An American Editor

June 18, 2018

Book Indexes — Part 2: No Magic Wands

Ælfwine Mischler

I took up indexing several years ago when I wanted to branch out from copyediting. I have found indexing to be more intellectually challenging and, thus, a welcome change from copyediting. I do both as a freelancer, but not on one book at the same time, and enjoy the variety.

Most indexers describe what they do as mapping a book — and it is mapping — but I think of it as looking at the book from a different angle. Think of forest and trees. When I am copyediting, it is like creeping along the forest floor, looking at not just every tree but at every detail. (I have seen that name spelled two different ways; which is correct? Does that comma belong here? This verb does not match the subject, but what is the subject in this twisted sentence? Is there a better word for that?) But when I am indexing, it is like flying over the treetops, seeing a bigger picture. (Here is a section on topic X. Over there, the topic is raised again. And this topic here is related to X. There is a lot of information about this person. How should I break it up and organize it?)

Indexing is a creative process. It is said that no two indexers would produce the same index of a given book. I have software to help me organize what I put into an index, but I am the one who decides what to include and what words to use. Just as you do not open a word processing program and expect it to write a document for you, I do not open my indexing program and expect it to write an index for me. Many people seem to think that I plug the manuscript into some software and out pops the index. (There are some programs that claim to do just that, but indexers in my circles say they cannot rely on them to produce a good index.)

No, folks, writing an index is not that easy. I actually read the book, cover to cover. I sometimes wish I had a magic wand that could do it for me — “Indexify!” — but I have to read everything.

“So do you read a page and put in all the A words, then all the B words, then all the C words?” asked a friend.

“No, I put in the words and the software alphabetizes them.”

She still seemed a bit stumped.

“Do you read the whole book first?” asked a nephew.

“No, there is not enough time to do that. I have to index from the start.”

Working from a PDF file of a book’s second proofs (usually), I read the foreword, preface, and introduction to get an idea of the importance of the book, the topics covered, and the book’s organization. From the table of contents, I often index the chapter titles and section headings to form the basic structure of the index. Each chapter title becomes a main entry, and the section headings form subentries. I will then break out most of those subentries to form their own main entries as well. (See Part 1 of this series)

I often have to change the chapter titles or section headings to make them suitable for index entries. If the book does not have section headings, I have the more-difficult task of skimming the text for verbal clues to a change of topic.

Then I go back over the chapters and pick up more details within each section. If the entry has a long page range, I look for some logical way to break it down into smaller ranges; that is, create subentries. Also, if a particular name or concept has many different locators, I look for some way to break them into subentries. I also look for related concepts and write see also cross-references.

What to call a given entry is not always obvious. If nothing comes to me quickly, I use tools within the software — color coding to remind myself to come back to it later, and hidden text with a few words about the topic. Often after reading a few more pages, the answer comes to me.

One of the things that makes indexing so mentally challenging is that I have to keep so many things in my head at one time. If I indexed concept Z as term Z′, I have to continue to keep an eye open for Z throughout the book and remember to call it Z′ and not something else — all the while doing this for concepts A, B, C, etc. My indexing software can help me to use Z′ and not something else, but it cannot help me to remember to pick it out from the book. If I later realize that I have missed some cases of Z, I can attempt to search for a word in the PDF file to find it, but in most cases, there is no exact word or phrase that will take me to Z. The words in an index are often not found in the book, which is another reason why automatic computer indexing cannot produce a good index.

Names often present challenges to me and other indexers. In school years ago, I learned to look for names in an index under the surname — Abraham Lincoln under Lincoln — but not all cultures invert names, and parts of names such as de, von, la, Abu, and Ibn can be problematic. Medieval names and names of nobility and royalty have their own conventions. The first book I indexed for hire contained the whole range of problems: ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek and Roman, medieval, and royal names; pre-modern and modern Arabic names (which follow different conventions); European names with particles; nobility titles (from various countries, no less!); and saints, too!

Fortunately, I had a very understanding managing editor who knew this was my first paid index and was willing to help me with the difficult names. Not all indexers are so fortunate in their clients. (For more information about the complexities of indexing names, see Indexing, edited by Noeline Bridge, and occasional articles in The Indexer.)

What did I have to learn in my indexing course? In addition to conventions about names, there are conventions for wording entries (for example, use plural nouns, don’t use adjectives alone, use prepositions or conjunctions at the beginning of subentries in run-in style), different ways to alphabetize (handled by the software options), and guidelines for whether to index a given item — a topic for another day. The course I took from the University of California at Berkeley Extension also required us to sample the three major indexing software programs — Macrex, Cindex, and Sky — which all do the same things but are different in their interfaces. Online courses are also available from the American Society for Indexing and the Society of Indexers.

