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Making Indexes Sing Out

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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.

Interview with Larry D. Sweazy, author of the Marjorie Trumaine murder mystery series

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I met with Larry on the eve of the ASI/ISC 2016 Indexing Conference in Chicago, just before the conference’s official reception. Just like in his novels, my walk to our meeting place was blustery and foreboding, but the welcome I received from him and his lovely wife, Rose (whom I recognized instantly from one of her accessories as a fellow cat-lover), could not have been more reassuring. After warning him that I was not attempting to stalk him (since I was also writing a review of his second book for EAC’s Toronto Branch blog, BoldFace, and summarizing his keynote speech the next day for the ISC’s upcoming edition ofThe Bulletin newsletter), we sat down to talk business: that of writing and indexing and how the two connect.

In the first book of the series, See Also Murder[1], there had been mention of a magpie, so I started by asking him if that had been a total coincidence: indeed, it was only by fluke that he had used a species that is the mascot of theIndexing Society of Canada, since he lives in Indiana and didn’t know our connection to the aviary collector.

I also was interested in his attention to detail about the prairies. My mum was a Saskatchewan emigrant, and many of his references seemed straight out of her life: hating the wind, a Mountie hat (my grandfather was in the RCMP), and people who keep their problems to themselves (I’m definitely stiff upper lip as a result of her influence). He did live in North Dakota (the series setting) for a time, so the environs had permeated him. A strong sense of place is pervasive in his writing and features in his other historical, western and thriller novels and short stories.

One of the most interesting aspects of Larry’s writing is his ability to create a credible female protagonist voice. I mentioned having heard a radio interview of Clive Greave (author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven) in which he was praised for his successful treatment of the same choice. It is remarkable to do this so convincingly and in an ongoing way (i.e. a series, not just a one-off book). The details Larry captures were striking: for example, in See Also Deception, he mentions the wind coming up and the women all grabbing at their skirts automatically. So real! The purse contents, menthol cigarettes, McCall’s-pattern dresses—it all works. While Larry did have strong women in his life as a youngster, he also credits good communication with his wife as another source of empathy for things he couldn’t initially know as much about, and he says it has made him a better person for that development: but, he adds, you have to have empathy for humans, not just women, and then you have to carry that empathy out into the world via the writing. Well, he’s got that down.

Another thing he has down is humour. As I said in my BoldFace review, I have no experience with the murder mystery genre, so I was surprised to trip across some laughs in a dark storyline. But what appealed to me was the subtlety as opposed to being hit over the head with guffaws. Larry was pleased that this was evident and said he felt it was important to respect the reader’s intelligence. Sometimes these were comments that just sounded like a conversation with your friend, others were funny because I heard myself in them. Apparently a laugh’s okay—perhaps necessary—when you’re talking murder, and while I don’t particularly enjoy reading humorous books per se, it was another thing that made my introduction to this genre easier.

I and others at the conclusion of his keynote talk asked about the writing and indexing process, their connection and how they affected Larry’s stories. There are clearly commonalities: you can’t very well expect to get repeat contracts if you procrastinate on getting (good) writing or indexing done. Both require discipline, which is helped by an organized approach. I could relate to his separating tasks into parts of the day, suitable to his psychic energy and his abilities, and to his being very literal in dividing up the time available by the pages required to achieve personal and work deadlines. A curious mind is facilitated by an orderly approach to life, and the ability to break things down into discrete elements and re-group them by their connections works for both key entries and key clues. He acknowledged the unravelling of the mystery with the process of indexing for Marjorie, too. Upon reflection, I’m sure my experience in private investigation was good training for my inquisitive mind and honed the skills I need for effective and systematic editing and indexing. We may love order and classification, but as indexers we need to be detail-oriented and able to see the big picture simultaneously.

Speaking of parts of the whole, I asked Larry what he envisioned the scope of this series to be—a trilogy? More? He couldn’t say for sure, but there’s at least one more coming: See Also Deadline, available May 2017. That’s good news. But the problem with discovering and glomming on to a new-to-me author is finding the time to go back and read the other stories they’ve produced. Social media and the advantages of the Information Age expose us to new pleasures more quickly and easily. The fallout means less time for other stuff; in my case, that usually leads to letting cooking go. Based on my Wine and Cheese award system (see blog sidebar), Marjorie Trumaine has caused a fair bit of order-in. Although not for too many days, since her stories are hard to put down.

 

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[1] For those readers who are not familiar with indexing, “See also” is a conventional indicator to cross-references in back-of-the-book indexes; it tells readers that other closely related and additional information is available under another key word. “See” plus a key word indicates that the reader should look up a synonymous term that is actually used in the text, in case they have not chosen the indexed word to start their search with. Larry’s titles are little homages to the indexer’s work.