Skip to main content

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.

Book review: See Also Deception, by Larry D. Sweazy

(Released May 2015)

By Vanessa Wells

Book review: See Also Deception, by Larry D. Sweazy

Full disclosure: I have never been into murder mysteries. No early Nancy Drews, no later Agatha Christies—frankly, I just felt like I would never be able to figure the mystery out and would feel kinda dumb, so I never embraced the genre. The only reason I was interested in the Marjorie Trumaine books by Larry D. Sweazy was that I’d heard they were written by and about an indexer.

I was a little skeptical about how the second book of the mystery series, See Also Deception, could pick up with a new murder only months after those of the first, but this fell by the wayside once I cracked open the book. In a nutshell, our newbie-sleuth heroine cannot accept that her librarian friend has committed suicide, and her indexer-character tenacity leads her to work the details of the case that are missed by the police. Fortunately, foreshadowing is well handled and carries the reader’s interest rather than handing over the solution to the murder on a silver platter. This is perhaps due to Sweazy’s writing habit of working organically and without complete pre-outlining, which lets the story unfold for himself as much as for his audience.

In his acknowledgments, the author says, “Indexing, like writing, is a job best done in isolation.” In See Also Deception, he has again succeeded in creating an atmosphere that highlights the protagonist’s isolation, both physical and psychological, despite the constant presence of her invalid husband and her community of Dickinson, North Dakota. The bleak feeling also works for the character and plot development that he tantalizingly creates for the reader.

Of course, the fun part for those of us editors who are also indexers is the author’s use of the indexing career and practices as a plot device. I could relate to his reference to Marjorie’s appreciation of the order on her desk and the issues involved in creating an effective index. But fun aside, his inclusion of partial indexes as her way of making sense of the case is absolutely essential to the story: a thriller featuring a doctor could hardly work if medicine wasn’t part of the plot and character development. I think it must also do the indexing industry good to have this kind of work introduced to and described for the general public, since we indexers are all too used to the “What’s that?” and “They still do that?” questions about our work.

On the more serious side, See Also Deception also examines the issue of assisted dying, which is very topical in Canada at the moment. Sweazy handles this difficult topic deftly, but in the interest of not providing any spoilers, that’s all I’ll say.

Finally, my husband (of an arts and advertising background) saw the book and said, “That’s a great cover!” Cover graphic design is not just a consideration for marketability; the visual appeal of this book (and the first in the series) did keep me returning to it—well, I fib a bit: it affected me only twice, since I finished the novel in two days. But it’s a nice little bonus.

Good fun: definitely put it on your beach reading list or, if you want to really immerse yourself in the atmosphere, save it til those long, dark winter nights.


This book review appeared on EAC Toronto’s BoldFace blog.