When you are introduced to someone for the first time, you often ask “What is your job”, so that you can start the conversation. This doesn’t happen with me. When someone asks me what is my job, and I reply “Indexer”, the look on their face is as if I had responded to their question with Swahili or some other foreign language. I automatically give them a a spiel as to what an indexer does (without boring even more!). As some of you may not know what an indexer does, here is the written version of my spiel.
An indexer creates an index, which is a guide to the contents of a book, publication, or multi-media collection. It is prepared for the reader, to help the reader more quickly and easily find information. An index is not simply a list of the major terms in a publication. Rather, it is an organized map of the contents of a book, arranged to make the contents clearly visible and comprehensible to the reader.
The indexing process includes not only selecting terms to be indexed, but also qualifying these terms with subentries where appropriate; and editing the index after a first draft is produced to improve its cohesiveness, consistency, accuracy, and usefulness to the reader. The indexer seeks to include in the index every significant nugget of information in the book, choosing entries and subentries with an understanding of the way people will look up those terms in the index. The indexer includes most names of people, organizations, and other proper nouns; terms, and concepts, the last being more difficult to identify and to render meaningful for the reader.
The indexer must:
understand the needs of the audience for the book,
be thorough and consistent,
know when to reword the author’s thoughts, and
be able to tie related concepts together.
Most indexers use computers and professional indexing software which does much of the work of putting together and formatting index entries into something that looks like an index.
Editing the index is a crucial, but often neglected, part of indexing. Editing is not simply checking for typos and misspelling and making sure alphabetical order is correct and page numbers make sense. In fact, if the indexer has been careful to be accurate about spelling (especially names and technical terms), punctuation, capitalisation, and page numbers, the time spent checking questionable entries is minimised.
Editing also involves consolidating similar entries; combining or cross-referencing terms that mean the same or are closely-related (particularly important in a multi-author publication); checking cross-references, and adding See and See also references where necessary; and simplifying and rewording awkward and/or synonymous entries and subentries. The indexer reviews the index carefully, from the reader’s point of view, to make sure that the entries and subentries clearly convey the ideas intended, and checks for consistency problems in page number references.
The indexing process usually begins with the call from the client (often a production editor) to the indexer. The editor offers a job to, or requests a proposal from, the indexer. They discuss the details of the book (subject, length, special requirements) and the terms of the job (fees, turnaround time, special instructions).
The client may provide a detailed style guide for the index, offer minimal instructions (such as “Capitalize the first letter of every main entry.”), or ask that the indexer follow a standard style guide.
Indexing is not everyone’s cup of tea – you need to be patient, diligent, thorough and maybe anally-retentive as well!