Currently considered for publication. Written August 2000.
I had the honor of being invited to give three indexing presentations in Israel this summer. The first presentation was open to anyone interested in the subject; the latter presentations were in-house sessions for high-tech companies. All three sessions lasted eight hours each, covered the same instructional materials (although with audience-appropriate focus and sensitivity), and had technical writers making up the vast majority of participants. My work was sponsored, scheduled, and paid for by In Other Words (http://www.words.israel.net).
Technical writers in Israel are generally bilingual (Hebrew and English)-I taught everything in English-with many writers knowing English as a first language. Most high-tech documentation is published in English. Technical writers also are carefully trained and educated, many through professional certificate-level courses. In fact, I got the impression that the skills of the Israeli technical writer surpass on average those of the U.S. technical writer. Further, technical writers are paid quite highly in Israel. Taking into account standard-of-living differences, Israeli writers can earn about 50% more than U.S. writers. The growth in high-tech industry and the demand for English writers in a Hebrew country may be primary reasons for this.
Speaking in Israel was different from speaking in the United States. I was concerned most about cultural and language differences, so I used only examples without cultural emphasis and worked to keep my English free of accents or colloquialisms. Yet the barriers of culture and language proved almost nonexistent. For example, Hebrew letters have no case, so a question like "should entries be uppercase or lowercase?" doesn't lend itself to discussion. Instead, the biggest barrier was also the most surprising: an overwhelmingly low understanding of indexing itself.
A large percentage of documentation produced in Israel has no indexes. Indexes that are published are written by the technical writer herself, often with little training. The idea that I index for a living, writing one index after another, sounded impossible. That there could be many indexing societies around the world was unfathomable.
The introduction to automated indexing is spreading quickly though in most cases not yet pursued. Anxious to index quickly, the quest for algorithm-based indexing seems logical, particularly when customers are complaining about the absence of indexes. Search is also considered a viable alternative to indexing. I believe that without greater understanding and discussion, automation and search are likely to become prominent substitutes for human indexing.
This ignorance about indexing astounded me, especially because everyone in every class has frequently used a book's index. One group anxiously wanted to know why indexes are even necessary. They also wanted field testing results. Another group was looking for automated indexing tools, and they sought my advice on building such a tool for in-house use. These are questions I've never been asked in the States. On the other hand, I did hear many of the same questions asked by U.S. students: Is search sufficient? How long indexing should take? Is it acceptable to index while writing? How can the indexing process be made more efficient? All three groups wanted to know more about the embedded indexing capabilities their software allows; that indexers might write the index using a separate program seemed crazy to them. Finally, they wanted answers on master indexing, shared documents, and web-based publishing.
Counterbalancing their ignorance was a love for argument. This major cultural difference was demonstrated throughout my time in Israel; when teaching I found these "battles" to be exciting. No one ever blindly accepted what I said. They insisted on testing me with counterexamples and opposing views. Fortunately I never provide inflexible rules to students; in fact, I'm against them in principle. I teach the process and procedures of evaluation and invite each individual to index according to her own priorities and those of the readers. Thanks to this good-natured stubbornness, I spent more time than planned on several subjects. It may also be that these writers were not prepared to give up many of their preconceived notions about indexing.
This argumentative style lead to frequent questions and participation, usually about practical considerations that disallow the ideal situation. For example, after discussing how many locators are acceptable after a main heading, a writer argued HTML indexes couldn't be written that way, with URLs replacing page numbers. Similarly, after explaining the difference between see and see also, someone complained that hyperlinks for cross references were impossible in PDF. Each time I would repeat that every situation is different, and that there are no inflexible answers. Anything that leads to greater usability is good, anything that doesn't lead to greater usability is a waste of time, and it's the writer's responsibility to define the concept of "usability" itself.
Another cultural difference was impatience. Overall the participants gave me high ratings on keeping their attention, but when it came to exercises, few participants were willing to work on anything for long. I found 15 minutes to be the outside limit; they started to get bored and distracted. (I have to comment that this behavior may unique to the classroom and not indicative of their personalities overall. I hope so, because otherwise indexing will be a greater chore for them than I imagined.) By the third seminar, then, I kept my exercises short, asking questions about participants' experiences instead of their answers.
In summary, I am concerned that indexing is not receiving any recognition among these highly intelligent and thoughtful technical writers. The high-tech industry in Israel continues to grow quickly, and many of the writers in these companies are immigrants from English-speaking countries. Israel's communist history, which is embedded in the corporate culture, means that indexing can be announced anywhere within the chain of command. (The management hierarchy is ignored when it comes to communication, such that a mailroom clerk can complain directly to a company vice president.) Perhaps the best approach to instilling good indexing habits is with the writers themselves, such as through the Society for Technical Communication [link to STC home]. But a printed article is unlikely to prove effective: With whom do the writers get to argue?