The metatopic is not so much a characteristic as it is an overarching presence in an index. Webster’s includes many meta- words, which reflect the increased use of the prefix: metagalaxy, metaethics, metafiction, and so on. Meta- means more comprehensive than the original term. It is often used with a discipline, such as linguistics or mathematics, to highlight a discussion in which the discipline itself is the object of critical examination.
Do Mi Stauber seems to be the first to apply it to the main subject of a text. She then identifies it as “the structural center of the index: every single heading . . . will be implicitly related to it” (Facing the Text, p. 9). There may also be multiple metatopics (e.g., class, race, and gender), which of course affects the index structure.
The structure of an index includes the entry arrays (and ideas about which are more or less important to the metatopic) as well as the cross-referencing system that lies as a subway grid under the entry arrays.
When I first started indexing, I didn’t think about index structure when I was in the middle of indexing a text, perhaps because as a newer indexer I was focused on analyzing the text and creating appropriate entries. Nor was it something I remember my mentor discussing. But I soon learned to think about structure from the very beginning, along with the analysis and entry-making. The benefit of this approach is that it becomes easier to “see” what is going on in the text and thus to keep the index more reflective of the text.
Recently, a question related to metatopics was posted on an ASI Special Interest Group listserv. There is an old idea that the metatopic itself should never appear in the index, because if it did, you would have to index the whole book under that single main heading. The idea that the metatopic should never be in the index is truly unhelpful thinking that foils all but the most sophisticated index users—and perhaps even them. Indeed, though a knowledgeable user may not turn to the metatopic in the index, why should the less skilled user be denied such a splendid entry into the text and index?
I and many other indexers argue for a more nuanced approach to the metatopic and index structure. Such an approach is based on several ideas. First, the metatopic can create a useful entry into the index structure. Second, most index users do not know that the metatopic main heading “shouldn’t” be in the index.Third, even experienced users may turn to the metatopic main heading to see how the subject is treated in the book. That and a quick glance at the table of contents may dictate whether or not they buy the book.
While I agree that there are some indexes that do not require a metatopic main heading, I would argue that those indexes are much less common than those that do benefit from it. Even an alphabetically structured book, such as Hans Wellisch’s Indexing A to Z, includes lengthy entry arrays for indexers, indexes, and indexing. The index for Nancy Mulvany’s Indexing Books also includes lengthy entries for index, indexers, and index-writing process.
I view the metatopic main heading as a useful place for any reader (especially one who is unfamiliar with the subject) to start an index search (though I am aware that many users will not start there). The metatopic main heading can be a window into the structure of the index and thus the text. Within this key entry array, I generally place two kinds of information: (1) subheadings that gather disparate bits of information that may not serve as main entries themselves (alternatively, some or all of the subheadings may also be double-posted to main headings, depending) and (2) cross-references to the most important main headings in the book (I call these mainmain headings).
In terms of structure, the index must reflect the text and yet parse the information into a useful, alphabetical format. A text may be relatively straightforward in organization, for example, tackling one aspect of the metatopic in each chapter. In such a case, the index structure may have mainmain headings that reflect the text and the table of contents (ToC). Thus, the metatopic main heading would cross-reference to these mainmain headings. Usability may in fact be enhanced by such a ToC approach to index entries. In real life indexing, though, it’s seldom so straightforward, especially in the scholarly indexing realm.
At any rate, when I think about structure, I think of the metatopic main heading as the key main entry, the mainmain headings related directly to the metatopic as the next most important, and then the rest of the entries as maybe somewhat less important but likely with fewer subheadings (this is aside from institutions, personal names, and events, etc.; of course any of those can be a metatopic!). For me, every entry (or entry array) is, in the end, important. Not only will the index be used by those with deep knowledge and interest in the specific subject, but the index will also serve those who are looking for a related category that may be peripheral to the metatopic (e.g., food in a book on Civil War battles). Thus, the index must include all the important topics as well as gather up minor discussions and ideas.
It might be surprising to newer indexers that even experienced indexers get stuck. For me, these snags are directly linked to metatopic and structural issues. I have two particular sticking points: getting started and hitting the wall about the halfway through (the latter is more likely in a longer text than a shorter one).
I have a routine now that helps me get started on an index. (Note that I am not an indexer who reads the whole text before I start; I sit down at the computer, with the pages in front of me, and read and index all at once.) The first task for me is to seed my brain with some terminology. I read the description of the book on Amazon; I look over any author-provided concept lists; I may check Wikipedia on the subject; I check the author’s website, if he or she has one; I read the acknowledgments and preface and sometimes part of the introduction, if there’s a section where the author lays out each chapter’s focus. In addition, if the topic is similar to the author’s previous book(s), I will check those on Amazon to see if I can “look inside” at the indexes; alternatively, if I indexed a previous book for the author, I will review that index, if the subject is similar. All of this provides a starting point for possible terminology. There is also a danger in doing this! I must be careful not to “overwrite” what is actually in a text by the terminology ideas I gathered in the starting process.
Another great indexer’s tool is mindmapping. This can be used at any point in the indexing process. If you read the whole text in advance, then you could create a mindmap before you start indexing. There are many sites on the Internet about mindmapping; some also provide freeware or paid software. But you don’t need a program for this, just paper and writing tools that you enjoy.
Mindmapping is an aid to getting past my second sticking point: hitting a wall in the middle of indexing, where my brain just stops and says, “What?! What am I doing?” If you find yourself in a similar situation, it is an excellent point at which to remove your fingers from the keyboard and get yourself a cup of tea (or other libation). Pick up a piece of scrap paper and something fun to draw and write with. Multiple colored markers are perfectly acceptable.
In the middle of the paper write the metatopic subject. Circle it if you want; for some reason, I usually circle all the terms on a mindmap. Next, think about those mainmain headings and write those down out around the metatopic (remember this is a map not a list), connecting them to the metatopic by lines and/or arrows (maybe even directional arrows). If one of those mainmains is tightly connected to another mainmain, then connect them with lines as well (these translate into cross-references in the index). Write down other entries you’ve made or anticipate making; connect those, and so on, until you have a map of the metatopic and thus the structure of the index. Step back and consider what you’ve just created. Now you are ready to get back to indexing.