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Let me Talk You Out of Indexing

Process of Indexing a Book

The Business End

Marketing Yourself

Peer Review Example


Martha Osgood

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Indexers don't get much chance to have their work critiqued in an effort to continue professional growth after their indexing coursework is finished. Publishers and authors sometimes give feedback, but the focus is generally directed toward their own interests and less on the aspects of a really good index. And many editors (and authors) are not well acquainted with the indexing conventions that have been developed over the years which make an index most useful to the reader who is unfamiliar with the author's topic or thrust.

In a Peer Review, an index is read by other indexers who can ask questions, make suggestions, or even just offer comments. Reviewers play the part of the reader as well as an indexer. Those reviewers new to indexing can still make editorial suggestions if an entry confuses them, if there are typos, if the organization of the index is difficult. More experienced indexers can comment on organization, on broken "rules" and (possibly) praise for a deliberately broken rule, on correct uses of, for example, cross references vs. doubleposts, and so on.

The value of a Peer Review affects all who participate. The reviewer benefits by seeing another's work in progress, by exercising their critical eye, and from the Reviews of Reviews; the reviewed indexer benefits from the suggestions of several reviewers; and the index benefits from an indexer's (vs. an ordinary proofreader's) review before stepping into the world. It's often easier to review someone else's index than one's own, thereby better understanding the impact of indexing decisions on the reader. The mutual assistance we offer each other is invaluable.

There's no single "right way" to review an index.  If you have no experience at all in how to "review", you can take a look at an example of a peer reviewed index (in PDF format) and then pattern the form of your reviews on that one.  An excellent checklist for reviewing indexes is the Wilson Award criteria:
Another good resource is Fred Brown's article at .
See also, including indexes to practice reviews on. One key point, though:  we should all try hard to be extra gentle with folks we review (no exclamation points, look for good decisions and choices too, don't use caps unless you remind the indexer you are not shouting, just distinguishing your comments from the index itself, frame most of our comments tentatively since we haven't read the book).  I emphasize this because we all are sensitive to criticism, we have taken a big risk in offering our work for review, and because the written word has no tone of voice or body language to modify/soften/clarify the bare words of the review.

As far as knowing WHAT to review for, perhaps you can consider these kinds of issues as you work through the index.  In any review, you will want to point out some of the entries that work especially *well*.  In an online review of an index which is going to be published, you will definitely want to draw the indexer's attention to possible problems before they submit the index.

• Is it easy to read the index? Do the words in the subentries flow in sentence-like style or do you have to back up and reread the entry?  Are there subentries that could be read either way and therefor need re-phrasing?

• Who are the probable readers for this book? What kind of appropriate language has the indexer used?  Is it a lay audience or PhDs? Programmers or users?  Patients or doctors? Students or scientists?

• Could the *structure* be more intuitive for the target audience?
• What are the are the most important topics? What has the indexer done to emphasize the importance of these topics?

• What are the inter-connected discussions in the book? What has the indexer done to gather these connections? Does it work well?  Where does it work well?

• Has the indexer given you more than one route to the information in the book? Select a main entry and consider synonyms and similar phrases. Can you find any of them in the index? Are there cross-references used, or are the locators repeated fully in both locations? Do the indexer's decisions help make life easier for the reader -- or is the indexer making the reader's life more difficult by overindexing the book and doing too much hand-holding?

• Are some topics hidden in subentries that should be out as main headings?  Or are some main entries so lacking in context or so ambiguous that they really should be moved to a subentry position under a main heading so the reader will have some idea what they are seeing?

• What do the cross references tell you about the book? Why did the indexer use them?  What do the doubleposts tell you about the book? Why did the indexer use them instead of a cross reference?

