We’re running a series of interviews to introduce you all to our wonderfully talented group of independent indexers and taxonomists who enable us to say “yes” to the variety of project types and turnaround times our clients are looking for. Today, we’d like you to get to know our talented embedded book indexing specialist, Angela Howard.
I first met Richard Shrout, one of the founders of Potomac Indexing, when I signed up to have an index peer-reviewed by a mentor at the 2002 ASI Conference in Galveston, Texas. Because the index I submitted was for a computer software book, my index was assigned to Richard, who also wrote a lot of indexes for technical books. The idea was that each of us who had submitted indexes would meet with our assigned mentors at the conference to discuss our indexes. Richard was concerned that he wouldn’t have enough time to meet with me at the conference, because he was involved in a lot of other meetings, so he called me on the phone a week or so before the conference. We spent almost two hours on the phone, and I took pages of notes. He gave me detailed feedback and was very complimentary about my index.
Several years later, in 2006, he called me to say that he was starting a collaborative of indexers called Potomac Indexing, and asked me if I would be interested in being one of the associates. I was happy to accept.
PI: Tell us your indexing (or other information access system) origin story. All superheroes, including indexers, have an origin story. 😉
Once upon a time, I was a programmer and technical writer at a large computer hardware company in Minneapolis. I was happy in a regular sort of way (good job, good friends, living in a vibrant city), but it had always been my dream to live near the Pacific Ocean. The closest thing I had seen to the ocean was Lake Superior. When I got married, my husband felt the same way, so we moved to California. I soon found the local STC (Society for Technical Communication) chapter, a new technical writing job, and new friends.
After a few years, I had the opportunity to write a new set of documentation for a new software product. As technical writers know, most of our work is updating documentation that already exists, and we rarely get to write new manuals. I was excited to write the index for it, thinking I might have a knack for it since I was detail-oriented and organized. (That’s all you need, right?) It was humbling to realize that I wasn’t that great at it at first, and I wondered if there was a workshop or class I could take. After some investigating, I discovered not only the USDA indexing course, but an entire society of indexers! I took the course, went to my first ASI conference, and discovered a whole new world. I was eventually able to transition into working for myself at home, which I was especially grateful for, because I had a young daughter by then. I feel that I am now actually living happily ever after.
PI: What are your specialties and/or favorite subjects?
I specialize in computer trade books, because that’s the subject I’m most knowledgeable about. Luckily, I’ve been able to branch out into a wide variety of subjects over the years, otherwise I might have been quite bored by now. I’ve indexed some biographical books, some how-to books (everything from knitting to building video camera rigs), books about nutrition and alternative medicine, and more recently, books about education. I like reading and learning new things, which I think most indexers do.
PI: Pick one of your favorite subjects and tell us why it fascinates you.
I’ve especially enjoyed the books I’ve indexed about education. Several of my friends are teachers, and as a parent and a former technical writer, I’ve always been fascinated by how people learn. There are so many studies and trends and opinions out there about what works or doesn’t work in education, and I didn’t feel I had enough in-depth information to be able to discuss the issues intelligently until I had a chance to read and index these books.
PI: What’s your best productivity or indexing secret tip (that you are willing to share, that is)?
Immediately write down all of the tangential ideas you have while working on an index so you don’t lose your focus. Document everything you do! I have written mini-manuals for myself on many of the tools I use, and on specific requirements for each of my clients. I may only use a certain tool, or work with a certain client, once every few months, and I am glad to have all of my instructions every time I start a new project.
PI: What do you consider the most challenging aspect of the work?
Time management. I feel that I have still not mastered it. My first couple of years as an indexer, I tried to block out large chunks of time for work, so that I could have evenings or weekend days off. I really wanted it to work, because I didn’t want to feel that I was always at work while I was in my own home. But it didn’t work for me. My brain works a lot better in sprinting mode, rather than marathon mode. I can focus very intently for an hour or two at most, and then I have to go do something else for a while. In fact, it’s often when I’m doing something else that I have insights about how best to organize information in the index I’ve been working on. So, my current pattern is to work a couple of hours, then take an hour off to eat, or run errands, or do household chores, then go back to work for another couple of hours, until I finish my daily quota of work. (I map out in detail how much work I need to get done each day in order to finish the index on time.) The downside is that I do often feel that I’m working all the time, but it’s the only way I’ve found so far that works for me to produce good indexes. It’s gotten more difficult recently as some clients are allotting shorter time periods for indexing.
PI: Where do you usually work?