Now I leave you so I can sail over the trees of another book.

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 15, 2018

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 3: Spelling the Definite Article

by Ælfwine Mischler

As an editor and indexer in Cairo, I often work on materials containing Arabic terms and names. The Arabic definite article is usually romanized as al-, but the vowel is sometimes written as e (especially common in Egyptian names) or u. Although it is such a small word — only two letters, alif lam — it often presents problems for writers and editors of English texts.

In this essay, I talk about these elements:

  • assimilating with the following letter
  • merging the article
  • elliding the vowel

In Part 4, I will discuss these difficulties:

  • dropping the article in names
  • capitalizing the article
  • alphabetizing names and words with the article

Assimilating with the Following Letter

Years ago when I joined the staff of a large Islamic website, it did not have a style guide, so I set out to write one in consultation with the heads of several departments. It was not easy because the website had a broad range of intended audiences and levels of formality between departments, and for technical reasons we could not use diacritics (which I felt were inappropriate for most of the audiences anyway). The Arabic definite article was the source of many arguments, which I lost. The books I now work on use the style that I prefer, so I am not constantly cringing as I edit.

The arguments were about what to do with lam, the letter that is usually written as l in English. Half the letters in Arabic are shamsiya letters (“solar” letters) and half are qamariya (“lunar” letters). If lam comes before a solar letter, it is assimilated to the letter following and is known as lam shamsiya (“solar lam”). “The sun” in Arabic, al-shams, is actually pronounced ash-shams. If lam comes before a lunar letter, it is pronounced as usual and is known as lam qamariya (“lunar lam”). “The moon,” al-qamar, is pronounced as it is spelled.

Most scholarly books and trade books ignore the lam shamsiya and do not show assimilation. To my mind, this is best for the average reader, who will perhaps recognize al- as a morpheme but be confused by its variants. The assimilation should be shown when the correct pronunciation is important, such as in transcribing poetry, prayers, or Qur’an. Authors of Islamic books might insist on showing the assimilation in all cases. If you are an author, you should, of course, check the publisher’s guidelines and discuss them with your editor if you have any disagreement. If you are a copyeditor and your author has shown assimilation of lam and the managing editor is OK with it, be sure it is done consistently.

In romanization, the l of the definite article assimilates with the following letters, with or without diacritics: t or th, d or dh, s or sh, z, r, l, n.

Merging the Article

The article is usually romanized as al- in scholarly texts, but individuals may write the vowel differently in their names, and the article may merge with the preceding word. A common Arabic male name consists of Abd (or ʿAbd) [ʿ 02bf] (slave) plus one of the names of God: for example Abd al-Aziz (or ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz) [ʿ 02bf, ī 012b] “slave of the Almighty.” An individual with such a name might spell it with Abdal or (more often) Abdul or Abdel as the first part, and the second part might be attached to the first with a hyphen or closed up. Thus, someone named Abd al-Aziz might spell his name Abdal-Aziz, Abdal Aziz, AbdalAziz, Abdalaziz, Abdul Aziz, Abdul-Aziz, AbdulAziz, Abdulaziz, Abd el-Aziz, Abdel Aziz, Abdel-Aziz, AbdelAziz, or Abdelaziz. The name Abdallah (or Abdullah) “slave of Allah” is often spelled as one name.

My experience has been that people with Arabic names who grow up in a country that uses the Latin alphabet are consistent in spelling their names, but people who grow up in a country that uses the Arabic alphabet are often inconsistent in romanizing their names. This can be a problem for researchers — those who publish under multiple spellings will not get all the credit they should, and those who are looking for a particular person have to search multiple spellings.

Your job as an editor is to check that the spelling of an individual’s name is consistent, even if two people with the same Arabic name spell their names differently. A carefully prepared style sheet is essential for this. As I mentioned in Part 1, your task is easier when editing scholarly works that use diacritics (where ʿAbd al-[name] is used for historical names), but, depending on the style guide, names of people from recent centuries may or may not be transcribed using those rules and thus may be variously romanized.

Elliding the Vowel of the Article

In Arabic script, some conjunctions and prepositions are inseparable from the following word, and in most transcription systems these are shown with a hyphen: bi-, wa-, li-, la-, etc. The vowel of the definite article is not pronounced. Whether and how this ellision is shown in transcription varies from one system to another, giving writers and editors one more thing to watch for.

