Editing the editor: style sheets

It’s easy to understand how a book’s style sheet can fall off a copy editor’s priority list in the rush to meet a deadline—and how tempting it can be simply to alphabetize the word list and send it in. But I’d like to argue that editing a style sheet is just as important as creating it.

Indexers understand that up to half of the time spent indexing is devoted to editing the draft index—ensuring consistency in entry structure, eliminating wordiness and unnecessary entries and subentries, correcting spelling errors, etc.—to make the final product as useful as possible to the reader. An index and a book’s style sheet have a lot in common; in fact, the word list of a style sheet could almost be considered a most basic, preliminary proper noun index, without the page numbers, so it’s not surprising that a lot of the simple editing techniques for the index could also be applied to the style sheet to produce a more polished product.

But why bother? After all, doesn’t the style sheet have a very limited lifetime and an even more limited audience? To address this question, we’ll have to look at the style sheet’s end-users:

  • The author. I always include a copy of the style sheet when I send an edited manuscript to an author, because I feel that it’s foundational to good author relations. Not all authors will look at style sheets, but those that do read them carefully, and presenting a well-edited, consistent style sheet helps authors understand that you aren’t just making arbitrary changes to their text. Conversely, a poorly organized style sheet could potentially torpedo an attentive author’s confidence in his or her editor’s competence.
  • You—the copy editor. When the author returns the copy-edited manuscript, you’ll have to refer to and update the style sheet. Why not make it easier for yourself?
  • The proofreader. This person will undoubtedly use your style sheet the most. An inconsistent, disorganized, or contradictory style sheet can be an enormous source of frustration for a proofreader, as it leads to a lot of duplicated fact-checking work. Think about how a proofreader will use your word list, and refrain from the (indexing!) sin of overclassification: there’s no need to divide your lists into names of people, names of places, names of organizations, etc.; in such a case, the proofreader has to pause, decide what category a term falls under, then find it in an alphabetized sublist, whereas a single alphabetized list makes confirming a word or term simpler and easier. Even if you and perhaps the author find the classification helpful, a proofreader will probably prefer the single master list.
  • The indexer. As an indexer, I rarely import the style sheet directly into an index, but I do use it to double-check the spelling of my entries and confirm the style for the wording of headnotes and subentries. I’ll also look through the style sheet to ensure that I haven’t missed any important names or topics. (Importing the style sheet word list into an indexing program isn’t something I’m fundamentally opposed to—it’s just something I’ve never tried. For a proper noun index, doing something like this may significantly expedite the indexing process.)
  • Any member of the editorial team that may have to work on a new edition of the book, a spinoff, or a new book within the same series. Here is where a style sheet can have a much longer lifetime than just the production cycle of the book. Think about the editor who will have to use the style sheet when writing cover copy for a new format reprint or the editor who has to work on a revised edition. A well-organized style sheet can be a major time saver in these situations, where sometimes the fact that these books are “just revisions” means that they aren’t allotted much time in the schedule.

All of this is not to say that my style sheets are always (or ever) perfect. But I feel that at a minimum, a copy editor should do the following after alphabetizing the word list:

  • Go through the list and cull duplicate entries. This exercise not only eliminates redundancy, but it can also help identify missed inconsistencies and errors, particularly if you notice two distinct entries that you think ought to be the same.
  • Run a spell check. This process can be slow, since a style sheet is typically loaded with names that don’t appear in a word processor’s dictionary, but it’s helpful in identifying not only spelling errors within the style sheet itself but also in the manuscript, essentially forcing you to pause and double-check your fact checking.
  • Spot check a handful of entries against the manuscript. Using judgment, do global searches for a selection of style decisions, especially those that can have variants in spelling, hyphenation, or capitalization—and those entries that just look kind of funny and that you’d like to confirm.

Another strategy, given the similarities between style sheet word lists and indexes, that I haven’t yet attempted (and that non-indexer editors will probably not want to try), is to use indexing software to create and maintain the style sheet. In theory doing so would eliminate the duplicate-entry problem; facilitate cross-references within the word list; allow for special glyphs, such as initial punctuation, without throwing off the alphabetization; and may allow errors to be identified earlier on, since the word list can be sorted and resorted in a number of ways, including alphabetically and by order of entry, that may highlight inconsistencies. I’ll post about the experience if I ever have the chance to try this.

Indexing—for your information

Last year, when I was taking technical communications courses, one of my required readings was this article by Seth A. Maislin, published in the Society for Technical Communication’s Intercom magazine. Two sentences near the end of the article caught my attention:

So far, indexing is a phenomenon dominant in only the English language, although I don’t know why. (Many French textbooks, for example, have simple tables of contents in the front and deep tables of contents in the back.)

