Whenever I am called upon to consider the usability principle for prose—that "best practices" are always derived from a clear understanding of the purpose for which the writing is intended—an Ah, youth... memory comes to mind:
Some 30 years back, I was churning out copy for an international athletes' footwear (read: sneaker) manufacturer's semiannual catalog. This lent to a feeling of great superiority (in a bad way) about wasting my self-perceived capabilities. Grumbling to a short story–writer friend about my client's disdain for the conventions of punctuation, I asked: "Just who's the "writer, here?"
She grinned, and with Yodalike simplicity countered: "But that's not real writing. Why do you care?"
Why, indeed? Not only was it highly likely that my deathless effusions about "space-age fibers" and "pronation protection" would never be read by any of the retailers who received the catalog, it was entirely possible that, by slathering on my idea of high-flown phrases I could actually alienate (or intimidate) intended readers. In fact, my inclusion of three semicolons was cited as cause for turning over the copy for the next catalog to someone "better suited" to their market.
At that time I edited book-length nonfiction almost exclusively. My publisher clients all valued the editorial qualities I brought to their manuscripts, and none would have quailed at the use of a semicolon. They all, however, would have recognized immediately if said punctuation was used in error or, worse, its presence confused a sentence.
Put simply: Good writing always is created in the service of its intended reader.
[While at some level this statement applies to the entire spectrum of writing, from technical manuals to poetic flights of fancy, today I'm primarily concerned with expository writing made for reasons other than personal self-expression.]
If you don't consider how best to communicate to your ideal reader, why bother?
This has nothing to do with sales figures, publicity, or popularity. It's simply the gound-level belief that the aim of writing—and reading—is communicating. And, although a case can be made that in certain instances the audience values difficulty and ambiguity over most other properties, when you're talking about nonliterary prose, there's more likely to be a premium on the kind of direct communication that comes from writing that is clear, direct, and respectful of the reader.
This general idea applies to all aspects of what we do at Vern Associates. If a book we produce does not appeal to and communicate with its intended readers, we have done them and our client a disservice. It starts with the text, of course, but extends to the selection of pictures and the quality of their reproduction. The text's clarity and approachability must be echoed in the book's design, and a primary guideline when selecting the printer/binder is their ability to sustain this communicative potential as well.
Over the past 10 years or so, I have weeded my personal library extensively. The first books to go were those I'd started reading and found insufficient reason to finish, but close seconds were those that got in the way of communicating because of their design and production. Tiny, dense type squeezed into small pages with narrow margins—whether they conveyed the words of Plato, Donne, or Fitzgerald—have no place on my shelves. Why should I contribute to the bibliovercrowding by holding on to a volume I'll never want or be able to read?
Finally, however, relative usability factors into what can be called the "invisible" components of books. For example, more than one project I've edited has included—at the author's insistence—a lengthy bibliography that is out of place in a generalist's book. While such an amenity is crucial for a museum catalog or scholarly study, does it belong in a quick-paced introductory text? Really?
Presented with such a situation, it was important to discuss it tactfully with the author:
- Who do you expect and want to read your book?
- Will these particular readers expect such high-level scholarly apparatus? Will they use it?
- Is it possible they may actually shy away from the book because a specialist's element like this suggests difficulty rather than utility to them?
Something similar applies to the decisions about what should be included in the index:
- Will your readers welcome an exhaustive catalog of every mention of a name, no matter how glancing.
- Will threaded multilevel concepts, regardless of how dense, be seen as a plus?
- Will they get more use from a carefully honed guide without page references for insubstantive mentions and focuses instead on broad strokes that encapsulate themes that are dealt with in some depth?
For some books, a more-is-more attitude is fully warranted. For example, an anniversary history probably should include every single proper name from the text so that a browser can quickly see whether or not his contribution to the organization's past is mentioned. When the book has a broader scope and addresses a less specific topic, however, such inclusivity can make wading through the index and its strings of page references daunting to readers, who more likely wish to use this tool to navigate to particular subject areas that interest them.
Unfortunately, present-day technology makes creating overinclusive indexes much easier than it was just 10 years ago. In fact, it's actually simpler to set the software to "Index" and let 'er rip, never casting a discerning, winnowing eye over the result. No one can tell you the result isn't sufficiently inclusive (although they may guffaw at some of the resultant entries). Perhaps the influx of indexers in recent years is a nod to the notion that their jobs will be among the last assumed by cyborgs?
Top: Erich Ferdinand
Bottom: H. Kopp-Delaney
I spent some time this week researching e-book conversion services. My partner and I recognize the need to become familiar with the process that will soon be a required format for the books we produce. Although well aware that "soon" really means "at least two years ago," I have learned to embrace my behind-the-curve status technology-wise.