• Remember the basics of indexing...the indexer is usually supposed to:

~ Point the reader to the information in the book.
~ Capture the "about-ness" of the discussions.
~ Use the keyword first if possible.
~ Write clear and succinct entries.
~ Be consistent in the treatment of similarly structured entries and level of detail.
~ Gather related material in the index well so the reader doesn't have to read the whole index.
~ Create subentries when there are not too many (5? 8?) unanalyzed locators.
~ Use cross-references to point the reader to similar information and to reflect the author's language.  Use doublepostings if they are space efficient.
~ Be accurate with the locators - a reviewer can't help you with that (although we can see where your doublepostings are good or bad).
~ Remember the *many* other specific indexing guidelines that are not listed here...

Using the on-line yahoogroups IndexPeers listserv:
* save time in your schedule for good reviews to happen (2-4 days?)
* ask who has time to review
* send your index (which should be as well-edited to that point as you can get it) to the reviewers who have responded to your initial request (sometimes I save one reviewer for "second tier").  Including the metatopic (what is the author trying to say) sentence and a reminder of the due date when you send the index is useful.
* when those reviews come back, acknowledge receipt of their review to each individual reviewer right away
* (optional) make the adjustments you accept, then send the index to the last reviewers (or the strongest reviewer) you  saved out for the final review (the second tier), if you saved time for that
* thank all reviewers individually (perhaps including each one's more important "saves")
* mention your reviewers' names and a few of their more important "saves" to the whole list  (This RoR or "Review of Reviews" also helps reviewers expand their repertoire of what to review for, and indexers expand what they catch early in their own work).

Of course, while the index is being reviewed, you would continue to edit your index yourself. And while you will acknowledge each reviewer personally, you might also mention your reviewers by name in your "review the reviews" (RoR) so other folks can see what was especially useful. In your RoR, offer the more interesting or unique items that you decided to accept from your reviewers so others can gain from your experience too. Then, look for opportunities to review other people's indexes. Even beginners can participate as they learn to sharpen what their eyes see in an index.

Special new-indexer idea: a beginning indexer might request of the person whose index they review that permission to send the new indexer copies of the other reviews of that index as a learning tool be granted by the other reviewers. This is a way for newer indexers to see what other reviewers catch in an index the new indexer/reviewer has already worked on.

In the real world of writers and awards, a piece may be strongly edited and still be considered the author's sole work. The judges of the Wilson Award allow reviewed indexes to be submitted for the award. Any dispute among indexers and their reviewers about collaboration vs. assistance will be the responsibility of the indexers themselves, not the Wilson Award committee. 

No one keeps score, but let me re-emphasize the concept of "mutual assistance." The success of the Peer Review list depends upon the members reviewing for each other (not just one direction) no matter what level of an indexer they are.  A beginner more than once has found an ordinary error that not one of the experienced reviewers mentioned.  I also suggest reviewing *for* others a few times (to get name-recognition and to share your good, new energy) before asking for a review (but this is certainly not a "rule" by any means.)

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Table of Contents of All Six Novice Notes pages:

1. Resources to help you decide whether you want to index books or not - profiles of indexers in general, ASI, PNW, AUSSI, SI and chapter sites, discussion lists, software sites, indexing courses, income expectations, kinds of indexing, Is Indexing Really for YOU?

2. Let me talk you OUT of it - expenses, equipment, cost of courses, speed of indexing, brain agility ("Quick, give me three perfectly nuanced synonyms for XX"), moonlighting, self motivation, slowness of getting started, marketing yourself, irregular income, most index as supplemental income, organization, details, no feedback...

3. What does indexing look like from the inside? Sample step-by-step process of indexing (not a lesson in indexing), indexing sins, strategy, secret notes to yourself in the draft versions of the software, groups/grouping, other editing processes, timing, deadlines, some aspects are boring and solitary. Consider indexing a whole favorite book (and then asking your friends to use it while you watch) before investing in software or courses...

4. The Business of Indexing - a sample business plan (very informal), what to do between USDA lessons, skill building practice ideas, your desk, administrative background tasks, pricing and productivity, reference books.

5. Marketing Yourself - creative marketing ideas, one of several accepted processes for marketing your indexing business.

6. Peer reviews of indexes for purposes of continuing education, determining one's progress, quality control, submitting a more polished product to a publisher, etc.


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Martha Osgood, Indexer