Being Perceptive

I’ve been doing the excellent LinkedIn for Humans course from Freelancer Magazine and one of our first challenges was to select some positive qualities we think we have, and then for a fellow student to choose one for us to write about. My top four qualities were Thoughtful, Perceptive, Trustworthy and Helpful and the quality picked for me was Perceptive.

Why do I think I’m perceptive? My Concise Oxford suggests that perceptive people have acute insight and that they acquire this insight through awareness to senses, understanding and memory. For me, perception is often about unspoken meaning; being perceptive means being able to discern implicit, concealed or even inadvertent meanings and messages. Years of looking for subtext during my literary education have sharpened this skill – and so have years of reading the room in university meetings in my old job. In my current job, perception is a vital indexing skill.

What does it mean to be a perceptive indexer? In indexing, we are trying to extract the meaning of the text, its aboutness, and that may not rest solely in the words used by the author. Indexers select the significant explicit terms in a text, of course, but we are also trying to perceive implicit terms and topics. These may not be mentioned fully or at all, but they will be highly relevant to the books and its readers.  We’re also trying to perceive significance. If something is mentioned or implied, how significant is it in the context of the text?

Here’s a made-up paragraph from a nonexistent book with my indexing annotations:

The yellow-highlighted terms are straightforward significant explicit terms to include. The pink-highlighted terms are probably less significant, unless the book has an extensive focus on Georgian glassware: they are passing or minor mentions. The green highlights indicate that I’ve found something implicit: topics whose terms aren’t specified in the text (like sexuality), names that are not stated explicitly (like Eglantine’s husband), events that may be obvious in the context of the book but need a more specific entry in the index (like the nameless war).

Indexers also need to be perceptive about readers. What sort of people will read this book? What are they likely to want to find in the index? And what terms are they likely to use? These may not be the words the author uses. This sort of perception, creating an imaginative empathy with future readers, is one of the most creative and enjoyable parts of indexing for me.

It’s probably also possible to be too perceptive. Thinking perceptively can be tiring, and it can be hard to let your perceptions go. Indexing hints and allusions, especially at the expense of more major topics, can show you’re over-flexing your perceptive muscles. In life as well as indexing, revealing something secret or concealed is not always a popular act. When indexing, I need to be perceptive enough to recognise what I need to leave out.

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