bibliography pages should be counted in the page or word count used for pricing the index.

In other works, sources might be indexed only if there is substantial discussion of their material, or only if the source name appears in the text as opposed to only in a footnote or endnote. Authors and editors should make their expectations clear to the indexer before indexing begins.

Human indexers can decide which names to include in an index. They can also index people with nicknames properly (e.g., recognize that Frank and Buddy are the same person), people whose names have changed over time, and people who are referred to by a title or family relationship. A computer program will not index such people correctly, if at all.

So what goes into an index? That depends on the nature of the book, needs of the reader, practice in a given field, and space available for the index. If you have particular needs or questions, discuss them with your indexer before work begins. If you are the indexer, be sure to have this conversation before you begin the work.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

January 13, 2010

Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor

A book has many contributors to its success. One contributor is the editor, and in some instances, several editors. Editors are the hidden resource that can help or hurt an author’s work.

There are many levels and types of editing, too many to address. In essence, I think all of the various levels and types of editing are divisible into two broad categories: developmental (sometimes known as substantive or comprehensive)  and copy (or rule based). Each serves a different role in the book production process, but each is important. (Disclosure time: I am an editor of 25 years experience. I am also the owner of Freelance Editorial Services, which provides independent editorial help to publishers and authors.)

A developmental editor’s role is multifaceted, but it is less concerned with grammar and syntax and more concerned with the manuscript’s overall structure. The developmental editor addresses these types of questions (and many more):

  • Is the manuscript coherent, that is, do its various parts fit together as a coherent whole?
  • Who is the author’s audience? Does the manuscript present its information logically for the target audience?
  • Are the author’s ideas presented clearly? Will the audience understand what the author’s point is? Are the author’s thoughts clearly and logically developed or do they meander?
  • Does the author present the ideas concisely, that is, is the author using a shotgun or laser approach?
  • Does the material in chapter 5 connect with what went before?
  • Is the author using jargon or technical terms in such a manner as to befuddle the audience?
  • Is the work complete? For example, are sources cited where and when needed?

The developmental editor helps the author hone the manuscript for the author’s audience. It is not unusual for the editor and author to engage in multiple back-and-forth discussions to clarify text, find missing sources, reorganize chapters and parts, and the like.

Once the author and the developmental editor are satisfied with the manuscript, the copyeditor steps in. The copyeditor’s role, broadly speaking, focuses on the mechanics of the manuscript. That focus includes such things as:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Style
  • Consistency

The copyeditor is the “rules-based” editor. The copyeditor is usually given a set of rules by the author or the publisher to follow when deciding questions of capitalization, numbering, hyphenation, and the like. It is the copyeditor’s job to apply and enforce those rules, and to do so with consistency. In the editorial world, consistency is the law, not the hobgoblin of little minds.

When appropriate, a good copyeditor also questions the text. For example, if the author has referred to a particular character as Sam but now seems to have changed the name to Charlie, the copyeditor will “flag” this change and ask the author about it. Additionally, if the name change is sudden but from further reading appears to be correct, the copyeditor might suggest to the author that a better transition is warranted so readers can follow more easily.

Unlike the developmental editor, the copyeditor’s role is not to help organize and rewrite the manuscript. It is to make the “final” manuscript readable by ensuring that it conforms to the language conventions readers expect. It is to ease the reader’s burden, helping author and reader connect.

The ultimate role of the editor — no matter whether developmental or copy — is to help the author connect with reader. A good editor eases that connection; a poor editor hinders that connection. An editor is another eye, another view for the author. A good editor recognizes pitfalls and helps the author avoid them. A good editor is an artist of language, grammar, and the mechanics that help a manuscript take the journey from ordinary to great. When asked to define my role as editor, I usually reply, “to make sure what you write can be understood by your audience.”

The final arbiter of how the published manuscript will read is the author. Editors give advice that the author can accept or reject. In the end, the manuscript is the author’s; the editor is simply a contributor, but a contributor with special skills and knowledge.

One last note: The above description of what an editor does is not a comprehensive description. There are circles within circles, levels within levels, and many more tasks that editors can and do perform. The above is merely a broad view. If you are an author looking to hire an editor, you should discuss with the editor the parameters of the work to be performed by the editor. There is no set, immutable definition of, for example, developmental editing; for any given manuscript, what role the editor is to play is determined by dialogue between the editor and the author or publisher.

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