The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
A note from Louise: In October 2012, I attended an indexing workshop for proofreaders, run by the UK's Society of Indexers. Ann Hudson, a fellow of the SI, was our trainer and she did a wonderful job of sharing her extensive experience and illuminating the world of the indexer. Ann's kindly agreed to write a guest article for the Parlour about her work. If you think it's a string you might like to add to your editorial freelancing bow, or you're just curious as to how an indexer works, then read on ...
‘Any simpleton may write a book, but it requires high skill to make an index.’
(Rossiter Johnson 1840–1931; from Hazel K. Bell (ed.), Indexers and Indexes in Fact and Fiction. London: The British Library, 2001)
Do you enjoy reading? Do you have a logical mind, and take pleasure in creating order out of chaos? Can you encapsulate a complicated concept in a succinct phrase? If so, you may be suited to indexing.
Many indexers also do proofreading and/or copy-editing, and some of the requirements overlap, such as good language skills, methodical working habits, meticulous attention to detail and a good eye for spotting errors. Computer skills are also vital: most indexers use dedicated indexing software which deals with the more mechanical aspects, leaving the indexer to do the brainwork. And as electronic formats develop indexers will be required to create linked indexes for ebooks and websites using html and xml tagging, or embedded indexing systems.
Indexers are often asked whether search engines have not made their work redundant, but this is far from true. A search engine will find mentions of the exact words that you type into it, but will not find alternative spellings or synonyms. Effective indexing is not just a question of extracting words from a text and putting them in alphabetical order. The skill is in devising entries which describe a whole section of text, bringing together references to the same concept which may be described in different words, and in making connections within the index, by means of cross-references and double entries, so that readers will be led to all the references they need. The ability to organise material clearly, so that readers can easily find their way around, is also essential. Indexers rarely receive praise, because when an index works well it is taken for granted – though people are quick to complain about an inadequate index!
In order to index effectively it is essential to understand what you are reading, and to know what sort of information will be useful and relevant to the likely readership. All indexers should be capable of indexing popular texts aimed at the general reader, but more specialised and academic books demand detailed knowledge. Many indexers offer specialisms, often in subjects studied to degree level or beyond; in particular, medical and legal books require detailed subject knowledge and skills. There are also indexers who specialise in cookery books, children’s books, technical manuals, and many other fields.
Indexing is usually a second (or third or fourth) career, and many indexers started out as librarians. Others come from careers in publishing, academia, IT, education and many other areas.
The first port of call for anyone interested in indexing in the UK is the Society of Indexers (SI). Other indexing societies include the American Society for Indexing, the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers, and the Indexing Society of Canada. Details of other indexing societies worldwide can be found through the SI website.
SI runs a distance learning course which provides a thorough training in the fundamental principles of indexing; it is web-based, with detailed study materials to download, practice exercises and resources online, four formal tests, three online tutorials, and a practical indexing assignment. Successful students become Accredited Members of the Society of Indexers, and are entitled to an entry in the SI’s online directory of ‘Indexers Available’, widely used by publishers. After two years’ experience Accredited Members can apply to become Advanced Professional Members of SI.
SI works hard to support professional indexers in many ways: providing a full programme of conferences, workshops and other CPD activities for indexers; raising the profile of professional indexers in the publishing world; and recommending minimum rates for indexing work. The recommendations for 2013 are £22.40 per hour, or £2.50 per page, or £6.75 per 1000 words. These rates are applicable to straightforward texts; experienced indexers working on specialised and complex projects can command higher rates.
Inevitably work is becoming harder to find while the UK is in recession, but well-established indexers are continuing to get regular work, and a good proportion of the 15–20 newly Accredited indexers each year are managing to establish themselves, though it may take several years to acquire enough regular clients to give up the ‘day job’. As with any freelance work, you need good business and communication skills, flexibility and a lot of persistence to get a career off the ground.
The work is mentally demanding and you must be willing to work long hours to meet urgent deadlines, especially when you are building up your business. It can be lonely work, and to some it would be pure drudgery. But there is plenty of support available from other indexers; SI members are a friendly bunch, with a lively email discussion list, annual conferences, and local groups in many parts of the UK which meet regularly for indexing-related talks and discussions and social activities. For me and many others indexing is a dream job, the culmination of all our previous working experiences, and the ideal way to earn a living – ‘being paid to read books’!
Fellow of the Society of Indexers
Copyright 2013 Ann Hudson
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