Mary E. Laur talks about the art of indexing 

Mary LaurMary E. Laur is a freelance indexer and part of the editorial team that has produced the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, so she knows how important it is for readers to find the information they need as quickly and as painlessly as possible. In this month’s interview, she gives the inside scoop on indexing, weighs in on the Chicago Manual of Style index, and looks at the future of indexes in light of digitization.

CMOS: Very few people—even those who want to go into book publishing—ever think, “I want to be an indexer when I grow up.” So can you tell us a little bit about the path that led you to indexing?

ML: Just after college, while working for a textbook development house, I was asked to prepare an index for a second edition of a book by simply updating all the page numbers. I quickly realized this was a surprisingly terrible and inefficient way to do an index. But I liked the idea of capturing a book’s structure by creating an index from scratch, so after cobbling something together for that initial project, I signed up for the Introduction to Indexing course offered by what is now the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Chicago (which, sadly, no longer offers this course). Afterward I discovered that indexing is a less common specialty than copyediting, and I’ve never had trouble finding freelance projects, though I’ve never been a full-time freelancer.

My first regular client was a publisher that interviewed me for a job as a production editor and was impressed by my knowledge of indexing. I didn’t get the job, but I prepared about twenty freelance indexes for them over the years, and they also referred me to other publishers. But indexing requires an intense level of concentration and often a short deadline—an especially difficult combination if you also have a full-time job—so lately I’ve only done one or two indexes per year.

CMOS: Talk about your process. How do you tackle an index for a book? 

ML: Indexing is similar to editing in that you are, as my colleague Carol Fisher Saller put it, “working for the reader, through the writer.” Your primary task is to understand who the likely readers of a book will be and to build your entries and subentries around the types of questions they might look at the index to answer. Are they specialists, who are familiar with the author’s terminology and interested in entries that make complex connections among ideas? Nonspecialists or students, who are new to the material and might benefit from more explanatory entries and terminology as well as cross-references that anticipate points of confusion (for example, “Vatican II. See Second Vatican Council”)? Or casual readers whose only interest in the index is seeing which famous people are discussed in the book so they can flip to those pages? Everything should follow from the anticipated needs of the readers.

I rarely have time to read a book before I start indexing—I scan it, of course, and sketch out some preliminary categories of entries that I need to include, but inevitably I’ll get 50 or 100 pages in and realize that I’ve overlooked something important, and then I have to go back and find the material I need to create the new entry (thank goodness for searchable PDFs!). If a book is not well organized, this can happen repeatedly, and I consider it part of my job to try to build any connections missing in the text into the index. I also leave time at the end to edit the index, though usually I’ve worked out all but a handful of decisions about terminology and structure along the way.

CMOS: Do you ever hide any “Easter eggs” or references that only certain people would get in your indexes?

ML: No; because I am working for a book’s publisher (or sometimes for its author, since authors are often responsible for indexing or hiring someone to index their books), I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to include inside jokes of this type in my indexes. But I do know of an author at a press I once worked at who apparently slipped the names of his two sons into the indexes of all of his books. We let him do it.

CMOS: Is there one index you’ve created that stands out as your favorite?

ML: The one I was most satisfied with is the index for the 8th edition of Kate Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, which the University of Chicago Press published in March 2013. I was one of the unnamed “University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff” members who helped overhaul this book to create the 7th edition, so I began indexing with a strong sense of the book’s overall structure and contents—yet I was less involved in revising it for the 8th edition, so I had to pay close attention to its details. That combination gave me confidence that I was indexing the full range of significant topics in a way that would be useful to the different types of students we know use the book. Even so, I’m sure I have my blind spots, and some readers might find faults with it .

CMOS: On that note, how would you address the comments we sometimes hear from users of CMOS about the shortcomings of its index?

ML: First I would say that we give high priority to having a thorough index in CMOS and always hire a top-notch indexer to prepare it. But CMOS has an extraordinarily wide range of readers: editors, writers, and students in many fields and at all levels of expertise as well as general readers interested in issues of style and grammar. Although I am confident that every significant topic addressed in CMOS is covered somewhere in the index, some readers will inevitably consult it with specific questions in mind and won’t find what they’re looking for under the terms they look up. Also, readers often remember CMOS paragraphs based on the examples in them, and we don’t index the examples.

You’ll never look at a book (or its index) the same way again.

CMOS: Given that, do you think the increase in electronic books with search capabilities will make indexes obsolete? 

ML: I think the example of CMOS Online shows how a search function and an index can be complementary. Searching returns every instance of a specific term in a book, but it doesn’t catch terms that are used interchangeably (for example, “documentation” and “citation”) or pronouns or nicknames that stand in for people’s full names, as a good index does. Searching also can’t capture hierarchical relationships among terms, while an index entry for “format, paper” can direct readers to material on block quotations, margins, pagination, and other related topics that don’t include the term “format.” Although I’m sure some publishers will be tempted to stop indexing books published electronically, I think that would be a great loss for readers, at least in books of any complexity.

CMOS: If someone wanted to get into indexing, what would be your advice?

ML: There’s nothing like hands-on experience indexing real text, but I think taking a course in which an experienced indexer gives you feedback on your first efforts is invaluable. The American Society for Indexing offers online courses in indexing, as do other organizations and continuing studies programs. Nancy Mulvany’s Indexing Books is an excellent resource for beginning or even experienced indexers. And of course there’s chapter 16 of CMOS, which subscribers to this site already have at their fingertips. Once you try indexing, you’ll never look at a book (or its index) the same way again.

Mary E. Laur is a senior project editor for reference books at the University of Chicago Press and has also been a freelance indexer for 20 years.

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