Ep 227 To celebrate National Indexing Day on 29 March 2018, meet indexer and crossword creator Denise Sutherland.

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In Episode 227 of So you want to be a writer: A new prize is announced for crime authors who do not feature a female victim. The writing myths we tell ourselves and Norwegian Airways writes a poem to a passenger. To celebrate National Indexing Day on 29 March 2018, you’ll meet indexer and crossword creator Denise Sutherland.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

podcast-artwork

 

Links Mentioned

This Author Is Giving Writers $2,800 If They Write a Crime Novel Without a Female Victim

The Ultimate Guide to Building a Writing Habit (That Sticks Like Superglue)

Norwegian Air responds to passenger’s poem complaint with witty rhyme, waives fee

 

Indexer in Residence

Denise Sutherland

Over the years Denise Sutherland has had a regular ABC radio segment about cryptic crosswords, invented a new puzzle, been a publications editor, written the words for websites, designed logos, brochures and websites, indexed books, self-published seven books, and written cryptic crosswords.

She’s also been a website manager and developer for a science history group, written four books in the For Dummies series, and even worked as a lab assistant in plant genetics (she also studied science at the ANU), back in her dim distant past.

Visit Denise’s website.

 

 

Competition

Competition: Name these characters – and WIN film double passes

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Denise.

Denise

My pleasure.

Valerie

Now, National Indexing Day is coming up on the 29th of March. And it’s being run by the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers. Now, you’re an indexer.

Denise

Indeed I am.

Valerie

Not many people think, oh, I want to grow up and be an indexer. Or not many people even think that there are indexers. They just assume that these indexes kind of magically appear at the end of books, and wherever it is that they come up. Tell us a little bit about, first, what is indexing, just in case anyone needs clarification?

Denise

Okay. Indexing is the process whereby usually an indexer, sometimes an author, goes through the whole manuscript of a publication. Usually when we use indexes, they’re in nonfiction books. It might be a cook book or a gardening book or an academic book. But also journals have indexes. And we analyse the text.

So we start at the very beginning of the book and we read and analyse the whole thing, and we write the index. So it’s actually a creative process where we’re actually reading, we’re analysing, we’re figuring out how best to, you know, how do you summarise that concept in that paragraph in two or three words.

And then we’re putting in what we call locators. The page numbers. Because they’re not always page numbers. Like in a legal document it might be paragraph numbers and things like that. And so it’s a process of creating a finding aid for the book or the journal or the magazine or whatever.

So it’s a very intensive analytical process.

Valerie

And do you read the entire book first and then attack it with the indexing? Or do you index as you go on your first read?

Denise

It depends on how much time you have. Because indexing happens at the very end of the publication process, so generally you’ve got editors pushing you to deliver on time and often everyone else has run late but you get squeezed in at the very end. So often we’re working to very tight deadlines.

Sometimes, yes, ideally you actually get a chance to read the book first. But it’s a bit of a rarity. More often than not you get a chance to skim through it and get a bit of a feel for it. But most of the time you’re indexing as you go without necessarily having read the text in full beforehand.

Valerie

So how in the world did you get into indexing?

Denise

Good question. I wear a bunch of different hats, including graphic designer and editor and author and a bunch of other things. And I was sort of feeling like I needed to… You know, there wasn’t a lot of work coming in and I needed something else to add to my collection of hats. And I was actually talking with my sister who is an historian and she mentioned indexing. And how she needed to get her book indexed. And I was like, what’s indexing? And she started mentioning it and I was like, oh my god! Perfect career!

Valerie

Really? Why did you think that?

Denise

Yeah. I don’t know. It just really appeals to me. It’s the analysis aspect.

I’m also very interested in lots of different topics. And when you’re indexing, you do all sorts of different books. I mean, I’ve done a book about make-up, I’ve done cook books, I’ve done political science, I’ve done economics. Every book is a different topic and you’re always learning new things, and I find that very appealing.

I find the classification and creating lovely information structures – I know it sounds very geeky, but they’re very satisfying.

And you’re always working on behalf of the reader. So you’re really trying to make sure that a reader, you know, the book mightn’t talk about a topic in a certain way, but you’ve got to think about ways that all the readers might approach or might be looking for. For example, a book on adolescence might never mention the word ‘teenager’, but some readers would look up teenager and they need to find it in the index. So even if that word doesn’t occur in the book, it needs to occur in the index.

Valerie

And so at the time when you went, oh my god, perfect career for me, were you a) looking for a new career, and b) what primarily were you doing at the time? I know you wear many hats, but what were you doing at the time?

Denise

Probably mostly, I mean, I was probably writing. Some graphic design, some editing, proof reading, that sort of work. And I wasn’t looking for a full career. I mean, indexing isn’t a job generally that you can do fulltime, with a fulltime income. It tends to be sporadic work.

