The Nine Bad Moves of Indexing (and How to Avoid Them)

posted by SWC on July 30th, 2008 · 1 Comment | | Printer Friendly Version

Last week in the Pleasantville Diner, a haven for local indexers, a trio of indexologists was discussing the worst indexing mistakes they had seen in their long and illustrious careers. Leading the way, was the venerable dean of Northern Westchester indexers, P. del Sorto. Together they drafted the following set of principles under a title inspired by Fred Reinfeld, who wrote a book in the 1950s on the nine bad moves of chess. It is presented below thanks to the sharp-eyed vision of a waiter who found the list crumpled on a dish bearing the remains of a Spanish omelet and catsup-soaked fries.

A word of caution: Owing to its well known patronage by book indexers, the Pleasantville Diner has become a tourist attraction in recent months. Come early to avoid the crowds. Moreover, since indexers are easy to confuse with other people, it is wise to make sure you are addressing an actual indexer when asking for an autograph. – SWC

The Nine Bad Moves of Indexing

(and How to Avoid Them)

by J. Bissell, P. del Sorto, and G. Tuesday

Part One: Moves 1-5

1) Index the idea, not the word. The text may refer to a name or subject on one page and not again for several additional pages, although the topic may be continuous. Write a page span that bridges the entire range of the topic. Do not be misled into indexing metonymous terms like “White House” which could refer to a presidential administration or “Washington” which could indicate the U.S. government. And if the text reads “Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia” it doesn’t mean that the Fuhrer was out goose-stepping one day and found himself strutting into someone else’s country. So look for the idea behind the words, and if you are working at top speed make sure you don’t index James Street as “Street, James” ( unless James is really a person) or N. C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth as “Wyeth, N.C.” (Note that personal initials are usually open while abbreviations are closed.) (Some editors like to close up initials when there are more than two, as in “W.E.B. Du Bois.”)

It is hardly ever a good idea to index multiple lines of page references following an unqualified name or subject entry when that word is mentioned by the author on nearly every page. This could be the result of what we call “vacuum cleaner indexing.” Good indexing is done rapidly and cleanly, but also thoughtfully. Why, you must ask yourself, would a reader take the trouble to look up 50 or more references for a name unless the entry refers to the reader or the reader’s cousin. Give the reader some additional incentive to do the looking up, or perhaps find a gentle way to dampen the reader’s curiosity with a phrase like “as information source.” There are likely countless other ways an indexer can find to violate the rule of indexing the idea, not the word, but these few cautions should do for now.

2) Avoid the cross-indexing fault. Every indexer should know that page references for “chicken” under “soup” must be the same as the page references for “soup” under “chicken.” The Freud subentry “on dreams” must have the same pages indexed for “Freud on” under “dreams.” If the dream is about chicken soup, the subentry should read (under Freud) “on dreaming of chicken soup.” (Do not mention this dream to your psychoanalyst.)

3) Maintain consistent forms within a given index. This nettlesome issue shows up when you are indexing: acronyms or abbreviations (there is a difference) vs. spelled-out forms; trade vs. generic names of drugs; scientific vs. common names of plants, animals, minerals, taxonomic anomalies, or extraterrestrial forms that might turn up before you are too old to continue indexing. In general it is a good idea to follow the text preference, but if space permits, index these forms both ways except where the entries are too long to be repeated, and then use cross-references to guide the reader to the (primary) form that you have loaded with subentries. (You can make your own rule about how close alternate forms must be in the index before discarding the form you regard as secondary.)

The Pleasantville Diner Style Guide suggests that you give preference to spelled out forms: “United Nations (UN).” If you cannot find a copy of the Pleasantville Diner Style Guide (PDSG) try to acquire a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. And don’t even think of indexing the United States as “U.S.” except, of course, in subentries or when qualifying government entities such as “Supreme Court, U.S.” or “State Department, U.S.”

4) Do not expect name indexing to be easy. When indexing foreign, ancient or medieval names, it is probably a good idea not to assume that you really know what you are doing, even if you are willing to bet that the people who possessed those names knew even less about how they should be indexed. Neither can you always depend on the author for settling your questions on name forms. Of course, if no one on Earth knows how to index a name you may have no problem , but that is not likely to be the case. You must do your best to find a complete and authoritative version of the name and, while you are at it, retain notes on your sources. (Note: P. del Sorto is an example of someone who has not yet decided how his name should be indexed.}

Consult the Merriam Webster Biographical Dictionary and the more user-friendly but much less name-packed Unabridged Random House Dictionary, and of course Google for it. Try Wikipedia. Always remain skeptical. Never assume that a name you don’t recognize consists of a surname preceded by a given name. Take your time, but don’t be late with the index.

Learn to distinguish honorifics and titles from actual names, “Rimpoche,” “Sri” “Graf,” and “Shikibu” and probably hundreds of others, for instance. Don’t be satisfied if the text only refers to “Zia ul-Haq,” “Teilhard de Chardin,” or “Lloyd George.” Indexers must also be aware of which Breughel, which Scarlatti, which Goncourt the author is referring to. Names and whatever else goes into the index are the indexer’s responsibility. And always remember this: if indexing were easier the author would be doing it. That thought should energize you as you work through the night.

5) Keep it simple. Unless you are asked to entertain the reader, an index should not be provocative, distracting, or in any way difficult to understand at first glance. The wording should be brief and unambiguous. The index should be like clear glass, enabling readers to look through to what they are seeking in the text. If a subentry is long and complicated, convoluted or labored, it should be rewritten or scrapped.

Do not compose a subentry, for instance, by snipping off a piece of text heading and adding the word “and” to it: “Botstein, David/mapping our genes and”; ” biological clocks/waking up before the alarm goes off and.” Be especially watchful for such atrocities as “Elizabeth I, Queen of England/Drake’s burning of Spanish ships and” or “Jones, Chef/dressing the bird and.”

Subentries should be syntactically consistent and parallel wherever possible. Avoid ending a sub with a qualifier: “gorillas/recommended avoidance of large”; “bushes/ protecting house from burglars with thorny.” And do not end a sub with a verb whose object is the main entry: “bonuses/employees who should get,” “wood/six ways to saw.”

The last four bad moves of indexing will appear in a few days. In the meanwhile, if you have any questions or comments, leave them here and we’d be happy to weigh in.

One comment

  1. Great post! Over the course of my career, my name has been the subject of much confusion, so I am sympathetic. I’d like to hear from others out there who’s names have been commonly mis-indexed over the years. R. Stanz

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