On December 1, I attended my first virtual conference. It was hosted by ASI (American Society for Indexing) and the conference was called “Getting Better! Improving the Indexing Mind, Body, and Business.” I wasn’t sure what to expect but I certainly didn’t expect to see over fifty attendees of all ages, many from across the globe. There were five sessions in total—none over an hour. The fifteen-minute breaks in between allowed for a snack and drink refill as well as some chitchat among the attendees. I learned as much from listening in to those impromptu conversations as I did from the sessions. My favourite presenter was Anna-Marie Larsen, an indexer and a yoga instructor. She understands the physical challenges of spending hours at the computer and took us through a short but effective stretching session. It was a good reminder to take care of our bodies as carefully as we take care of the details in the indexes we create.
After the conference, I promptly updated my website and my LinkedIn profile. I ordered two indexing resources, and I reached out to my accountant to set up an appointment for a check-in chitchat. Indexing can sometimes feel like a lonely job but spending a few hours with over 50 indexers was a gentle reminder that there is a whole group of us out there . . . and that we can learn from each other if we take the time to reach out. It got me wondering what the collective noun is for a group of indexers. I couldn’t find the answer so decided to make my own. My favourites so far are an intuition of indexers. Or perhaps an instinct of indexers. Or an indentation of indexers, which I much prefer to a run-in of indexers (ha!). So many options.
I like to imagine that the workstations of most copy editors and indexers are overflowing with books. Multiple editions of the Chicago Manual of Style (with sticky notes poking out from the key sections for easy access); dictionaries for Canadian English, American English, British English (unopened for months but then suddenly incredibly helpful when a new project lands in our inbox); or entertaining books (like Index, A History of the, The Subversive Copy Editor, or Dreyer’s English). I can go months without needing a new reference book but sometimes a new project or a new client means a new standard to learn and follow. When these opportunities arise, I head straight to the website of my favourite local bookstore: Someday Books in St. Catharines. They don’t usually have what I need in stock, which is understandable of course. I don’t imagine there’s much need to have a copy of the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors on hand. But they always get it for me. Walking in, waving to the owner, and hearing “Hi Céline, I have your books for you” is so much nicer than having them delivered to my front door in a box with a smiling logo on the front. It might take two weeks instead of two days, but if that’s the price of supporting local and getting to know my neighbours and my neighbourhood, I’m happy to pay it.
When I first started indexing books, if someone asked me what I did, I would say, “I’m an indexer.” The conversations that came after that statement were often entertaining as I helped the other person understand what the heck I was talking about. The number of people who immediately assumed I wrote the tables of contents for books was surprisingly high. But once the person understood what an indexer was, then the conversation would get interesting. We would talk about how an index gets written, how a good index could never be done by a computer, how indexing decisions get made (both good and bad ones) and how yes, I do indeed read the whole book (probably more closely than anyone other than the author ever will). When I tell them that ten different indexers working on the same book will end up creating ten different indexes, they can’t believe it. Weaving an index is an art, a science, and a little bit of magic all rolled up together. Now when people ask me what I do, I usually say, “I’m an indexer. I write the indexes you see at the back of books.” Just that little extra detail usually saves at least a few minutes of “huh?!? What’s an indexer?” so we can jump right into the fun parts of the conversation. Because yes, indexing books does indeed make for interesting and lively conversation . . . once everyone knows what the heck we are talking about.
For the past three years, I have taken a course every semester, in either indexing or copyediting. When I am in the middle of an indexing course, I spend a lot of time thinking about how much I love indexing. When I am in the middle of a copyediting course, I spend a similar amount of time thinking about how much I love copyediting. As I look ahead to September and even the following January, it’s never a question of whether I will take another course, it’s always a question of which course to take. With one foot planted firmly in the indexing world and the other in the copyediting world, it’s a struggle to decide which interest gets the next four months of focused study, and which gets placed on the backburner.
The struggle to decide gives me a newfound appreciation for my undergraduate days when I was in school full time. Having time to handle a full course load meant that I could feed all my intellectual interests at once, instead of trying to squeeze one course at a time into an already tight schedule. On the other hand, the course I am taking are not going anywhere. And only having enough spare time to take one course per semester means that I get to enjoy being a student for years to come.