I visited sites for e-book conversion services and e-book aggregators. As I understand it, both convert their customer's content into the digital formats required by the wide variety of available e-readers, but aggregators also partner with publishers to provide a platform for that content that end users can access online.
During my search, I came across numerous eyebrow-raising statements along this line:
E-readers do not address the concept of static page numbering.
And because they do not address that concept, page numbers change each time the user adjusts the font size of the text, which in turn renders the table of contents (TOC) and index virtually useless.
While it may be understandable that online readers, who are used to scrolling as they read, adjust to this convention for their e-readers, that doesn't make it acceptable.
Developers of e-readers claim to provide the digital experience of reading a book, but they seriously fall short on several aspects of that promise. For example, a placeholder doesn't negate the need for page numbers; a live link to each chapter opener doesn't excuse the absence of a functional contents page or an index of any kind.
Amazon may boast that their sales of Kindle fodder now outpace those for paperback books, but the majority of those books are nonfiction, which makes them reference books that need working contents pages and indexes.
Creating interactive references like these takes more effort—just as compiling a noninteractive index does. It is hard to believe that their absence is due to a technological impossibility. More likely, publishers are foisting onto readers serious quality concessions for the sake of their bottom lines.
I have no doubt that e-readers are marvelous devices and have begun to alter completely the way people read. But so far the lion's share of the e-book market is middle-aged—my demographic—and most of my contemporaries are at once intimidated and awed by technology. New digital devices fill us with delight and gratitude at how they can make our lives easier.
But most of us have been reading a lot longer than computer developers have been creating digital devices. Now that the e-blush is off the rose, it is time for some healthy skepticism. If publishers want to market a duck that walks like a duck, then they shouldn't expect us to accept that it "can't" quack like one, too.
Up here in northeastern Massachusetts, a nor'easter snowstorm just bestowed upon our area 18 inches of the white stuff, which is still whisking about on 30+ mph winds.
What does the weather have to do with publishing? Not much, I suppose, except that both have a way changing in erratic, often inexplicable ways at a moment's notice. In fact, with today's minute-by-minute technological modifications/improvements, predicting whither the weather is probably the easier, or at least the more accurate, pursuit. And yesterday's quiet led me to muse about the changes I've witnessed in trade publishing in general and book editing services in particular.
My involvement with the editorial components of trade publishing passed the 30-year mark a couple of years ago. That's not much time when you consider the sea changes that have buffeted the industry and completely altered the ways things get done.
In 1978, I landed my first publishing job: editorial assistant (EA) for AMACOM, the publishing division of the American Management Association. Back then, an average day might have consisted of:
- retyping (remember typewriters?) 40 pages of edited manuscript ("MS") [2 1/2 hours];
- photocopying a 400-page MS x 5 and delivering the copies to members of the editorial team [45 minutes];
- proofreading/editing a (hand-typed, again) index MS and marking it for typesetting [2 hours];
- mailing a couple of batches of printed material to freelancers [30 minutes];
- conferring about rescue operations with a freelance proofreader whose dog ate her work [25 minutes];
- collating an author's and editor's changes onto one set of galley proofs [1 1/2 hours]; and
- distributing hot-off-the press copies of the latest book to in-house staff [10 minutes].
Publishers still employ EAs, whose job descriptions are probably significantly different, but for the sake of comparison, here's what those same tasks would be likely to entail in 2011:
- revising 40 pages of a word-processing file [45 minutes];
- distributing an electronic version of the MS to five recipients via email [10 minutes];
- revising an rtf index MS [2 hours];
- sending those two batches of material via email or ftp [20 minutes];
- conferring about electronic methods for recovering what remains after Fido finished his work as critic...some things never change [20 minutes];
- making author's and editor's changes in an InDesign layout file [30 minutes]; and
- distributing hot-off-the-press copies of the latest book to in-house staff [10 minutes].
Nearly eight hours' work now accomplished in roughly half the time. Clearly, productivity has increased markedly. How about quality? That's more dicey. In some ways, technological advances have made editorial work simpler and more effective. In others, they have made it much too easy for authors, editors, EAs, layout people, and numerous others to miss or ignore those inconvenient editorial issues and elements that continue to have a way of creeping in.
In the right hands, database software created specifically for indexing books increases thoroughness and concision. When queried appropriately, the Internet provides a quick, relatively reliable means for fact checking. Word-processing and DTP programs' global-change capabilities assist editors in assuring their books' continuity.
But left to themselves, each of those technological "advancements" can wreak havoc and result in the kind of shoddy product that readers increasingly often decry:
- "Indexes" prepared by amateurs who think MSWord's Index function will "read" the text are typically so peppered with howlers that many a professional indexer dines out on stories about last-minute triage sessions to which they've been summoned.
- Inaccurate "facts" or no-longer-current figures are perpetuated in print thanks to inept—or worse, insufficiently thorough—Google searches.
