Readability is one of what I call the “Ten Principles for Creating Better Indexes.” Those principles (or characteristics) are accuracy, audience and access, clarity, common sense, comprehensiveness, conciseness, consistency, metatopic and structure, readability, and reflexivity. While all of these principles are finely interwoven in an index, it is possible to disentangle them a bit, examine what each means, and apply them to our daily indexing work. This is the first essay in a series in which I’ll briefly consider each principle, explore some related tools for the indexer’s toolbox, and provide some sources for further consideration.
What is readability?
Readability is a good one to begin the series, but what does it mean? Webster’s defines “readable” as “able to be read easily; legible; interesting to read.” Synonyms for “readable” in a thesaurus include intelligible, interesting, legible, and meaningful.
Readability does not appear as an index main heading in either Wellisch or Mulvany. Nancy Mulvany’s Indexing Books includes a main heading for “readers,” which is worth tracking through her text. Do Mi Stauber’s Facing the Text has “readers’ needs. See Context-based decision making; Text/index distinctions.” (This entry is followed by “Reading with no pressure [Hammock Method],” which was such a summery idea that I looked it up. It is a cure for indexer’s block!)
Hallmarks of a readable index
A key function of an index is to recreate a text using clear, concise, alphabetical bits of information that direct the reader back into that text. Readability, related in part to the ease of navigating an index (usability), is developed in a number of key ways, a few of which follow (and the necessarily incomplete list highlights just how much the Ten Principles are interrelated):
1. The metatopic and structure must be clear and navigable. A visible metatopic structure aids to support or redirect reader expectations, which may be based on a review of the table of contents and book description or a quick flip through the text. In addition, many readers expect to find an entry for the main subject. Indexers can use that to gather general bits of information as well as to send the reader out to the most important main headings in the index. A table of contents approach may be useful for some texts (i.e., index main entries reflect the wording of the table of contents or use cross-references to get readers from that wording to more appropriate main headings).
2. Parallel structure within the index, where appropriate, aids the reader’s movement within the index and thus from the index to the text.
3. Consistency in topic treatment is important, too (e.g., in terms of both depth and equality of treatment, as well as wording for similar main headings).
4. Format issues require different handling for indented versus run-in style indexes. For example, in a run-in style index, long entries must be broken down into more readable chunks (in a book on four artists, the entries under each artist might be grouped by artistic ideas, career, exhibitions, and life).
5. The meaning of every index entry must be instantly obvious. Readers should not have to spend time trying to figure out what a main or subheading means (and in the “age of search,” this is more critical than ever). This is why function words are necessary in many cases, despite the trend to delete them. I am not in favor of cluttering the index with function words, but of using them thoughtfully and consistently to make the relationship of the subheading to the main heading instantly clear. Consider this: history [main heading]: reading [subheading]. Is this about reading history? Or about the history of reading?
6. The first word should be the most important in the subheading (that is, after any function word such as “of”). In addition, for example, in a book about viruses, “viral” might not be the best choice for the first word in a subheading.
7. An index must translate jargon in some way, for those readers less familiar with the subject matter of a particular book.
Tools and practices
This sounds like a tall order, but we do have excellent tools at our disposal. I suspect, for example, that all or most indexers are people who are intrinsically curious about words and how they can be used.
1. Wordplay is our best tool for all indexing work. An indexer must choose exactly the right word (or few words) to cover a complex idea.
2. Love the alphabet! Think about the logic of how those chosen words may fall in an alphabetical order (or other order as the case may be on occasion). If only death started with “Z”; instead, alphabetical order dictates that an individual must die before merrymaking.
3. Function words should be used to clarify meaning only as needed.
4. Natural (everyday) language is key, too. To disentangle complex ideas and jargon, indexers must digest the ideas and information in the text and present it in the index in an approachable manner. I’m not suggesting that we “dumb down” indexes, but we need to create indexes that are appropriate to a variety of users, depending on the text.
5. Format can be a help, if we understand the possibilities of each type.
6. Cross-training fosters greater creativity and sensitivity in developing readable indexes.
7. Step outside of the indexing box. Current research provides some fascinating ideas to consider as we create indexes and think about users and readability (see references below).
8. Read indexes.
What is cross-training? I suspect you’ve all shopped for tennis shoes at some point and seen some labeled for cross-training. Wiki defines cross-training as “an athlete training in sports other than the one that athlete competes in with a goal of improving overall performance.” I recently heard someone use this term in regard to writing, for example, a nonfiction writer sharpening her skills by also writing poetry (or maybe it was art, with an abstract artist painting realist landscapes, or painting in different media?). At any rate: Brilliant!
Being a little more relaxed about such things, I thought that indexers could cross-train by reading (another hammock approach). What would be a form of writing that would have some of the characteristics of indexing and yet not be, say, nonfiction? Poetry would fit the bill. I thought of William Carlos Williams’s poem about a red wheelbarrow. In just 8 lines and 16 words, it conjures much thought. Another poetic form that would be great cross-training is haiku. Haiku often has a zinger at the end which twists the meaning back on itself or highlights the entire sense of the verse. Indexers wouldn’t want to duplicate that, because we want the important word up front. Still, haiku would be great cross-training with its sparing and precise, yet evocative, use of words.
I advocate strongly that indexers get outside of the indexing box and peruse research about areas that are related to our profession. We might ask, for example: How do readers make decisions about how to look for something in an index? One book about decision making presents the concept of choice architecture (Lehrer). We are choice architects!
There are also many books available on reading. How do people read? Check out the neurolinguistics of it all (Dehaene). How do we keep track of our thoughts in pursuit of something in a text by way of the index? Evidence shows that we can only keep seven bits of information in our short-term memory—so consider how that affects what works best in an index (Miller is the original 1956 article on the seven bits; referenced and expanded in Klingberg in light of the current technological demands).
How do we construct meaning from reading? Alberto Manguel argues that reading is a “generative process” and that readers need to construct relations between “their knowledge, their memories, and the written” words (which is another great argument for making sure the main and subheading relationship is absolutely clear).
When I first started mentoring new indexers, one of my recommendations was the same that I had received when starting out: Read indexes, lots of indexes! But this is just the first step to understanding how indexes work. For me, the best part of the indexing journey has been, and continues to be, not just how to make indexes work (and to make them readable), but to really make them sing out in clear, concise notes that get readers exactly to the information they seek.
Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Viking, 2009.
Klingberg, Torkel. The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory. London: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009 (Lehrer has a newer book on imagination).
Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading. New York: Penguin, 1996 (esp. 35˗39).
Miller, George. “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” Psychological Review 63:81–97 (1956) (referenced in Klingberg).