Indexes, Importance of: Nancy Wills Talks about Finding the “Heart of the Book”

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A page from the index of Editing Canadian English. (Blurry photo taken by Elizabeth.)

by Wade Guyitt

Is there a more unsung part of a book than its index? A cover alone is enough – warnings aside – for potential buyers to render judgment on the thing as a whole. The dedication and epigraphs are read with tingling anticipation. The table of contents unfurls like a menu of servings to come. And then you dive in, to worlds unknown. By the time you reach the book’s final lines, they seem to take on extra weight – some readers even slow down while reading them, to savour the finale. There, you think, I’ve finished it. And some readers stop there, never looking at what comes next: for, bibliography aside (which is perhaps like an index but in reverse), the lowly index is the only part of the book you don’t even have to have read in order to say that you’ve read the book.

And yet, think of its power – it vivisects narrative, scouring away rhetoric and turn of phrase to reveal what remains; it condenses arcs and appearances into orderly rows of ideas; it reaches across hundreds of pages to draw connections between one word and another, then points the reader to precisely where those connections began. Like pins for strings stretched neatly across a map, index entries are neat, detailed, orderly – they’re the book’s raw chemical components, as if all the confusion and wonder and pure verbiage of a book had been broken down into its constituent elements, one giant atom split.

This may sound scientific, ruthless, reductive. According to Nancy Wills, however, a Kingston-based freelance editor and indexer, compiling the index can and should be a creative act. And it’s the opportunity to contribute creatively to someone else’s book – as she puts it, “unstitching the entirety of the manuscript” to see what’s inside – that draws her to indexing’s challenge.

Nancy spoke to the Kingston twig of Editors Canada about indexing during the meeting of February 13, giving attendees a glimpse at a publishing role rarely thought of, not even by fellow editors. Nancy splits her time roughly 50/50 between editing and indexing, but she says indexing proves the more rewarding of the two for her. While editors play an important role in preparing a writer’s manuscript for publication, they must take care “not to trample”; indexers, meanwhile, in a sense are writers themselves, and their raw material and inspiration are the contents of the book they’re indexing. In some ways, the index is the book’s first review: a poem of locators, to which one could turn first to judge what is inside, as Nancy says she does when browsing in bookshops herself.

“The heart of the book is the index,” Nancy says, and it’s her job to capture the strands – from mentions of items or individuals to broader concepts and themes. While authors sometimes provide a list of key terms they would like included in the index, Nancy says she works best when she enters a manuscript with a fresh mind, consulting that list only later, to make sure she has everything gathered.

Being at once granular and overarching, an index in preparation can reveal anything from inconsistencies of spelling to book-length themes even the author didn’t realize were present. Nancy says she reads like a reader, however, anticipating their needs rather than those of the author; she must consider which subjects are usefully included in an index and which are best left out.

Even 15 years ago, constructing an index meant working with recipe cards (no surprise they’re also called index cards). Today, as with everything in society, there are computer programs to help with the process – Cindex, Macrex, and Sky are most common – but each has its strengths and weaknesses. Nancy still finds it best to print the manuscript and read it, with a ruler, line by line. She reads closely – even more closely than editing requires – and is alert to any item that might be a potential entry.

At the same time, she has Cindex (the most popular of the three, in Canada) open on her computer, with the manuscript also open in Word or PDF format in another window. Finding a term in the hard copy, she’ll do a search in the digital version for other instances of that word. If no others come up, there’s no need for that heading. If there are others, a new entry begins.

Just like writing a book itself, writing an index starts with a few words and builds from there. “It’s like having clay,” Nancy says. “It’s coarse, and you don’t know what it is, and then you refine and refine.”

There are two types of index preparation: back-of-book and embedded. The terms refer to how the indexes are created. Back-of-book indexes grow as they are written, with no electronic generation involved: the indexer starts adding entries, and the index takes shape as work progresses through the manuscript. For an embedded index, meanwhile, index terms are tagged electronically wherever they appear in (for example) Word files, and these tags are used by the editing program to generate the index all at once: only at the end of the process does the index get compiled and spit out for review and revision.

As a result, the growth of an embedded index is less organic and much less rewarding to work on. It takes about 25 percent longer for the indexer to compile, compared to a back-of-book index, and the process is much more fiddly, as any slight disparity in spelling, font, or style means multiple entries generated for what should be the same term, which then need to be resolved. However, because the index can be prepared at the same time as copy editing or proofreading happens elsewhere, using embedded indexing shortens the production period for a new title as the indexer doesn’t need to wait for a page-perfect, laid-out proof to arrive before beginning the job. Embedded indexes are increasingly being requested by publishers.

Other quirks of indexes have to do with the demands of particular publishers or projects: bold or italic emphasis for figures; indented versus run-in (run-in restricts subheading use, so it’s usually best for trade non-fiction or less technical works); alphabetization (word by word versus letter by letter); sequencing of, for instance, Asian names, in which the family surname comes first, or Spanish names, in which a maternal name comes before a paternal name, and the question arises as to how a reader would think to search for these.

Indexing Books, Second Edition (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) by [Mulvany, Nancy C.]Fortunately, as when solving thorny issues of editing, others have bravely come before. Nancy was inspired to take up indexing by an Editors Kingston talk by Ellen Hawman, indexer for Queen’s University’s mammoth Disraeli Project, who, Nancy says, makes “beautiful” indexes, works of art “like a paisley pattern.” Essential reference books include Indexing Books, by Nancy C. Mulvany, and Indexing Biographies and Other Stories of Human Lives, by Hazel K. Bell, both classics of the trade. ISC/SCI Magpie PinAlso useful for indexers is membership in the Indexing Society of Canada (see www.indexers.ca), which holds regular conferences and issues a bimonthly magazine, The Indexer, free for members. Nancy has the highest praise for the society’s membership and activities.

Examples of indexes can be found as far back as the earliest printed books. Some resembled modern indexes, though the word often referred to what we would now think of as tables of contents. Henry Benjamin Wheatley (1838–1917) is often cited as the father of modern English indexes, having founded the (short-lived) Index Society and written two foundational and still-read indexing books, What Is an Index (1878) and How to Make an Index (1902).

Today, indexing continues to develop to meet modern needs. Nancy cites the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report as a massive contemporary Canadian indexing achievement, requiring bilingual teams working in concert to solve issues of, among other things, how to identify people known by multiple names or those remaining anonymous. British Columbia’s legislative assembly also engages in leading-edge work by tagging its video recordings of proceedings and then providing indexes keyed to time stamps.

Like everything to do with publishing, indexing has been changed dramatically by technology. Yet it also remains stubbornly, stalwartly, a creative, individual act. In the early days of indexing, Nancy says, there was a fear that indexes would lead people to stop reading books. Fortunately, quite the opposite occurred: an index simply makes a book more useful. And what could be more useful than that?

Announcements

Remember the Editors Canada 40th anniversary conference taking place in Halifax on June 7–9!

Check out the upcoming webinars here.

Coming Up Next

Next meeting, we’ll be talking about Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards. Watch this space for more details!

Join us at the usual place and time:

Free for Editors Canada members; $5 fee for visitors (first meeting free).

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