The first thing you probably do when you pick up a nonfiction book is flip to the back and scan the index.
However, it’s the very last thing that goes into writing a book.
Sometimes just a few days before it goes to press, a book’s editor will call someone like Clive Pyne to compose the index.
This difficult and sometimes tedious job cannot be done by computers. It’s been tried, and it’s failed.
Instead, Pyne will put in as many as seven days of working 10 hours a day to create an index for a complicated textbook.
Pyne starts by reading the book, marking up every fact he finds as he goes. “I’m doing a lot in my head at this point, I’m getting a sense of the pattern.”
On the second read, he boots up his computer and, using special software, starts keying in subheads and page numbers. The program organizes these subheads into virtual file cards.
About a quarter of Pyne’s time on a book is spent editing: Reorganizing his subheads to make better sense and also trimming to fit the numbers of pages allotted for the index.
Organizing information in books is always a challenge. Extra tough: Listing names from cultures where people write their surnames first, or dealing with double postings and nutritional information in a cookbook.
“It’s an art and it’s a science,” says Pyne. It takes years to hone one’s indexing skills and get fast at the job.
Pyne’s been indexing for the last four years. He’s done a variety of jobs, including working in human resources, where he did job classifications and pay equity calculations.
After moving from Toronto to Ottawa a few years ago, Pyne had trouble finding work in the bilingual city. He realized he had a talent for identifying patterns, and starting looking for a new career to match his skill.
He met an indexer who lived in nearby Perth and decided to try it. He bought 16 different nonfiction books and composed his own indexes for each. His colleague critiqued his work. Feeling ready, Pyne started marketing himself.
One of the first books he ever worked on, for the Canadian Museum of Civilization, won numerous awards.
Now, as an established indexer, Pyne works long days and most weekends. The work is exhausting, but Pyne takes numerous breaks through the day and often heads out for the gym or a quick walk to energize himself. He also spends time maintaining his website, sending emails and marketing himself to continue to get more work.