- And erroneous terms and nonwords continually rear their unwanted heads in text thanks to ill-framed W-P and/or DTP global find/change commands.
I have no intention of entering the fray that arises whenever people argue about the computer's innate capabilities vs. its need for human guidance. My opinion is based solely on my experience and reading on the subject, both of which make my notions woefully inadequate. (I'm well aware that nine-year-olds and geeks use software and hardware to remarkable ends that far exceed my Boomer's imagination as readily as they find reasons not to brush their teeth.)
But it is clear to me that, purely at the level of editorial work, the second decade of this no longer new (or brave) century represents only a whisper of the changes we will witness by 2020. And those just apply to the editorial side. Arguably, book design and production have benefited/suffered even more, to say nothing of the storm surge of business-altering developments continually affecting the publishing industry on an hourly basis.
All that said, I remain optimistic that what are sure to be enhancements in text delivery will lead to greater literacy worldwide rather than erode it further.
Photo credit: IBM Selectric II: Garnet Hertz, conceptlab.com/
As I delve more deeply into editorial- and book-related listservs, blogs, and social media sites, I find very little discussion of back-of-the-book indexes. Some inveterate indexers keep in touch with each other, and a few endeavor to keep in touch with other editorial service providers, but almost no one attempts to reach out to what I’ll call “mainstream” readers, writers, and word-folks. The result, of course, is an increasingly common devaluation of this important aspect of written communication. Why?
Having devoted several of my earlier editorial years to compiling indexes, I have my own suspicions. I know a bit about indexes and what kind of people engage in that manner of making a living. So, it’ probably true that certain personality traits common to many index compilers count for something.
Just who does take up the banner of “indexer” and persevere in providing for him/herself and family by compiling these vital tools? I can only base this estimation on myself and the dozen or so other indexers I have known well, and none of us tend toward extroversion. Many have backgrounds in library cataloguing, and both professions have similar attributes: they demand quiet, are concentration-intensive, and seldom are effectively done unless in solitude. One must keep hundreds or thousands of names, terms, and ideas in play for the duration of an index’s preparation. Otherwise, the final product winds up including too many separate terms for the same things.
Such constraints don’t necessarily translate well into social contact. I remember more than one bout of intensive indexing after which quite a bit of time elapsed before I was able to speak intelliglbly. After one such indexing foray, I unconsciously continued to transpose names in conversation:
“Hey, Brian, what was the name of that women you introduced me to last week? You know, with the shoes?”
“Oh,” I answered. “That was 'Marcos comma Imelda'.”
Then, too, a sizable portion of educated, intelligent readers, who habitually rely on indexes for study and research, haven’t a clue about how an index comes into being. They assume that text is simply “plugged in” to some software application, which then magically separates out the concepts, names, and ideas that need to be indexed and appends appropriate page numbers. In my experience, however, a good, reliable—dare I say responsible?—index has yet to be made by a machine. While software certainly is a boon to information management as well as to automating many rote tasks an indexer until fairly recently did by hand (think alphabetizing, sequencing page numbers, manuscript preparation, etc.), a computer does not interpret text in ways that will make the contents of a document readily available to a human reader. Not that long ago, in fact, I too often indulged in self-amusement by reviewing the “terms” that arose from electronically “indexing” brief passages with Microsoft Word. Anything for a laugh!
But finally, I think the principal reason so little attention is paid to indexes and their composition currently stems from the present nature and perception of information (or, call it text, if you prefer). Why use a compiled index when you can perform a quick electronic search for the name or term you need? I frequently make use of Safari Books Online,
a virtual library of (mostly) technical books—software manuals, technical specifications, business guides, and the like. When trying to size up the usefulness of any given publication before deciding to add it to my “bookshelf,” I head to the index to look up specific concepts or terms. Lately, however, almost none of the books I have reviewed have had indexes. Well no wonder, you must think; it’s simpler to perform a search. Not really. If my search is very tightly targeted (e.g., “Marcos, Imelda”), perhaps this is true. But what about something more generic, which could appear in a number of contexts and mean many things (let’s say, “shoes”)? Suddenly, I am wading through dozens upon dozens of hits, of which one or two may be on target. Very frustrating, and a real waste of time.
As the person who commissions editorial service providers to contribute to the production of books, I am very particular about the index. Potential indexers must have the right sort of experience and temperament to work for me. There is no point in launching almost any nonfiction book upon its sea of readers—who will need to be able to use it in myriad ways—without backing them up with a useful index. This is a crucial element, even for books destined for electronic versions. Of course, now it is among the first expenses publishers seem to feel free to cut, often shunting the work off to underpaid (and ill-equipped) editorial assistants. And a poor index is almost as detrimental to a book as none at all, but that’s a subject for another blog.