Publishing a nonfiction or academic book often comes with the requirement that the author provide an index for the book, which leaves the author with a decision to make. Should they index the book themselves, or should they hire a professional indexer?
Let’s take a look at how a professional indexer might approach this process differently from the book’s author, and then briefly examine the process of indexing itself.
Authors as Indexers
There is something to be said for an author creating an index to their own book. The author is, after all, the person who is most familiar with the book’s contents. However, by the time the book is nearing the end of the publication process, the author has spent so much time writing, revising, correcting, and checking the manuscript that they often find it difficult to get enough distance from the text to create a viable index.
There’s also the question of whether the author is prepared enough to create the index. Indexing is a specialized skill that requires knowledge and training to do well. There are rules that one must follow when creating an index and, as indexer Nancy Mulvaney observes, while it’s easy to learn the rules of indexing, it’s not as easy to apply them correctly.
Further, if one decides to use dedicated indexing software, there’s also the time and expense involved in purchasing and learning to use those programs. Most authors simply don’t have the time to learn both how to index and also how to use indexing software on top of the time needed to compile the index itself.
The Professional Indexer’s Perspective
Creating a good index requires more than just knowing the subject matter of the book to be indexed. Indexing is the art of constructing a sort of alphabetized lattice that gives the reader a bird’s-eye view of the content of the manuscript. As part of this process, the indexer must anticipate what information a reader might want to look for and create entries accordingly. This process requires the ability to tease out concepts and themes from the verbiage of the text in addition to obvious things like names and keywords.
Professional indexer Sylvia Coates describes the process of creating headings and subheadings in terms of “the information questions,” which she describes as the “the ‘who, what, where, when, why, how come, and under what circumstances’ questions of the text.” An author who creates their own index likely will understand the need to index the obvious who, what, where, and when aspects. A professional indexer, by contrast, will index information that answers all of the information questions, not just the most obvious ones. Further, professional indexers know how to decide whether information should go into a main heading, subheading, or sub-subheading, a process that Coates acknowledges can be difficult to master.
A good index therefore is an interface between the message of the author, on the one hand, and the reader’s search for particular pieces of information that the book might contain, on the other. A professional indexer will have both appropriate training in the mechanics of indexing and also sufficient distance from the manuscript to allow them to see the book from the point of view of the reader. Both of these aspects are necessary for the creation of a thorough, useful index.
How to Think Like an Indexer
Let’s take a quick look at the process of indexing and some of the things one needs to know before creating an index.
- Know which parts of the book are indexable
When compiling an index, the first thing to know is which parts of the book are indexable. The main body of the text obviously is indexable, but some front matter and back matter often is not indexed (e.g., foreword, preface, appendices, bibliography). Introductions sometimes can be indexed, as can some substantive footnotes or endnotes, depending on what information they convey. Whether to index author names that appear in notes will depend on your scholarly discipline and what your publisher expects to see.
- Create headings and subheadings
An index is constructed of a series of main headings, subheadings and, in some instances, sub-subheadings. Main headings represent larger concepts, while subheadings and sub-subheadings represent smaller divisions of those concepts. For example, a main entry for “birds” might have subheadings like “corvids,” “finches,” or “thrushes,” and each of these might have a series of sub-subheadings naming particular birds of those types. Names of people or places and titles of works referred to in the body of the text usually are also main headings, but sometimes they may also be indexed as subheadings. Whether your index will have sub-subheadings or not will depend on your publisher’s requirements.
- Include locators
Each of these different types of headings will have a locator or series of locators that tell the reader where to find the information in the book. A page number is the most common type of locator. Page numbers can be used to indicate either single pages or a range of pages. Locators may also indicate whether they are pointing the reader to a special text element, such as a table, illustration, or footnote. Publishers usually have their own rules about how these special sorts of locators are to be formatted.
- Avoid metatopics
It’s especially important to be able to distinguish between the metatopic of the book, which is the main thing that the whole book is about, and the subsidiary topics that make up the discussion of the metatopic. (“Metatopic” is a term that was coined by professional indexer Do Mi Stauber in her book, Facing the Text.) For example, in a book about butterflies, “butterflies” will be the metatopic. Having “butterflies” as a main entry in such a book likely will not work well because it’s much too broad, and thus won’t result in an index that allows readers to easily find the particular information they’re looking for.
- Indexing software
Most professional editors today use dedicated indexing software to create indexes. This software can automate some tasks, including how the index entries are sorted, how page numbers are handled, and whether the index format is indented or run-in. These programs also keep track of things like cross-references and the relationship between main headings and subheadings.
Although indexing software does make it easier to compile an index, these applications are complex and take time to learn. Also, they don’t actually create the index for the user: instead, the program is a tool that automates many indexing tasks and that checks for certain types of indexing errors. Ultimately, it is difficult to use indexing software effectively unless one already knows how to compile an index.
The same goes for the embedded indexing function in programs like MS Word, although there are certain advantages to creating an embedded index. For example, embedding the index makes it easier to create a hyperlinked index for e-books. As with professional indexing software, the indexing function in MS Word takes time and effort to learn, and the user will first need to know how to index in order to use this function well. Further, creating a well-structured embedded index can actually be more laborious and time-consuming than indexing using dedicated professional indexing software.
Indexing is a complex process that requires specialized knowledge about index structure and indexing procedures. Although authors are very familiar with the contents of their book, they may not have the skills (or even the time) to compile an adequate index for that book. Professional indexers, by contrast, have the skills and training to do this work. If you find yourself in a bind, or at the limits of your own knowledge or abilities to create your own index, consider reaching out to a professional to create a thorough, professionally compiled index that will be useful for your readers.
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About the author
Beth is a professional editor and indexer specializing in music history and general Western history with a focus on the medieval and early modern periods, and they also edit fiction and screenplays in select genres. Beth holds a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and received professional training in editing and indexing through UC Berkeley Extension.