Consistency and Clarity
Creating Better Indexes, Parts 8 and 9
By Margie Towery
In this installment of Creating Better Indexes, I’ll look briefly at two of the remaining three characteristics of quality indexes: Consistency and Clarity. The other characteristics are audience and access (yet to come in part 10), metatopic and structure (part 7), accuracy (part 6), comprehensiveness and conciseness (parts 4 and 5), reflexivity (part 3), common sense (part 2), and readability (part 1).
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has several definitions for consistency, because the term can be applied to many endeavors, from cooking to dog training to painting. Webster’s third definition fits best with what I mean by consistency: “agreement or harmony of parts or features to one another or a whole.” Thus, consistency is always relational, contingent, and dependent on context.
Comments on consistency
Consistency and accuracy are closely related, for example, in use of capitalization and punctuation, treatment of titles, and so on. Those sorts of things should be accurate and consistent throughout an index. Another example is locator treatment. Locators must be accurate as well as consistent in the use of special typography, format for end- and footnotes, and in the method of abbreviation, if one is used.
Both consistency and accuracy are key to the terminology used in the index. Index terminology must accurately represent what is in the text and must consistently treat similar discussions in similar fashion. In other words, do not do this:
floods and flooding, 14–25
oil spill disasters: cleanup after, 35–37; environmental damage from, 30–34; history of, 26–30
The two discussions cover the same number of pages and should ostensibly be treated similarly in the index. That is, “floods and flooding” should have subheadings rather than a long range of page locators.
Parallel construction, whether in subheadings or main headings, is a tactic for consistency in indexes:
immigrants and immigration (group and concept)
slaves and slavery (not slavery and slaves)
If you create a subheading for “education” under one individual’s heading, don’t use “schooling” under another individual’s heading in the same index and when the information is similar. In other words, use the same term to capture similar information in subheadings.
Cross-references and double-postings are additional components where consistency is important. For example, page locators should be identical in double-postings:
Illinois lottery, 3–6, 8, 10
lottery, 3–6, 8, 10
The format of cross-references should be consistent within an index:
Mexican-American War (1846–1848)
wars. See also Mexican-American War
wars. See also Mexican-American War (1846–1848)
wars. See also Mexican-American War (1846–48)
wars. See also Mexican American War
The first two cross-references are correct. The third one uses a format for years that is inconsistent with the main heading; the fourth one is missing the hyphen. While technically the cross-reference should exactly match the main heading, I tend to delete the parenthetical gloss, such as (1846–1848), from the cross-reference, unless the gloss is needed to disambiguate main headings:
Russell, Sarah (1749–1789)
Russell, Sarah (1815–1875)
weavers . . . See also Russell, Sarah (1749–1789)
One area of consistency that highlights its contingent nature is the “2x vs. Xref” issue. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends a maximum of about six locators; more than that, then subheadings should be created. Organizations with abbreviations comprise one type of heading where this issue frequently arises.
The general guideline on the “2x vs. Xref” issue is: If there are no subheadings (thus, six or less locators), then double-post (2x) under both spelled-out version and abbreviation; if the two entries fall very close together, retain the one most used in the text and delete the other. If there are subheadings, then place the subheadings under the text’s preferred term and create a cross-reference (Xref) from the nonpreferred term.
In my experience, this indexing practice is the most confusing thing to authors, and I now explain it in every letter that I send to an author with an index for review (if it’s an issue in that particular index). I think it’s confusing because they miss the contingent, relational nature of consistency in an index.
Tools for consistency
The first and easiest tool to use for ensuring consistency is your software. Be sure your settings are correct for the index specifications. Second, indexers can also deploy Adjustable Indexing Rules for each project. For example, one of my regular AIRs is to specify the maximum number of page locators allowed before subheadings are needed. In practice, though, I generally create subheadings for most page locators, because it’s easier to delete the subheading terminology than to go back and create it in the edit stage. Nonetheless, I definitely need that particular AIR when I am editing. Another AIR that I use in a book with non-English terms is whether I am going to enter a term in the original language with the English translation in parentheses or vice versa. I pick one and stick with it; that AIR makes it easier to then decide whether to double-post or cross-reference the terms, which I would do in my edit stage. So, indexers, go forth and create some AIRs of your own!
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines clarity as “the quality or state of being clear.” Well, right. Turning instead to Roget’s International Thesaurus, we find that clarity has many nuances from “intelligibility” to “literary elegance.” Indeed, these are characteristics of a quality index. Following these terms through the thesaurus, we find related concepts such as comprehensibility, readability (yes!), refinement and restraint (could that be conciseness?), lucidity, and my favorite, perspicuity. Turning back to Webster’s for a definition of perspicuous, we come full circle: “plain to the understanding esp. because of clarity and precision of presentation.”
Comments on clarity
In short, clarity in an index means that a user can understand the index and quickly find the sought-after information. One of the most important aspects of this is the subheading-to-main-heading relationship. If users find this entry in an index:
animals: hunting, 22–24
they are left wondering what exactly it means. Are animals hunting prey? Are humans hunting animals? Are animals used in hunting? It makes a big difference! Furthermore, in this example from a published index, the surrounding subheadings, which included references to pets, did not help.
When a user reads a main heading and then one or more subheadings, the relationship between each subheading and the main headings must be absolutely clear. If subheadings need additional words or function words (e.g., of, by, on) to achieve that clarity, then those words must be included.
There are several reasons the clarity of sub-to-main is important. First, humans are storytellers; we need to understand the relationship to understand what sort of information we will find at the locator’s position. Second, most of us are on information overload. If the sub-to-main heading is not clear, users may just skip looking up the locator, decide the information is not in the text, or decide the index is useless, and put the text “back on the shelf” whether it’s an print or e-book.
If you, like me, give the index a final A-to-Z edit, pay attention to clarity. If something is not clear to you in that stage—and you have just read and indexed the text—then it’s not going to be clear to users.
There are three simple tools that aid in creating clarity in indexes. The first is to know and use the alphabet. Can you rewrite the subheadings so (1) the most important words comes first and (2) related subheadings fall next to each other in an entry array? Second, deploy your human storytelling ability to be sure that the connections are accurate, clear, and representative of the author’s meaning. Third, use “beginner’s mind” when you engage in the final edit. Try to look at the index as if you have not just read the book. Be the audience(s) you created the index for.
In fact, I will consider audience and accessibility in the next installment, which will conclude this series on creating better indexes. However, I am excited to share the news that ASI’s publisher, Information Today, Inc., has accepted my book proposal, Ten Characteristics of Quality Indexes: Confessions from an Award-winning Indexer. The book delves much deeper into each characteristic than in this newsletter series, providing more discussion, examples, and tools. It also includes a chapter on evaluating indexes. The book should be out in time for ASI’s June 2016 conference in Chicago.
© 2015 Margie Towery. Used with permission.