A few months back, I wrote about a CINDEX study group that I am somehow became responsible for organizing. The five members of the group at all at different stages in their indexing careers. One is nearing retirement, two have been indexing for many years and have many more to go, and two of us are newbies. The veterans in the group all learned CINDEX the same way: they took on an indexing project, opened CINDEX, and figured it out as they went along. If they couldn’t find a solution in the manual, they came up with own workarounds. We quickly discovered in our study sessions that all three of them have different solutions for similar problems. At times, none of their solutions are actually in the manual.
In our group, I am the only one working with a practice index; an index I created so that I can mess about in CINDEX and figure things out before I am facing a looming deadline. We use my index during our monthly Zoom sessions—I share my screen, I try out every single tool, option, command in the manual, and everyone learns without risking a professional index in the process.
After our last session, I received a lovely email from one of the other group members. She said she was impressed with my practice index and even more impressed that I was taking the time to learn the program properly now, rather than trying to learn it while creating an index. I don’t always have that luxury of time, but while I do, I am taking full advantage of it.
I’m in the middle of an interesting project. For this particular project, I am working with two other women. The women are working together to update a rather large document, which needs to be reviewed every 4–5 years. They are moving through the document, one chapter at a time, and making all sorts of changes and additions. I am following a few days behind (wearing my copy-editor hat) to make sure that the language and formatting is consistent throughout.
The challenge? Well, the farther we get into the document, the more we realize that the updates that were made in the first few chapters will need to be changed based on decisions that have since been made. It’s an example of “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” (thanks, Aristotle). So, the women are circling back…and then I am circling back. Just this past week, I reviewed the following chapters in this order: 6, 7, 8, 9, 6, 7, 3, 4, 1, 2, 5, 10. Certainly not my typical copy-editing practice.
There really is method to the madness, and we are now far enough in now to feel like we are closer to the end than we are to the beginning. But we also know enough to know that we still have a long road ahead of us.
I have taken several indexing courses and every instructor had her own way of explaining how an indexer determines what information should be included in an index. One said, “make sure that you don’t index passing mentions or name dropping.” Another said, “every index entry should take the reader to helpful information.” But what is helpful? And is that one sentence a passing mention?
Recently, I attended an indexing webinar, hosted by Editors Canada. The presenter explained that he uses the happy test to determine if something should be included in the index. If the reader follows the index entry to the page in the book, will they be happy with the information they find there?
And that, my friends, made more sense to me than any other explanation I had been given so far. Because we all know that unhappy feeling of looking up a word in an index, flipping to the page in the book, and finding that word…but not much else. Not helpful. Not happy.
Now I focus on creating helpful indexes, and happy readers.
The Indexing Society of Canada (ISC) is full of helpful resources, not to mention some pretty neat people. I knew I had found my tribe when I joined my first virtual meeting and saw how many other members showed up with knitting needles in their hands.
During the last meeting, one ISC member mentioned that she was part of a CINDEX study group. CINDEX, if you don’t know, is an indexing software program and, at this moment anyway, the only one that provides a version for Mac. My ears perked up at “study group” and I asked more about it. The group was working through one chapter of the manual at a time and discovering all the ins and outs of CINDEX. Brilliant! The group, as it turns out, was also almost finished all of the chapters.
Well, it didn’t take long for four other indexers to show some interest in honing their CINDEX skills. By the end of the day we had decided to start own study group, booked our first meeting, and agreed on the first assignment: read chapter one and come ready to discuss and learn. We begin on January 30th.
What is it about the start of a new year? Despite the dark and the cold, turning the calendar to January always seems to bring a renewed sense of energy and drive.
Here at Leewords, I’m setting myself a few goals for 2021. They are all SMART goals—specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. SMART goals make me more accountable and have a clear end to them, making it much easier to tick the box on my to-do list.
By December 31, 2021, I will have:
- Partnered with one new copy editing client.
- Partnered with one new indexing client. Bonus points if they aren’t the same client as the copy editing one.
- Worked on a cookbook—either as a copy editor or an indexer.
- Registered for the Editors Canada mentorship program and been connected to a mentor.
- Written at least one blog post per month. No, this post doesn’t count because I wrote it in 2020.
What a great day to see what a Canadian writer had to say on the topic of indexes. Stephen Leacock, our great humourist, loved to have fun with people’s (and his own) follies and foolishness. If you haven’t taken the time to read Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, now is the summer to sit and smile.
In My Remarkable Uncle and Other Sketches, he introduces the topic of indexes: the perfect Index. Does the topic seem a bit dry for a lazy summer day? It isn’t when Leacock tackles it.
Chuckle as you read about cross-references, circular references, depth of indexing, etc. It’s as enjoyable a read as one would want on a hot Canadian holiday.