Comprehensiveness and Conciseness Creating Better Indexes, Parts 4 and 5
By Margie Towery Fall 2013
Comprehensiveness and conciseness are two of what I call the “Ten Principles for Creating Better Indexes.” The other principles (or characteristics) are accuracy, audience and access, clarity, common sense (part 2), consistency, metatopic and structure, reflexivity (part 3), and readability (part 1).
Webster’s defines “comprehensive” as (1) “covering completely or broadly; inclusive” (as in examinations or insurance), and (2) “having or exhibiting wide mental grasp” (such as comprehensive knowledge). NISO’s Guidelines list the functional characteristics of an index, one of which is that an index must “indicate all important topics or features . . . in accordance with the level of exhaustivity appropriate for the index.”[i]
Comprehensiveness is thus related to exhaustivity, specificity, and depth of indexing. “Exhaustivity,” writes Hans Wellisch, “refers to the extent to which concepts and topics are made retrievable by means of index terms.”[ii] Are all the topics, concepts, people, and events in the index and thus findable? There is a range in exhaustivity, with a book index on the high end and a (now largely defunct) library catalog on the low end. In a highly exhaustive book index, every bit of information would be in the index.
Specificity refers to “the extent to which a concept or topic . . . is identified by a precise term.” Are all the topics, concepts, people, and events in the index findable by precise terminology? Wellisch adds that depth of indexing is the “product” of exhaustivity and specificity.
This is not to suggest that indexers should be creating concordances, which Webster’s defines as “an alphabetical index of the principal words in a book.” For example, in a concordance, every occurrence of the term “map” would be listed. An index, on the other hand, includes that term only if there is substantive information about “map.”
A truly comprehensive index might be nearly as long as the text itself, in part because terms with more than a few locators need to be broken into subheadings and structured in a logical manner beyond being simply an alphabetical list of entries. Indexers must make judgments, then, about what is most important in a text. Comprehensiveness is also limited by index length limits set by publishers as well as the reality of balancing time spent with income per index. Comprehensiveness is impacted as well by the expectations and guidelines of each particular discipline or type of indexing. For example, a trade book is generally less comprehensively indexed than a scholarly book.
Despite such caveats, comprehensiveness is one of the characteristics of a quality index: The index must represent all the material within a text, including front and back matter when appropriate.
Comments on comprehensiveness
Comprehensiveness is the basis of my argument for including authorial digressions in an index. If the author felt something was important enough to include it, then the index must also include it. Moreover, a user may remember some piece of information related to the digression and utilize the entry for that digression as a way to find the desired information.
In a comprehensive index, the information must be treated in a balanced manner and an unbiased fashion (unbiased indexing, that is, setting aside the issue of a biased author).
Related to comprehensiveness is considering the many ways a user might “name” and search for something. In other words, consideration of diverse audiences who might use the index is a component in comprehensive indexing. This entails, for example, creating multiple entry points for any given information. I call this multiple incarnations of the same indexable bit. An example from a book on civic engagement illustrates the various entries in which one bit of information is indexed:
arguing and persuading jury’s observation of, 87 legal setting, 60–4 (and other subs) civility, 60–4, 87 lawyers arguing and persuading by, 60–4, 87 (ditto) legal proceedings arguments and respect for others, 60–4, 87 (ditto) legal tools and traditions (“thinking like a lawyer”) keeping open mind: arguing and persuading, 60–4, 87 (ditto)
Note that in the first entry, the locators are broken into two subheadings; and the format is indented and run-in from subheading (thus the colon in the last subheading).[iii]
The more complicated the text, the more such multiplicity is critical to usability, in my experience. I would argue that, even in a “lighter” index, every bit of information should appear in at least two places, such as under a person’s name and under an event or concept or other topical gathering.
Webster’s defines “concise” as something “marked by brevity of expression or statement; free from all elaboration and superfluous detail.” In the section of the NISO Guidelines noted above, we find the dictum: “use terminology that is as specific as the [text] warrant[s] and the indexing language permits.”
“Brevity is the soul of wit,” writes Shakespeare in Hamlet. “Omit needless words,” William Strunk insists in the famous Strunk and White style guide. Consider also the definition of specificity, which is not about brevity but about precision.
An index must be comprehensive, readable, and reflexive, and yet also concise, in addition to the other characteristics noted above. It seems a tall order, does it not? I hope, reader, that you begin to understand, at this point in the series, that these characteristics are intertwined in ways that sometimes dictate one trumping another, all of which may be trumped by publisher guidelines or unreasonable deadlines. Specificity may be sacrificed for conciseness. Conciseness may be sacrificed for clarity.
Comments on conciseness
A concise index doesn’t necessarily happen from the beginning of the indexing process. I often start out with longer subheadings than what I will end up with. In using longer entries at the start, I can more easily see how I can condense and be more concise in the editing stage. In fact, one of the challenges in writing concise indexes is in maintaining clarity in the relationship between the main heading and the subheading. That connection should always be unambiguous and instantly clear. In maintaining conciseness, one useful tool is everyday language. While the index must include the author’s terminology, we can opt to use everyday language whenever possible (and when more concise), particularly in subheadings.
In addition, it is critical to remember that an index should point the user to the information in the text rather than retelling the “story” in the index. Yet in doing so, the index must still be clear. Users should not have to puzzle out the meaning of a main heading and/or subheadings.
Finding a balance
“It depends,” is the indexer’s slogan. Attempting to balance comprehensiveness and conciseness (let alone the other eight characteristics) highlights this nicely. Indexers constantly juggle these two components, sometimes favoring one over the other, depending on the text, deadline, publisher’s guidelines, and other factors. The appropriate balance lies in how these factors fit with the text at hand.
A balancing tool
In one of my summer graduate courses, the professor provided a quite lengthy reading list and directions for writing a précis of each text. At the time, this was a new idea for me, but it is a critical thinking tool I have often used since then. Webster’s defines “précis” as “a concise summary of essential points, statements, or facts” (note “concise”!). Each précis is one or two paragraphs, or about half a page of writing, and must capture the main points of the text. I can think of no other exercise that requires both excellent comprehension, comprehensiveness, and conciseness. Other than index and abstract writing, that is.
Try this: If you are an indexer who reads the whole book first (or reads and marks before keying entries), take half an hour to write a précis after you’ve read the text but before you key in the entries. This exercise will provide clues to structure and key main headings. If you jump into the indexing process without prereading, as I do, you might write such a précis between the read/entry stage and the edit stage. Has your index captured and highlighted the key points? Alternatively, try writing a précis of the most recent book you’ve read. How concise yet comprehensive can you make it? Edit and reedit until you get it to the bare minimum.
Finding the balance between conciseness and comprehensiveness requires practice, and for indexers, that means creating many indexes and editing those indexes with a firm hand and a clear mind. The more indexes you write, the easier the balancing act becomes, although there are always those texts that come across our desks that make us wonder anew how these two characteristics are even remotely possible in the same index.
[i] National Information Standards Organization. Guidelines for Indexes and Related Information Retrieval Devices. Bethesda, MD: NISO Press, 1997 (NISO-TR02-1997).
[ii] Wellisch, Hans H. Indexing from A to Z. 2nd ed. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1996.
[iii] For another example of an indented format with run-in from subheadings style, see the Chicago Manual of Style (15th or 16th editions).