And so I was just looking for another string in my bow for my business. I’ve been in business for 20 years. And you know, I think the key to staying afloat is to have a lot of different skills that you can bring to the table. So sometimes if graphic design work is not so much around, I don’t have much work in that regard, I’ll pick up a bunch of editing, or an index will come in. And so it tends to work out quite well for me.

Valerie

And so obviously with indexing you do have to be fairly anal, and be able to compartmentalise and categorise things. Are you neat as a person? Like, does your house have everything labelled in nice boxes and that sort of thing?

Denise

Yeah, I’m a minimalist and I am quite neat. But I wouldn’t say that’s a generalisation for all indexers.

Valerie

So what’s the feeling you get when you’ve indexed a book really well? Or the process of indexing. What’s satisfying about it? How do you feel?

Denise

It’s just, you feel proud that you’ve done a good job. I mean, you know very much you’re working in the background. No one will know who you were. I mean, most authors don’t put a credit in to their indexer. And people just assume that it’s sort of magically appeared somehow. But it’s very satisfying to know that you’ve created…

And you’re actually part of the process of writing the book, more so than an editor, because you’re actually writing part of the book.

And often in our process of indexing, I mean we’re not officially proof readers, but we often pick up – because we’re doing things like indexing names and places and things like that – we’ll pick up the inconsistencies, the mistakes in a name that have been used in a text. And I’ve done that on pretty much every book I’ve indexed. I’ve picked up some bits and pieces that all the proof-readers and editors and the authors missed. And I’ll say, oh you know, I don’t think Paul Keating was the Prime Minister in 1970. And they’ll be like, oh my god, it was the wrong date! Or this name is spelt several different ways, and which way is the correct one. And so that sort of thing.

And so we actually provide a valuable service in that regard as well. It’s sort of a by-product of indexing, really.

Valerie

Yes. When you thought, okay, this is a great career, how did you then get into it?

Denise

Well, I joined the Australian New Zealand Society of Indexers, ANZSI, as the first thing. And they run occasional training courses. So there’s not really any official training you can do through a university in Australia. There are some online courses that are run in the UK and in America which you can obviously sign up for, but they’re online only.

But I did the training through the Australian organisation, which runs occasionally, depending on the level of interest. And did the basic indexing course and then the intermediate indexing course as well.

And it’s very much sort of a learning through mentors. I had some people in Canberra who really mentored me and helped a great deal. And you do things like index a book that you wish had an index because a lot of nonfiction books nowadays are published without indexes unfortunately. Often through cost, publishers trying to mitigate costs. And you sort of do up an index as a project for a book that you wish had an index and that sort of thing. So it’s a lot of helping each other out. It’s a very collegial sort of set up.

Valerie

Then how did you get your first gig?

Denise

It’s hard. It can be hard. I can’t remember what my first gig was. Dearie me. Often, it’s sort of word of mouth. So one indexer will say, maybe one of your mentors will say, oh look, I’m not available to do this index because I’m booked, would you like to do this? And you can have a website, you can have a listing on the ANZSI website, that sort of thing. But it’s a bit tricky getting your foot in the door, sometimes.

Valerie

Yeah, for sure. So then, how long would it take – I know this is a bit how long is a piece of string, but maybe you can give us an example of a 60,000 word book took this long or something. So how long would it take to index a book?

Denise

Yeah, very much how long is a piece of string. It depends on several things. How many pages are in the book. What’s the intended audience. So if it’s a book for children, that tends to be quicker. If it’s a book for an academic audience, that’s much harder.

So a 300 page academic text, so something that’s like a political science or biology, something that’s really written for academics, will take about 60 hours. That’s six zero. So it’s a lot of work. A smaller book, maybe 100 pages for a general audience, might be 30 or 40 hours of work. But it’s quite intensive.

You spend about two-thirds of the time writing the actual index entries. So we have software where you write into it; it’s a bit like a word processor except it’s designed to handle index entries. And so you spend the first part of that time reading through the text and writing the entries as you go.

And then about a third of the time you spend on editing. Because often as you’re going, you’re going I’m not sure if that’s really a major topic in the book but I’m going to put an entry in for it anyway. That sort of thing. And then by the time you get to the end you go, okay, there’s only one entry for that particular topic, I might just leave it out because it’s not significant enough. It didn’t end up being a major theme in the book.

And often we’re dealing with very strict page limits. So often a publisher would say, you’ve got four pages for the index, make it fit. In which case you often have to leave things out or combine things that you would rather have sub-entries for, and that sort of stuff.

So there’s always a juggling act with what the publisher needs, the complexity of the text, the author or publisher’s budget, what they can afford in terms of your time, how much room there is in the book, all that sort of stuff. It’s complicated.