The International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES) gives the following examples in its guidelines: “fī al-ʿirāq wa-miṣr” (in Iraq and Egypt; is not an inseparable prefix in Arabic script) but “fī miṣr wa-l-ʿirāq” (in Egypt and Iraq). However, the Brill Encyclopaedia of Islam 3 differentiates between prefixes that keep the alif or delete it in Arabic script, and gives these examples in its Instructions for Authors: “wa-l-kitāb, fī l-masjid, Muḥyī l-Dīn, bi-l-kitāb, but lil-masjid.” Yet another transcription system shows the ellision with an apostrophe: wa-’l-kitāb, fī ’l-masjid. In this case, the author and copyeditor must also ensure that the symbol for hamza (ʾ) is not used where an apostrophe should be.

Part 1 of this series discusses the reasons for various spellings of Arabic names and terms, and Part 2 discusses some other challenges that authors and copyeditors might have. Part 4 will provide more discussion of the definite article.

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.

March 13, 2013

The Little Man Who Wasn’t There

Today’s guest article is by Jack Lyon, an editor, the owner of The Editorium, and creator of many macros that editors and publishers around the world use (his macros are available at The Editorium). In his article, Jack ponders on some of the “invisibles” in book publishing.


The Little Man Who Wasn’t There

by Jack Lyon

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today;
Oh, how I wish he’d go away!
—Hughes Mearns

In a recent post on An American Editor, Rich Adin posits that eBooks may be sounding the death knell for authorial greatness (see Are eBooks the Death Knell of Authorial Greatness?).

Why? Because unlike printed books sitting on a shelf, ebooks are not immediately visible to our view; we have to go find them on our ereader, or search for them online. “Out of sight, out of mind,” as the saying goes.

I won’t repeat Rich’s arguments here; you should read them for yourself. But I do believe that Rich is onto something important, and his post made me think about other things that are becoming invisible in this modern age.

Note References

A recent trend in book publishing is the use of “blind” notes; that is, notes that exist in the back of a book but have no indication in the text that they exist. The only way to see if a particular passage has an associated note is to turn to the back of the book and check. “Fascinating paragraph,” you think. “I wonder if there’s a note about this.” You turn back to the notes and look. “Nope.”

What if your cell phone worked that way? Suppose your phone gave no indication—no ringtone, no flashing light—that a call was coming in. The only way to know would be to pick up your phone periodically and listen. Does that seem like a good system?

Is an author’s text really so elegant that it should not be besmirched with superscript note references? Give readers a break; if there’s a note, give them some indication.

Well-Written Indexes

Professional indexers and seasoned readers know that a good index is an essential part of a good nonfiction book. Not only does it allow you to find particular passages, but it also gives you an overview of a book’s contents. Does the latest tome on Microsoft Word have anything new to say about macros? Check the index.

But some authors and publishers think that an index can be generated by a computer—just feed the computer a list of important terms, and it will mark those terms as index entries in the text. Generate the index, and off  you go! (Microsoft Word actually includes a feature that will do this; I don’t recommend it.)

Similarly, those who publish in electronic form often think that a program’s “search” feature is all that’s needed for readers to find what they’re looking for. But consider the old saying “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” It refers to motherhood, of course, but if you look for “motherhood” in a computer-generated index or with an electronic search, “The hand that rocks the cradle” won’t show up. A good index is a form of writing; it requires the application of a human mind, which can see meanings where a computer sees only words. (This, by the way, is why grammar checkers don’t work.)

Functional User Interfaces

Some web designers think that how a web page looks is much more important than how it works. They’re wrong about that. Imagine a web page so “artfully” done, so minimal in its design, that it offers no indication of how users should navigate the site. You would actually have to move your cursor around the screen to see what areas might be “clickable.” That’s the extreme, of course, but there are sites that offer little more than that. Google “minimalist web page” and you’ll find some.

Several years ago I attended the product launch for a specialized search engine. The interface had an elaborately designed logo with the word “Search.” Below that was a box where users could enter the text they wanted to find. Wanting to demonstrate the simplicity of the new search engine, the CEO invited his wife to step onto the platform and search for something, implying that if she could use the program, anyone could. (Unfortunately, this also demonstrated his own stupidity and callousness, but that’s another story.)  His wife entered some text but then couldn’t find where to click to activate the search. There was no button, no menu, nothing. Finally the CEO grabbed the mouse and clicked on the logo to activate the search. After all, it did say “Search.” The problem was, it didn’t look like something to click; it looked like a logo. Furthermore, it was above the text box; but things should always appear in the order of use: First enter your text, then click “Search”—which means that the Search button should have come below the text box, not above it.

Form should always follow function; how something looks should always be subordinate to how it works. A button should look like a button.

Not that there’s anything wrong with simplicity. As Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but never simpler.” Those who are involved in any kind of communication—which means all of us—need to keep that in mind.


What do you think? Is Jack onto something that has changed with the advent of technological changes to how books are produced? Has technology changed us from specialists to generalists who know just enough to get us into trouble?

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