Making Non-Fiction Text User Friendly
Empowering Your Words
In both fiction and non-fiction projects, there are many aspects of the art and science of writing that can go unnoticed in the creative phase of composition. I heartily concur with the idea that as writers we need to focus initially on capturing our inspirational thoughts prior to addressing details of the editorial process. Nevertheless, it is good to have the overall design of a literary project on the edge of our consciousness whenever putting pen to paper. And, when we do don our editorial caps, writers need to be cognizant that that work empowers the words already set down. Regardless of the target market, readers have expectations, and the skills of a wordsmith determine whether those expectations will be met.
During the publication of the anthology Under Sonoran Skies, Prose and Poetry of the High Desert, I was pleased to receive positive critical attention for my comprehensive index. As the artistic director for the project, part of my authoring strategies was to ensure that future as well as current readers would find the work user-friendly, as well as an enjoyable read. Despite my vision, some of my five co-authors have been less than enthusiastic about the value of indexing. In fact, one of them was involved in another anthology for which an index was deemed irrelevant since including one would have reduced the number of pieces from one of the book’s prolific authors.
Significance of The Lack of an Index
When I examined that book’s table of contents, I realized the work had frequent references to historical events and high-profile people. Unfortunately, the lack of an index precluded a reader’s ability to analyze the work fully. This was especially true if a reader wanted to compare text provided by multiple authors on a particular subject. And, with the passage of time, even someone who has read the book and is familiar with its topics would find it difficult to re-access specific references—at least in hardcopy. And it is true that reference searches in material in electronic format can be facilitated by utilizing a find or search command. But to accomplish a comparison of various authors’ views, the reader would have to create a separate listing of those citations that pertained to their interests.
Since one can never know how a work will be used at a future time, I believe there is one simple argument for indices in non-fiction: If it is logical that some reader may wish to locate a specific reference, there is a need for an index. Even when a book’s contents are directed to a specific audience, future developments within the field under discussion—let alone the unfolding of history—may yield an unexpected group of readers for whom an index will be invaluable.
Structuring an index usually begins by listing proper nouns contained in the work—meaning all people, geographic locations, and events of sufficient worth to have been named. Most word processing programs can help you gather and list such terms, even if they lack an actual indexing feature. Another tactic for refining an index is analyzing terms included by other authors addressing a parallel subject.
As you delve into your indexing project, you may find topics requiring in-depth analysis. In looking at the nouns you have initially listed, consider related names and topics that can be grouped under a general category. For example, a discussion of lions, dogs and parrots suggests that a general topic of animals would be appropriate. Of course, some words may not have such an obvious association. One area of complexity is persons of varied professional accreditation. If you lacked sufficient numbers of therapists, physicians and dentists to provide these individual categories, you might use a comprehensive term such as healthcare professionals. Consider the terms highways, access ways, and trains. While they do not all relate to forms of roadways, they might be listed under a general heading of transportation.
If you tire during the indexing process, consider returning to your analysis of the work of colleagues. For although you may have accessed the works of many authors during preliminary research, you may not have closely examined their indices. This semi-final exercise may not only reveal an approach to indexing you have not considered, but it may also reveal gaps in topics or subtopics within the body of your own work. Even if you decline to broaden the scope of your piece, you may wish to consider some additions to your afterword or bibliography.
Before I leave the topic of indexing, I should offer one cautionary note for avoiding a mammoth appendage to your actual composition: When in doubt about including a general category, consider whether you have a minimum of three words to list within it…
The art of communicating with readers requires diligence in refining your skills. It is as demanding an element in non-fiction as in a fine work of fiction. So, beyond indexing, what other tools of wordsmithing could enhance your reader’s experience?
Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant
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