The Indexer
Chris Carruth of Cohen & Carruth, Inc. (Pleasantville, NY)
Posted: 12/20/06

What do indexers do?


Let me start with what an index is. At its simplest, it’s an alphabetized listing of the people, places, and events that appear in a text. This, however, doesn't make for a very satisfying index for the majority of books. The primary job of the indexer is to outline the relationships between the major categories, using subheadings, and interpret for the reader what the author's reason for including any given bit of information is.


For example, the entry Lincoln, Abraham, Civil War and, 234-35 tells the reader that Lincoln had something to do with the Civil War and where in the book to find out what that is. But since these two ideas, Lincoln and the Civil War, are inextricably tied together already in most people’s minds, this kind of entry doesn't really do the reader any good. A better relationship might be formed this way: Lincoln, Abraham, constitutional justifications for Civil War of, 234-35. This tells the reader that on those pages he's going to find a specific discussion of how Lincoln legally justified the war.


It's also the indexer's job to find all the text references to these concepts whether or not the page uses these exact words. An indexer has to get beneath the surface of the words and understand what the author was really writing about in any given paragraph.


At its best, an index acts as the mediator between author and reader, interpreting both what the author wants the reader to know and what the reader wants to find out. At the same time, an index should be absolutely transparent; the reader shouldn't have to work while using it.



Ah! Kind of like comfort being the absence of awareness. If an index is doing its job, you don’t notice it. Is it a right- or left-brain kind of profession?


Both, really. An indexer needs to be extraordinarily meticulous in spelling and page number accuracy right from the start. In an average index there may be 10,000 page references and the goal is 100% accuracy. Since there's no chance to check every reference, we have to be correct all the way through the process. On the other hand, an indexer needs to be creative enough to rework the author's text into a very short format, distilling the essence of a book down to a very few pithy phrases that lead a reader to the desired information with no wrong turns.



When did you know you wanted to be an indexer? Assuming you wanted to be one. Hmmm. Did you want to be one?


Indexing isn't one of those things that you go to school for, although there are classes in indexing at a few places. I, like most people, didn't realize that indexing was a profession or that indexes were something that actually needed to be written. It wasn't until I had gone through a series of completely unrelated jobs after college (construction, house painting, bookstore clerk, delivering fish) and began freelancing that I fell in with a couple of experienced indexers and found that it was something I seemed to be suited for and enjoyed.



Let’s say indexing hadn’t worked out for you. What would you be instead?


I have no idea, but I've always liked the idea of being a blacksmith or carpenter--or an astronaut. Something along those lines.



Has being an indexer changed what kinds of books you read?


I spend so much time tearing apart and putting back together these dense, complicated, intellectually challenging titles that my brain is fried by the time I get home. So I tend to pick up genre fiction. I go through a prodigious amount of mystery, science fiction, and fantasy. Mind candy.



What topic really gets indexers going at the water cooler?


I suppose the thing that annoys indexers the most is when people assume that all we do is alphabetize the table of contents (really, I had someone say this to me at a party!), or that we hit a button on a computer and whoosh! the index is done.



Are you a list maker in your personal life?


No I don't make lists. I had an aunt who was an inveterate list-maker. She wrote the lists up and blithely went about her business, sometimes managing to get something on the list accomplished but more often than not simply rewriting it the next day! I admired her terribly for the optimism of her lists, but never wanted to make one myself.



With apologies to Alexander, what does a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day” look like for you?


I find out that a book has to be repaginated in two days; one of my indexers misses a deadline; a few schedules are changed and now instead of five books going out this week on five separate days, they're all due on Wednesday; I get a call from an editor on a project finished last week telling me that the author has added a chapter and could we please, please, please fit this into the same space as the finished index . . . by Wednesday; then my computer crashes. That would be a pretty bad day.


I've had authors rewrite in second pass to the extent that I have to start the index over again. Schedules change, designs change, everything can change. It's just something you deal with and move on.



How do you deal with it?


Scotch. No, not really. As I said, this is all part of the business. If on some level I didn't revel in these kinds of upsets, I'd be in the wrong business.

Christine Kole MacLean ( writes picture books, chapter books, and novels for young adults. Her most recent release is the YA novel, How It’s Done.