Sylvia Coates—An ethical indexing practice (ISC conference 2015)

Sylvia Coates, who developed UC Berkeley’s extension indexing course, gave the opening keynote about ethical indexing practice at the 2015 Indexing Society of Canada(ISC)  conference in Victoria. She shared her story of how she became an indexer and showed that “if you live ethically, you won’t have ethical dilemmas in indexing.”

According to Coates, there are four aspects of living an ethical life:

  • Manage your fears
  • Be teachable
  • Be a problem solver
  • Be generous

Manage your fears

Coates started by telling us about her marriage to her high school sweetheart. “By the time I was twenty-four,” she said, “we had four children—four boys—younger than three-and-a-half. You get very organized very quickly when that happens.” Being a mother taught her a lot of organization and getting along with people—skills that serve her well in her indexing career.

When her children were nearly grown, she wanted to go back to school. “It bothered me that I’d never had a paying job,” she said. Her husband asked if she could find something to do at home. She began talking to everyone she met about what they did and how they got there. When she volunteered at the local newspaper, she came across an ad for indexing. She wasn’t sure if indexing would suit her, but the seed had been planted. She heard about an indexing convention in San Francisco and drove there on a whim, sneaking in the back during a session. A participant at the convention turned around, introduced herself to Coates and welcomed her warmly. That indexer was none other than master indexer Bev Anne Ross, who had designed the USDA indexing course and introduced Nancy Mulvany to indexing.

At the convention Coates learned about Bev Anne’s three-day course, which she took. Many of the other students were technical writers who’d been forced to attend by their employers. At lunch on the first day, Coates sat bewildered as she heard her classmates complain about the course, which she found fascinating. She became convinced that she could make a career out of indexing.

Nobody had told her, said Coates, that it was almost impossible for someone to break into indexing unless they already had a foot in the publishing industry—particularly a woman who had no job experience. But that ignorance meant Coates wouldn’t be discouraged before she started, and by the end of her first year as an indexer she had already worked on forty indexes.

Her first job came to her almost accidentally: her husband bought a motorcycle (to her chagrin) and discovered that the seller was a priest who headed a publishing house, Ignatius Press. Coates’s husband left her information with the priest and, within a few days, “Sister Lemon called, hysterical, and said she needed an indexer.”

Coates talked to Carolyn McGovern at the American Society for Indexing, who patiently gave her a list of questions to ask the client—how many pages, how much room, format, and so on. Coates had two weeks to complete the index and was paid $1.60 per page. “Someone paid me for something I did!” she said. But by the midwinter conference, which Coates was involved in organizing, she found herself among experienced indexers and lapsed into doubt: “I got impostor syndrome. I thought, ‘I am a housewife.’”

Impostor syndrome is a scary but natural reaction, Coates said, and you need to manage that fear. “Fear can paralyze you… It’s important to learn to say, ‘I have no idea how to do this. Can you help me figure it out?’” Managing that fear, however, doesn’t mean ignoring it. Be realistic, because fear can be a life saver. Coates recommends reading The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, who write about listening to those subconscious cues about when a situation might be bad.

Be teachable

Being teachable is the most important trait that indexers should have, said Coates. “Learning a new way to think can be intimidating and frustrating.” She told us about her worst learning experience in seventh-grade math, when she asked her teacher for help. Her teacher simply replied, “Just do it,” without taking the time to explain the concepts that would have helped Coates learn.

In contrast, Coates speaks fondly of her best learning experience: an introductory physics course that she took in college. “It was the only undergrad course taught by the dean of the physics college,” said Coates. “He would give a lecture, and you could go if you wanted. TAs gave a multitude of tutorials. The test was always an essay test—you either knew it or you didn’t. If you didn’t like what you got on the test, you could do it as many times as you wanted, even if it took you several semesters.”

“This guy taught me an important lesson,” said Coates. “He taught me that you can learn anything if you’re given the opportunity and if you want to.”

Coates has adopted this lesson in her own teaching: her students can do the course as many times as they want, but they have to understand the fundamentals before they can move forward. “We very much control what we do and what we do not learn,” said Coates. “All things being equal, it depends on your mindset.”

Our education system is not well set up to encourage the risk taking that promotes learning, she said. “I don’t know about you, but I fail all the time. If you are afraid of failure, you will never fail, but you will never move forward, either.”

Be a problem solver

“We need to listen to our fears to prevent problems,” said Coates “and realize that there is no situation that cannot be made worse with whining. If the editor hears you, you will never work for them again. The problem is not ‘the author is an idiot.’ The problem is not ‘the editor should have told you.’ The problem is whatever the problem is.”

Identify the real problem and try to solve it, not to get the editor off your back or to prove that you’re right. “If you need help to solve the problem, even professional help you have to pay for, you do it.” Keep in mind that the book is the author’s baby and that you’re “messing with their baby.” Disassociate yourself from the index: remember that you’re being paid to create a product—you don’t own it. Coates suggests reading Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, which spends some time talking about the futility of getting into pissing matches.

Be generous

“If you don’t have this last one,” said Coates, “I think you’ve really missed the boat.” Generosity is one of the criteria Coates uses when selecting instructors for her UC Berkeley course. Teaching is a way that Coates gives back to her community. “Teaching made me a much better indexer. I had to deconstruct the process. I gained knowledge and understanding of how to do it and why.

In addition to being generous with students, Coates believes that you should also be generous with other indexers: “What if Bev Anne Ross hadn’t introduced herself at that convention? I might have been too intimidated to pursue indexing.”

Finally, we should be generous to our clients. She knows of some indexers who say that they don’t keep a list of proofing errors they find because that’s not their job, but an indexer works with a text in a way that makes some types of errors—even some that proofreaders may miss—obvious. “I have no problem when clients consider me a genius for finding those errors,” said Coates, to laughs. She also told us about a fellow indexer who’d had a stroke and was hospitalized. The indexer’s sister contacted the client to let them know that the index wouldn’t be ready, which was generous on her part. Coates finished that index (in reality she started from scratch) and asked the client to forward her pay to the original indexer, who by this time had racked up substantial medical bills. Responding to Coates’s generosity, the client ended up paying them both.


All of these points are terribly important for our mental health,” said Coates. “And we have to be kind to ourselves, too.”

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