Sylvia Coates—The business of indexing: Indexing efficiency, speed, and earnings (ISC conference 2015)

Sylvia Coates developed and teaches the UC Berkeley Extension indexing course and has been indexing since 1989. Although there’s more than one way to index, Coates’s approach has allowed her to earn a high income for the past several years. The key to her success, which entails indexing a mind-blowing 80 to 130 books a year, is to streamline her process and to develop the index structure concurrently with term selection.

First, work on what you enjoy. Having prior knowledge in a subject area makes it easier to anticipate what readers may want to look for. Start asking thematic questions about the topic—who, what, where, when, why, and under what circumstances?—before you read, and index the answers to these questions as you go. Front-loading the index this way saves you a lot of time. Coates keeps all of this information in her head, so she prefers to work on one book at a time.

Prior knowledge of the subject will also increase the odds that you’ll actually understand the text, and comprehension is essential to selecting indexing terms. Try to summarize chunks of the text, which will not only help you choose headings but will also ensure that you understand. “Summarizing is a part of reading comprehension,” said Coates.

Save time by envisioning the index as a whole instead of individual parts, and learn to think thematically. Children conceptualize thematically, whereas most adults classify, explained Coates, and this difference may be why children learn language so much more easily than adults. When indexers select terms, they have to think thematically.

As you read, listen actively to the author. What’s the author trying to tell you? “They may say, ‘This is what it’s about,’ and you read it and you think, ‘No, it isn’t!’” The index represents a framework of what the author was trying to convey to the audience. Every author has a message and a tone, and indexers have to pick up on that tone and replicate it in the index.

What a lot of indexers do is select terms, then edit the index by rearranging the structure, rewriting entries, and adding terms. This approach is highly time consuming, and the “editing as you go” approach—where the indexer rewrites entries and rearranges structure as they read—isn’t any more efficient. However, if you structure and index concurrently by anticipating the index structure, you can cut your editing time dramatically. All Coates does after she’s done her indexing is to tie up loose ends, delete single subheads, spell check, create the final file, and send it to the client.

“Only handle it once (OHIO),” Coates advised, and try not to “precrastinate,” which is to do something just to get it done, knowing that it’s not ideal and you’ll need to revise it later. Precrastination puts you in time debt. OHIO is not usually realistic, but aim for it. Try not to do a lot of rewriting once you’ve finished selecting your headings.

Finally, learn how to optimize your software use so that you know all the shortcuts that can help you work most efficiently.

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