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Author-Created Indexes
(vs. Third-Party Professional Indexes)
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By Seth A. Maislin

Editor Note: This essay is a 2003 rewrite of an article originally published in A to Z: The Newsletter of STC's Indexing SIG (Vol 2 No 3: Sept 1999).
Download a PDF version of this issue.


  I am often asked if authors are capable of writing indexes of equal or better quality than the indexes written by professional, third-party indexers.

  Here are the practice advantages. First, having an author write an index is often less expensive. Second, authors have a greater understanding of the audience, the vocabulary, and the theory of the material included in the text. They also know the text forwards and backwards, which helps them develop a consistent product. Third, authors often have greater access to the material, which is a distinct advantage in today’s embedded indexing world.

  Here are the practical disadvantages. Often the author is often too busy or too tired to write an index. If there are multiple authors, it would be a serious disadvantage to have multiple indexers; yet if only one author were chosen, the benefits that might have stemmed from each of the other authors—greater understanding, for example—are lost. Finally, most authors don’t have the training that many indexers have, who have studied and practiced indexing and gleaned a greater understanding of approach and style.

  Okay, enough with practical things. The theory is much more interesting, and relevant.

  When I teach indexing, I use the metaphor of an index as a tapestry. Imagine a tapestry with a knight fighting a lion. The sun is shining from behind a distant castle. Cherubs watch over the knight and shine a protective light onto him. This is the book, and each of these elements might be a chapter or a section: the knight, the lion, the cherubs, the castle. In order to structure the tapestry to tell a story, each element much be clearly defined. The artist must find the materials and the colors necessary to weave each element, and also must have determined the element’s place in the whole picture. Then, once the weaving begins, the element is carefully and meticulously woven.

  To write an index, first you turn the tapestry over and look at the back. The back is a mess of loose strands and knots. The scene portrayed on the front is lost in chaos. The indexer’s job is to catalog this chaos by following the strands. (This is sometimes called “threading the index.”) Notice, for example, how the artist has used a silver thread in four places on this tapestry: for the knight’s shield, for the knight’s helmet, in the cherubs’ light, and for the distant castle. The indexer’s job is to see this “color” connection and determine that the artist is using silver to represent the theme of protection, for example, since the shield, helmet, cherubs, and castle are all protective objects. In this way, the indexer can analyze not only the tiniest of elements (the designs in the coat of arms, for example), but also the connections through the entire big picture (silver=protection). But the only way to see these things is to turn the tapestry over, and only once the tapestry is finished.

  Authors, when they write, purposefully turn off the big picture approach. The idea for the documentation appears, and from that moment forward their focus is honed down. They start with the outline for the whole text, write only one section at a time, divide the sections into subsections, and compose paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence. When writing Chapter 2, everything outlined to appear in the other chapters is a distraction, and temporarily it must be ignored. It is this very focus that assists the authors in writing strong, effective, structured ideas.

  Yet this focus can only interfere with the indexing process. After months and years of focusing, it is extremely difficult for an author to step back and “turn over the tapestry.” It runs counter to a good author’s approach. I’ve heard this described as the author’s “being too close to the work,” but closeness is not a problem. In fact, closeness is an advantage: they know the audience, vocabulary, and theory, as explained above. Instead, authors are too divisive with their ideas. Structure is a requirement of good writing, necessarily precise and singular.

  Third-party indexers, on the other hand, approach the book from a wholly different perspective, one that allows a complete “restructuring” the book. They are not hindered by the need to focus on Chapter 2 while ignoring Chapter 3; rather, they find connections the authors had in their heads before they ever started writing. In a sense, the very thoughts that float around in the authors’ heads—before the outline is written—are the threads on the back of the tapestry. The indexer’s job is to locate and identify those threads, and then present them back. This is sometimes a profound achievement, too, as I have head many authors say of third-party indexers, “I can’t believe I really wrote everything the indexer says I wrote.”

  In my opinion, the theoretical incompatibility of “the writing mind” and “the indexing mind” outweighs any practical advantages. Consider contracting an indexer or, if it’s easier for you, exchange documentation with a colleague and index each other’s work. Develop a line of communication between the indexer and the writer, to close the knowledge gap. And finally, anyone who writes indexes should have indexing training.

  But, for authors who choose to write their own indexes (or are obligated), there is a solution: abandon the writing mind. Dedicate a large block of indexing time, completely separate from writing. Do not write and index at the same time. Do not interrupt your indexing with rewrites and edits. Do not start indexing unless you’re convinced the writing is finished. First you’ll appreciate how challenging this is (proving my point!), and then you’ll write better indexes.

  (If you can't or don't want to write your own index, it's not hard to locate someone who will! Contact me at seth@maislin.com. I'll help set you up either with an indexer who specializes in your materials, or a pro-bono new indexer looking for experience.)

Copyright 2003 Seth A. Maislin

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