Valerie

Sure. And so on National Indexing Day, on the 29th of March 2018, what will all the indexers in Australia be doing? What will you be doing to celebrate National Indexing Day?

Denise

I think all the local groups – because we have groups that are in different states and territories around Australia and New Zealand. There’s going to be photo opps. So I know in Canberra we’re doing a thing of going to the national library… National library? No, there’s a sculpture which is, I think it’s at Gorman House, with people reading. It’s an appropriate sculpture. And there will be a photo which we’ll put out on Twitter and put on our Facebook group and that sort of stuff.

Valerie

A sculpture of page numbers or something?

Denise

Yeah, something. I think it’s a person climbing up and there’s books and… Reading and books and things like that involved. It’s going to be good.

Valerie

One of the other things that you do is you also write. And you have written a number of books. But one is Solving Cryptic Crosswords for Dummies.

Denise

Indeed.

Valerie

How in the world did this come about? Are you a cryptic crossword nut?

Denise

I’m actually a puzzle writer. So that’s something that I do. Word searches, and all sorts of crosswords, and mazes and puzzles. I’ll write pretty much anything. And so cryptic crosswords is one of the things I’ve learned to do.

Valerie

How in the world do you learn to do that! You must have enjoyed playing crosswords.

Denise

Yeah, there aren’t any courses. I actually, there’s a few books out there which are written by some of the masters of the cryptic crossword from the UK. And they’re books that I’ve gotten. And it’s very much a try it and learn it and just practice. It’s sort of an apprenticeship, but it’s very difficult. It’s very difficult work.

Valerie

But how did this start? Did you also hear that somebody does this and go, oh, that’s the perfect career for me!

Denise

It’s more something I’ve always done. Because I always get asked, oh how did you start, when did you start crossword writing? And I’m like, I’ve sort of always done it.

I was the annoying bossy big sister of six kids. And when I was young I used to make little activity books and things for my brothers and sisters. So it’s something I’ve always been interested in. And when my children were young, I got a bit more interested in it. And my dad and I wrote a puzzle book together when my children were very little.

And then I sort of got more serious about it over the years, and tried to make it into a career. It has sort of kind of worked. I’m syndicated but puzzle sales have really dropped off since the global financial crisis. I used to be in all sorts of newspapers overseas, but that’s pretty much all dried up now.

So puzzle writing isn’t such a big thing of what I do now. But it’s something I love. And yeah, it’s one of those sort of weird hats that I wear.

Valerie

Yes. So Solving Cryptic Crosswords for Dummies, presumably it’s a book to help people who are crossword lovers to solve the whole thing.

Denise

Yeah. Well, cryptics are very much a mysterious language to most people. But basically, they are written to a bunch of rules. And so the book is explaining the rules, and I’ve got lots of examples of how to do and sort of lead people along, I think, in a friendly and kindly manner on how to learn how to solve cryptics.

Valerie

Wow. I must admit, I wouldn’t have imagined there was a whole book in it. But obviously the Dummies books are extremely popular and very comprehensive. Now, I understand that with Dummies books they also follow quite a specific format or formula or a way in which information is presented. And you’re a technical editor on three of their other titles, Dummies titles. Can you just sort of briefly describe that format or formula?

Denise

Yeah. So that’s actually how I started with Dummies, is they approached me as a puzzle writer to tech edit one of their puzzle books from America. So I actually have done, the three titles I’ve tech edited were for the States.

It’s very much, so when you’re writing a Dummies book, you’ve got templates that you use in Word and various things have to be actually set up using styles and that sort of thing. So the layout happens automatically because you’ve got to use particular styles. You work very closely with your editors, project editors, who have always been fantastic. And there’s also, there’s actually a Dummies guide to Dummies guides. So when you…

Valerie

No, is there really?

Denise

Well, it’s sort of an unofficial one, but it’s what they send out to all their authors. So you do get what sort of voice to use and the structure and how you need to have the little tips and how all that sort of stuff, how they want it done. And then you’ve got your project editor working with you to make sure you’re doing it the way they want to do it.

But it has always been very enjoyable working with Wiley. My only beef with them really is that they give very, very tight deadlines. So it’s very hard work. You’ve got to write fast.

Valerie

Sure. Now I think one of the things I find really intriguing about what you do, because you said that you wear many hats – you index, you edit, you write puzzles, you write books. But you also do graphic design. Now, what came first? The chicken or the egg? Which career did you start with? Just so I get a bit of background maybe?

Denise

Sort of the graphic design. I was science writing… Science, writing, art were my things, always, when I was a teenager. And in the end I actually studied science at ANU, at the university in Canberra. But then was feeling like it wasn’t really where I wanted to go long term.