I keep a lot of colorful things around my desk, which makes it a happy and inviting place. In this photo, from left to right, you’ll see Kermit the Frog (one of my superheroes), my desktop box, my two monitors (raised to the right height by large art books), my morning oatmeal and coffee, my photo tree of cards, and the side of my filing cabinet, which is covered with magnets from art museums I have been to.
PI: Talk about your process (and this can be for book indexing or other related projects, like keyword tagging, embedded indexing, etc.). Any advice for other professionals—new and experienced?
I’ve learned the hard way to always vet the files for a new project as soon as I receive them. I mostly work on embedded indexes, and there are multiple document files and specific processes for version control and index-generation. If something’s not working right at the outset, it can take a large bite out of the time you have to index. Also, with embedded indexes, the index editing tools are pretty primitive, so I find it works best to do more up-front work, such as reading overviews, conclusions, and glossaries, to create a skeleton index structure (in Sky—a professional indexing program) that I use as a guide when embedding entries. I also try to edit the index after I finish each chapter so there’s not as much editing at the end. I’m excited to try Dave Ream’s new IXMLembedder tool to allow me to create the entire index in Sky and then embed it in the files after the fact.
PI: What are your favorite/most-used tools, for indexing or other business purposes?
Well, these tools are not very exciting, but I use Excel a lot for scheduling and project tracking. And, I have a small Circa notebook (by Levenger) with repositionable pages, for all of my lists for almost every aspect of my life. I can reorganize my lists as often as needed based on my current priorities or whatever new tasks come up. I like the tactility of writing with paper and pen to organize things and record ideas spontaneously. If I try to type lists on my computer, I spend way too much time trying to make them look perfect and printing out a bunch of copies just so I can have them in paper form.
PI: Cindex, SKY or Macrex (or other)? What do you like best about your choice?
I use Sky. The tabular format of the user interface seems the most intuitive to me, perhaps because I worked with a lot of database systems as a technical writer.
PI: If you could only recommend one book about indexing, what would it be?
I’d have to say Hans Wellisch’s book, Indexing from A to Z. I’ve always been able to find detailed information in it about any question I’ve had over the years. It’s out of print now, but you can still get used copies for a pretty reasonable price.
PI: Where do you live (just approximately)? And if you like, tell us a bit about your surroundings and folks you live with (including furry friends) if you wish.
I live in California, on the central coast, and it’s true that the weather’s almost always great, but it’s also been problematic for the past few years because of the drought and the threat of wildfires. We’re all hoping for rain this winter. We have two cats—indoor cats because there are a lot coyotes around here—and they each have a “nest” either under or on top of my desk, and we hang out and listen to classical music all day. I like many kinds of music, but I can only listen to classical music while I work. It’s both complex and beautiful, keeping me alert and happy. And because there are no lyrics, it doesn’t interfere with my focus on what I’m indexing.
PI: Tell us about your hobbies. Are there specific ones you turn to as a break from work, or any that are a special treat in between or at the end of projects?
I’ve taken art classes of various kinds for quite a few years. I currently work mostly in abstract collage, which is a wonderful change of perspective from the verbal and literal logic used in indexing. My time is quite fragmented, though, so lately I’ve only been making very small collages, in the form of Artist Trading Cards (ATCs). ATCs are original artworks the size of baseball cards, and I’m in two ATC groups where we get together once a month and trade our cards with each other. It’s great fun, and I’ve got four binders full of ATCs I’ve collected so far. I also write poetry and have attended several writer’s workshops.
PI: What’s the last book you read for fun?
I’m a huge fan of short fiction, ever since I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in high school. I subscribe to the Tin House journal and the New Yorker, and I read Best American Short Stories every year. I like the intensity of a short story, and the compact—often poetic—style of writing. Earlier this year I started a short story book club, and we’re working our way through the anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century, two stories at a time. It’s made my favorite kind of reading even more enjoyable, because I get to hear everyone else’s perspectives on the stories we read.
PI: What’s your superpower? 🙂
One of my best friends tells me that my purpose is to reduce the entropy of the universe. Well, that’s a pretty tall order (impossible, actually), but I think she’s right about the fact that I try to!
PI: Thanks so much, Angela!
Angela Howard is a freelance indexer and editor. She has been indexing for almost 17 years, and she was a technical writer for various software companies for 12 years before that. She specializes in indexing technical manuals and trade books, but has also indexed many books on a variety of topics, including education, grant writing, arts and crafts, nutrition, and alternative medicine. She has a Computer Science degree from the University of Minnesota, and she has taken numerous courses and workshops in indexing. She has a LinkedIn profile here.