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Making Indexes Sing Out


Book Review

Ten Characteristics of Quality Indexes: Confessions of an Award-Winning Indexer by Margie Towery (ASI, 2016)


As a relative newcomer to indexing, I was interested in adding Ten Characteristics to my professional development work and my library. What delighted me was the tone of the content, which recommended flexibility, common sense and options. Margie Towery’s book goes beyond introductory lessons but remains accessible and helpful.


Her advice reminds us about basic issues in indexing such as parallel construction, clarity, conciseness and double-postings. But she also offers us broad choices (with useful illustrative examples) about deciding what does or does not go into an index—sometimes a daunting task for the newbie. I had the good fortune to read the book right before I got my most challenging indexing project to date, and it served me well. Some of the guide posts I bore in mind during that gig were: to keep in mind the less skilled or -experienced index user; to reflect the text but skilfully play with wording; and to point the reader to information without telling the whole story. This last point might seem in contradiction to her anecdote on page 85: “I once had a managing editor proofread my index for a lengthy, complicated text after which she emailed me to say that she really understood what the book was about from reading the index.” I kept this in mind as one of my goals for that behemoth; I didn’t regurgitate the text but really focused on teasing out the content to create a pertinent tool for the user.


Towery also offers more in-depth discussion on some topics that might not be addressed at length in indexing training courses. Comma reversals, getting subheadings to flow, condensing as a strategy for gathering headings, and “elegant additions” (pg. 96–98) were useful topics for me to consider. She also shared her “AIRS,” individualized Adjustable Indexing Rules (pg. 79-80), which are project-specific and acceptable when the indexer is transparent with the author and press about their reasons for implementing them.


She does, indeed, provide confessions as well as tips for indexer’s block, the editing stage and streamlining author queries, and two key elements are her lists on readability tips (pg. 109) and the process of index evaluation (pg. 116–117). Topics that I have seen debated extensively on indexing listservs were also part of the text, such as digestion and the treatment of the metatopic(s). Here again, she is not so much being prescriptive as using common sense (another of her subjects) and offering suggestions to approaches.


The one point on which I disagree with Towery is her take on index-users’ reactions. She writes:


Usability studies show that users don’t understand what [unruly] locators indicate. That’s the bottom line for me: If the meaning of unruly locators is unclear to users, then indexers shouldn’t be using them. [Janet] Russell adds, “Asking readers to experiment by looking up a stray locator and guessing the principle behind its selection is unfair to the readers and risks annoying them. Don’t tick off the reader.”[i]

(pg. 90)


One of the reasons my work life took on the shape it did was my sense of curiosity and passion for learning. I love to find several books on a given topic and broaden my knowledge by checking out every single locator in their indexes: to me, those unruly locators point me to new and exciting things, and if I am going to them blindly, it’s akin to opening a treasure chest every time I check out those mentions. Maybe the indexing gods will smite me for that or maybe I’m just a nerd. I’m just suggesting that while we should aim to manage unruly locators cautiously, we can’t know all the goals or interests of the index’s future users, and some exceptions may not be so much breaking the rules as offering up opportunities for readers.


In a job that involves intellect, skill, analysis and, indeed, common sense, it’s reassuring to have this additional resource on the desk to help us navigate the oft-deep waters of “it depends.”




The title of this review was adapted from a phrase on page 114 of Margie Towery’s book, with her permission.


[i] Russell, J., “Locators, Differentiating,” pg. 43–44.