And then graphic design was just starting up in Canberra in the mid-80s, and I decided that sounded really interesting. Because it’s sort of problem solving as well as art, and I really find that very appealing. So I did a degree in graphic design. So that really came first. But then also at the same time I was thinking, oh, maybe I should go do a writing course. So really, they were sort of together, both at the same time.

So graphic design was more my initial career, and then the writing has sort of come later in terms of actual professional work.

Valerie

So if you had to describe a typical day, maybe just take me through it. Because it just seems so varied, what you do. Maybe take me through the day. You wake up, do you have any particular ritual in the way you start your working day, obviously. Give me an idea of the things that you do in a typical day.

Denise

Every day is very different, really. There’s not really a whole lot of routine, which is something I like. Something that part of the being your own boss thing which I really like. I guess I start my days with checking email, that sort of stuff. And then I use – do you know bullet journals?

Valerie

Yeah.

Denise

I am a big bullet journal fan.

Valerie

I am not surprised! You, who loves indexing!

Denise

So the night before I will have sat down and thought about all the things I need to do.

Valerie

Oh my god, that’s so funny. Okay, so you bullet journal?

Denise

Yep. And so I do bullet journaling. And that just helps me with going, okay… And I often try and work on the things that I’m putting off like updating my business finance, doing some business chores. And I tend to do those first in the day. And if there’s any email, do I need to write some quotes, do I need to follow up on a late invoice, that sort of stuff. And I try to do those business tasks earlier in the day.

And then fuelled by copious quantities of tea, I’ll get stuck into whatever it is I need to do, whether it’s a graphic design job or whether it’s working on an index.

Valerie

Well, let’s pretend you’re indexing something. You’ve got an indexing gig. Is it something that you go, okay, I’m going to do this for the eight hour day. Or is that something you can’t do for eight hours? Just pretend that you’ve got an indexing job on.

Denise

You can’t index solidly for eight hours. Your brain would explode. It’s very, very intensive mental work. And in fact with editing as well. There’s nothing, you really can’t just do it solidly.

So what I tend to do is, I’ve got a rush indexing job coming in next week for instance, and I will do a couple of hours and then I will go and do something else for a bit or go for a walk or do a bit of housework or something, just to give my brain a break. And then come back to it for another hour or two.

And so I can usually about an hour at a time, maybe two hours if I’m really pushing it. But your brain just really needs a break. It’s very hard work.

Valerie

So how many hours max would do in a day if it’s indexing? Since it’s so taxing.

Denise

It depends on the deadline. I tend to go, okay, well how many days have I got and how many hours is it going to take me? And that means that I need to do six hours a day to make the deadline. And sometimes, you’re often, if it’s a really tight deadline, you’re often working into the night and over weekends.

Valerie

And what’s the most… Sorry, you go on.

Denise

It depends.

Valerie

What’s the most challenging thing about indexing?

Denise

There are many. For me it’s really feeling that you’ve analysed the topic accurately and well, and that you’ve looked at not just the names on the page that you want to pick up, but that you’ve understood the overarching theme of a page.

So it might be something that’s not actually specifically written on the page, but you’ve got to analyse it and think how would I sum up that entire content very succinctly and accurately and elegantly so that the reader, so that you’re reflecting what the author is trying to get across and what the reader is going to look for. So for me, that sort of topic analysis is quite challenging at times.

Valerie

And what’s the most challenging thing about writing puzzles?

Denise

Writing cryptics!

Writing stuff that’s fair, I think, is the most challenging thing.

Valerie

What do you mean?

Denise

Because it’s very, very easy to write a puzzle that is way too hard and is too hard for anyone to actually solve. And it’s much harder to write a puzzle, whether it’s a crossword or a maze or a findaword or whatever, that is pitched for the audience correctly.

So whether that’s kids, or whether it’s adults who are learning English as a second language, or whether it’s the general public – you’ve got to write or design or whatever so that it’s a challenge for the people but not so hard that they’re going to give up.

Valerie

And finally, what’s the most rewarding thing about writing a puzzle?

Denise

Writing something that’s very clever is very satisfying. And if someone has solved it and battled it out and got it, yeah, I find it very enjoyable.

Valerie

Do you ever know? Do people write to puzzle makers and say, I love your puzzles!

Denise

Sometimes. It’s very rare. When your stuff is in a newspaper, generally it’s not attributed to you. You don’t get any credit for it. I seem to keep doing things where I get no credit, hey? It’s a bit like indexing. No one ever knows.

But I do sometimes get, I’ve had… Especially when I had an ABC radio show for a little while about cryptics and so we’d actually get people talking to me on the radio, and that was kind of fun. And yeah. But I don’t often get a lot of feedback.

Valerie

Well, thank you so much for giving us a look behind the scenes of something that you’re right – often, we don’t know who is behind the index, who is behind the puzzle. But this was a really fascinating insight. Thank you so much for your time today, Denise.

Denise

You are very welcome.

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