Webster’s defines accuracy as “freedom from mistake or error” or “conformity to . . . a standard or model.” We’ve all heard the dictate to measure twice and cut once. Indexers talk about being accurate but that is often more in reference to page numbers or locators than other components. In reality, accuracy as a characteristic of a quality index requires much more than just accurate locators.
Comments on accuracy
In fact, getting the locators correct entails more than just popping a right locator into the page field. Locators must also reflect all of the pages on which that information appears as well as whether it is a continuous discussion (e.g., 3–7) or one that is scattered over several pages (e.g., 3, 4, 6–7). Locators must also accurately reflect the format of the text. For example, locators in the Chicago Manual of Style index are chapter and section numbers (e.g., 16.13 discusses locators in indexes [16th ed.]).
Need I even mention that spelling must be accurate? If there are variations in spellings in the text that affect the index, consult the author or editor concerning what should be used in the index (and/or corrected in the text!). Moreover, if the text uses British spelling, the index should as well.
Main headings must accurately reflect the meaning of the text. Is the author discussing “health” or “health care”? (A caveat: in such cases where there may only be a few locators, then the “conciseness principle” would allow for combining those—“railroads and railroad development” is one that I often combine.)
In service of accuracy, names and events must sometimes be disambiguated. For example:
Iraq War (1990–1991) (or See Gulf War) Iraq War (2003–2011) Russell, Sarah (1752–1789) Russell, Sarah (1856–1898)
The relationship of the subheading to the main heading must be captured accurately, such that the relationship is instantly clear and the user needn’t puzzle out what it indicates. This is one reason we still need function words in some subheadings (of, by, on, etc.). In subheadings for a person, “birth” and “death” may be obvious but “influences,” for example, is not. Does it mean influences on the person? Or the person’s influence on other people or concepts (as influence, influence by, or influence on)?
Double-postings must be complete with all locators at both (or all) locations. Cross-references must accurately copy the main heading to which they point, including exact capitalization. I think it’s a toss-up as to whether parenthetical material in the main heading must be included in the cross-reference to it, and I generally leave it off, unless such disambiguation is needed to lead the user to the proper main heading.
Tools for improving accuracy
One main tool for creating an accurate index is subject knowledge. There is no substitute to understanding the discipline (or disciplines) in which a text is based. I don’t mean a depth of knowledge such as a specialist would have but rather a general knowledge that includes a bit of jargon and clues you in to when you might need to stop and look something up to be sure you represent it accurately in the text.
Indexers are fortunate to have sophisticated indexing software. It allows us to truly focus on the content and let the software do the mechanical work. In addition, primary and supplemental software packages provide a variety of checks particularly relevant to accuracy.
We can use our software to create a page-order sort and check the index entries in that order, making sure that the locators and entries match the text. Newer indexers are often advised to utilize this check, despite the time it takes. More experienced indexers may spot check entries.
And there are occasionally things that we must code to provide a more accurate index. Does the publisher want “U.S.” sorted as “United States”? Are there special locator issues that need attention? Accuracy is not just about the index itself but also about providing an index that fits the client’s specifications.
The more indexing you do, the more you may pick up on your own typical errors. Keep track of these and run software checks to correct them. One colleague has noted that she always checks for “m” after a number in the page field, because that was one of the few errors she found in her work, mistakenly typing “m” instead of a comma. I sometimes run that check as well, but because I occasionally type “m” instead of “n” in a note reference (e.g., 17m8 vs. 17n8). In addition, I always run the cross-references check at the end of my editing phase.
There is another side to accuracy and, indeed, to the indexing process overall. Attention and concentration are key to accuracy, but I find that my concentration suffers in the early afternoon. There is, however, an aid to overcoming this, and it’s based on scientific evidence. What might increase alertness, boost creativity and the ability to see connections, strengthen memory, clarify decision-making, and improve productivity? It’s not snake oil. It’s a nap! My ideal nap length is about 10–15 minutes. Yours might vary. Check out the science and what sort of nap might work best for you in Sara C. Mednick’s Take a Nap! Change Your Life (and, I would add, be a more accurate indexer).