An American Editor

March 16, 2015

The Order of Things

The Order of Things

by Jack Lyon

Rich Adin and I are having a fight. I sent him a lovely article about why the parts of a book are placed in a particular order, and he sent me back the following note: “The principle you explain doesn’t really matter and doesn’t really influence the order of content; rather, that order is based on reader expectation built over centuries by publishers and printers.” The nerve of that guy!

So what principle did I explain? That the order of a book’s content is based on the fact that we start reading at the beginning and keep reading until we get to the end. In English, we read from top to bottom and left to right; we start reading at the top left of a page and we stop reading at the bottom left. And this, I argue, is what has caused books to be put together in the order we typically see. It’s the principle underlying the convention.

Consider the front matter of a book, specifically the foreword and the preface. The foreword is usually written by someone other than the author; the preface is written by the author. So it makes sense that the foreword should come before the preface, as it provides commentary on the book as a whole, including the preface. And if we start reading the author’s words at the beginning of a book but then run into a section by someone else, we’re likely to wonder what’s going on. Would you put the contents page before the title page? No, you wouldn’t, and this is more than a matter of convention; it’s based on the principle that we start reading at the beginning.

Now consider the back matter of a book, which should be in the following order:

Appendix
Notes
Bibliography
Index

  • Would it make sense to put the appendix after the notes? No, because some of the notes might refer to the appendix.
  • Would it make sense to put the notes after the bibliography? No, because the notes don’t refer to the bibliography; the bibliography is not part of the main text.
  • Would it make sense to put the bibliography after the index? No, because readers are used to turning to the last part of a book in order to access the index. That makes sense for ease of use, but surely the fact that the index doesn’t immediately follow chapter 1 is more than a matter of convention.

Years ago, a publisher I worked for decided to put together an edition of the Bible. The editor in charge of the index took an informal survey around the office, asking, “Should a reference to chapter and verse precede or follow a descriptive quotation?” Here’s an example of each:

Reference preceding quotation:

Matthew: 6:30, clothe you, O ye of little faith; 8:10, thy faith hath made thee whole; 9:29, According to your faith be it unto you; 15:28, great is thy faith: be it unto thee; 17:20, faith as a grain of mustard seed; 21:21, if ye have faith, and doubt not; [and so on, for more than a page].

Reference following quotation:

Matthew: clothe you, O ye of little faith, 6:30; thy faith hath made thee whole, 8:10; According to your faith be it unto you, 9:2; great is thy faith: be it unto thee, 15:28; faith as a grain of mustard seed, 17:20; if ye have faith, and doubt not, 21:21; [and so on, for more than a page].

My vote? The reference should follow the quotation. Unfortunately, I was outvoted, and the index ended up with the reference preceding the quotation, ultimately making the index almost unusable. Here’s why: Let’s say you’re looking for the verse that talks about having faith as a grain of mustard seed. You scan down through the entries until you see it:

faith as a grain of mustard seed;

Now, where does your brain expect to find the reference? Immediately after the entry. Why? Because the English language reads from top to bottom, left to right. But the index puts the reference before the entry:

17:20, faith as a grain of mustard seed;

You are now forced to read backward to find the reference of 17:20. But you’re not through yet. What book is that in? You now have to scan backward (to the previous page, in this case) until you come to the bold heading of “Matthew.” Now what was that reference again? Scan forward to “grain of mustard seed” and then backward again to “17:20.” This isn’t a matter of convention; it’s a matter of reading order.

Now let’s say you’re editing or designing a table of contents. You’re suddenly struck with the thought that it would look really cool to put the page numbers on the left of the chapter titles, like this:

1   In the Beginning
23  The Tale Continues
38  More of the Same

Resist the temptation. Readers trying to find a particular chapter will look first for its title (“The Tale Continues”) and then for its page number (23).

Keeping things in their proper order also applies to line editing. Take the following sentence: “I enjoy reading both Entrepreneur and Wired, but I prefer the former over the latter.” Many readers are capable of doing the mental gymnastics to remember which example is the former and which is the latter, but many other readers are not and will have to backtrack to figure it out. Even those who can do the mental gymnastics will have to do them, which will slow reading down and may lead to confusion. So keep things simple! Keep things in order! “I enjoy reading both Entrepreneur and Wired, but I prefer Entrepreneur.

Keeping things in their proper order isn’t an editorial cure-all, and it’s certainly nothing to be compulsive about. For example, while reading the previous sentence, you had to remember that “it’s” refers back to “Keeping things in their proper order.” There’s nothing wrong with that; this kind of interplay between pronouns and their referents happens all the time. But sometimes, when you’re faced with a difficult editorial problem, putting things in their proper order can help solve that problem. For me, it’s something that has worked well over the years to keep readers from wandering all over the road. Maybe you’ll find it useful as well.

In the end, I leave the resolution of the argument to you, Gentle Reader: Is the way books are put together merely a matter of convention? Or is the convention a result of the underlying principle of reading order? What do you think?

Jack Lyon (editor@editorium.com) owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

Blog at WordPress.com.

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