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Creating order out of chaos: how to edit an index

 Workshop tutor: Ann Hudson

‘It is easy enough to make an index, as it is to make a broom of odds and ends, as rough as oat straw; but to make an index tied up tight, and that will sweep well into the corners, isn’t so easy’ (Ruskin).
The process of working through a text and making entries tends to produce Ruskin’s ‘broom of odds and ends’. It is at the all-important editing stage that the index must be refined into something clear, concise, well arranged and user-friendly. 
With the aid of practical exercises we will explore topics such as how to prune out dead wood, dealing with strings, checking cross-references and double entries, and ensuring accuracy and consistency. We will also consider which aspects of editing can be done as you go along and which are best left until the end. 
This workshop is suitable for students (though not absolute beginners) and qualified indexers who would like to brush up on their indexing skills.

Workshop reports

When I was an in-house editor and commissioned indexes from freelances, I would edit them for alphabetical order and consistency of layout and punctuation, and would check whether the index fitted the space available — ‘the easy bits’. At Ann Hudson’s Editing the Index workshop held on 2 November at Friends Meeting House in London, however, we focused on ‘the serious stuff’, the more intellectually demanding aspects of the editing process. We also considered how much editing one can do while inputting the index entries, rather than leaving everything to the end.

Working mainly in pairs we completed a number of exercises. We looked at a vastly complicated single main entry with sub-, sub-sub- and sub-sub-sub-headings and were given the task of rearranging the material in a more helpful way to ensure that no vital information was buried within sub-entries and that the large amount of information under the main heading was easy for the reader to find his or her way around.

We then had considerable fun with a possible index for a section of Hans Wellisch’s Indexing from A–Z. The task was to slim down the elaborately detailed entries without detracting from the index’s ‘usefulness’. This exercise highlighted the dangers of trying to include within an entry a potted summary of what is said in the text and of over-qualifying already perfectly adequate terms.

Next, we were given an unedited index to a book on cats and were asked to suggest additional cross-references and to consider where these and the existing cross references might be better replaced by double entries. We also looked out for places where information had been divided between synonymous headings rather than combined and cross-referenced.

Finally, we attempted a challenging exercise on the breaking up of strings. We were given a long string of locators, a sentence or two from the text source for each one and a brief for the finished entry which requested ‘no locators after the main entry’ and ‘not more than five locators per subheading’.

I had a most enjoyable afternoon and, as always, it was a great pleasure to meet other indexers. Ann imparted much wise advice and sent us away feeling well equipped for a bit of self-censorship. At the beginning of the workshop we had been reminded of Henry Wheatley’s statement that when the indexer has come to the last page of a great book ‘he has scarcely done more than half of what is before him’. Estimates vary — but with all the things we covered in the workshop to be taken into account, this is possibly not far off the truth.

Wendy Toole

November 2008


Because of the nature of the work, indexers are normally tidy-minded people, so a conference workshop by Ann Hudson dealing with the above topic was bound to be welcomed. Ann said that it would be normal to expect an indexer to spend up to one-third of his or her time editing, and in some instances it could be as high as 50%.

The workshop was divided into two parts. Firstly, it dealt with what should be checked at the end of the indexing process, and secondly what could be done during the initial creation stage.

Dealing with the first item, Ann produced a checklist of steps that needed to be taken at the conclusion, and we were given two quite demanding examples of short unedited indexes to edit and discuss.

Ann then dealt with what could be done to eliminate chaos during the ongoing preparation of an index, using some examples of her own working methods. For instance, she demonstrated a system for finding “see/see also” entries, and showed us the type of notes that it might be appropriate to make whilst working on an index.

To conclude this excellent workshop, Ann put forward some tips and suggestions for editing an index, including the making of subheadings. She emphasized the need for indexers to have methodical working methods, and left us with an exercise to undertake in our own time. We ended with a general discussion about our own individual practices.

John Silvester

Winchester Conference 2008

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