I haven’t had that much experience working with nonfiction publications in languages other than English, so I suppose I just took it for granted that of course those publications must have indexes, too, and I was genuinely surprised to discover otherwise. There’s nothing inherently special about English that makes it more conducive to the process of indexing, and indexes are just so useful that they would add to a reference book or technical manual in any language. (Since reading Maislin’s article I like to imagine that indexes catalyzed English’s becoming the world’s lingua franca. Oh sure, a few centuries of British imperialism followed by American hegemony probably had something to do with that, too, but the ease of information retrieval through indexes just may have played a [tiny] role in the efficient knowledge transfer that spurred so much innovation.)

Within the last decade, though, it seems as though other languages have caught on to the power of indexing. The Deutsches Netzwerk der Indexer/German Network of Indexers formed in 2004, and in 2006, Robert Fugmann wrote Das Buchregister. Methodische Grundlagen und praktische Anwendungen (The book index: methodological foundations and practical applications), what appears to be one of the first rigorous guides to creating back-of-the-book indexes—akin to Nancy Mulvany’s Indexing Books.

The Netherlands Indexing Network began meeting in 2005, and the indexing program TExtract, developed in the Netherlands and useful for creating indexes in both Dutch and English, is gaining ground on the established CINDEX, SKY Index, and Macrex software.

In my poking around for French resources, I found this title—Concevoir l’index d’un livre: histoire, actualité, perspectives (Conceiving the index of a book: history, current practices, perspectives) by Jacques Maniez and Dominique Maniez—which looks fascinating, not only because it is, for French, much like the Fugmann title was for German, one of the first major resources to address the practice and process of indexing but also because half of the book is dedicated to indexing history.

The Maniez title was published by L’association des professionnels de l’information et de la documentation—the Association of Information and Documentation Professionals—which really drives home the point that indexing is information science. Most of the indexers I know also have an editing background; in fact, the Indexing Society of Canada frequently coordinates with the Editors’ Association of Canada to hold its annual conference at around the same time, and the Chicago Manual of Style’s indexing chapter is one of its major components. This close association makes sense logistically—often publishers will ask the proofreader to compile an index concurrently—but it doesn’t really make sense logically. Editing and indexing require incredibly different skill sets, involving different parts of the brain. Indexing is all about organizing information for efficient retrieval, and it would really make more sense for an information science specialist to be doing it. After all, an indexer does with a book’s terms and ideas on a micro level what librarians do with archives and publications on a macro level. Yet, despite the fact that indexing appears to be a core course in most Master of Library and Information Science curricula, I rarely hear of people going into an MLIS degree wanting to be a librarian but emerging a back-of-the-book indexer.

So what can we learn from other branches of information science, in English and in other languages, that could help us shape better indexes? If other languages aren’t accustomed to using indexes, what book-level information retrieval systems do they use, and how can this knowledge inform our indexing practices? Is there a more effective system out there—perhaps one that looks completely different—that those of us working in English simply haven’t discovered yet?

Free range indexers

A book’s index is an afterthought for most publishers—allocated the pages that are left over from the last signature after the main body has been set. What ends up happening (entirely too frequently) is that indexers are handcuffed by a severe lack of space. I once had to compile a six-page index to a 336-page book—that’s less than 1.8 per cent of the page count—and I was forced to trim so many entries that the index was, for all intents and purposes, useless.

For a reference books or technical manual, the index can be one of the most important components of the publication, and most of the indexers that I know charge by the indexable page rather than the entry, so they’d be charging the same total fee regardless of index length. To severely limit the index space would hurt the book more than it would the indexer (although I’d like to think that most indexers would be disappointed to put forth an inferior product).

What we need, then, is—dare I say it?—a paradigm shift. Publishers and editors and whoever has input into the total extent of a book needs to consider the index integral from the outset. Do a rough cast-off based on the manuscript, and if what’s left over of the last signature is less than, say, 2.5 per cent, consider adding another half or full signature, depending on the total length of the book, and use this new page count in your project budget and P&L.

The American Society for Indexing has some guidelines for index lengths. For trade books, indexes should be about 3 percent of the book, whereas for technical reference books, they could be up to 15 or 20 percent. These figures can be squeezed a little bit, especially if you’re reducing type size in the index, but they shouldn’t be significantly less than what the ASI has recommended, if you want the index to be functional and readable.

On the other end of the spectrum are self-publishing authors or publishers who don’t give any index specs at all and say, “I’ll just do what I need to do to make your index fit.” This scenario is cropping up more frequently as more people are turning to print-on-demand options where they can add pages two at a time rather than worry about a full sig. It sounds like an indexer’s dream, but, in reality, we appreciate constraints. Without a size limit on the index, the temptation to hand over a bloated, unedited draft is entirely too high. Having index specs helps indexers trim the fat—to put careful thought into clear and concise subentries and eliminate redundancies that can lead to clutter.

Basically what I’m saying is that indexers are a lot like chickens (an analogy I’m sure you’ll hear no other indexer repeat). We’re happiest—and we produce the best product—when we’ve got space to roam around and breathe fresh air. But we also understand the need to be penned in, for our own protection. And, of course, getting a generous amount of feed for our troubles doesn’t hurt, either.