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.

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