5 Questions about Book Indexing

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This guest post was written by Stephen Ullstrom, indexer and proofreader.

Crack open any nonfiction book and flip to the back. Chances are, you’ll find an index there. Although overlooked at times, the index is a useful guide for readers to locate specific concepts and subjects within a book. The author isn’t usually responsible for creating the index—that job lies in the hands of a skilled professional, the indexer—but it’s worthwhile for anyone writing a book to understand how the indexing process works.

Here are the answers to questions an author may have about indexing:

What is an index and how is it made?

The index is the portion of the book, located at the back, which tells readers where to find the information contained within the book. Entries are organized alphabetically, with page numbers (also known as locators) to direct readers. The index can be thought of as a map to the book.

To create the index, the indexer reads the entire book, writes a rough draft, and then edits the index for clarity and accuracy. This is an intellectual process, requiring the indexer to understand what the text is about, what is relevant for readers to know, and how best to make the information accessible. An index is not the same as keyword search, nor should the indexer rely on keyword search as their primary way to write the index. There can often be concepts and discussions which are implicit yet still indexable, or names and terms presented in different variations, which could be missed by a keyword search. So it is important for the indexer to read and understand the entire book.

Since the index is written by a person with their particular point of view and experience, a certain amount of indexing is subjective, depending on how the indexer interprets the text and on what decisions they make. The indexer should approach the text and the index in a neutral and objective manner, focusing on presenting the information as clearly as possible, but within this there is still room for variation.

Should the author provide a list of terms for the indexer to use?

In most cases, a list of terms is not very helpful and would probably be a lot of work for the author to create. As mentioned, relying on keyword search is not a good way to write the index, and the indexer will already be looking out for all key terms and concepts. The author will usually have an opportunity to review the index; if they think any terms are missing, they can bring those up during their review.

What will be included in the index?

An index should include all significant discussions and mentions in the book, covering all levels. This extends from what the book as a whole is about (also known as the metatopic); down through the different arguments, discussions, and themes; to individual people, companies, places, or other specific examples and discussions. Entries for larger discussions will likely include subheadings, which break down the information into manageable chunks, while briefer or less important mentions will have smaller entries.

Why are some mentions of names or terms missing from the index?

While thoroughness is important, it needs to be balanced with relevance. The rule of thumb is, will readers be satisfied with the quality of information that the index sends them toward? In some instances, the answer is no, there is no new or relevant information given. These are known as passing mentions, in which the term is touched upon, usually in connection with the actual topic of that sentence or paragraph, but nothing new is learned. These are usually not indexed.

If the author disagrees with the indexer’s decision to exclude certain references, they can raise the issue when reviewing the index. Identifying passing mentions can be a judgment call, and the author’s call may be different.

Why are the major themes in the book not given larger entries?

Themes that run throughout the entire book can be a challenge to index. On the one hand, when considering the book as a whole, they clearly underlie the overall discussion. They can be harder to spot, though, when looking at specific paragraphs and sections, which is where smaller points and examples tend to be highlighted. This can lead to the issue of a reader being directed to a page and feeling like the information they want—the theme—is not present, or at least quickly obvious. So in some cases, it can be better to only index the explicit discussions of the theme, which are the most relevant mentions.

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Jesmine Cham

Jesmine Cham

Publishing Coordinator at LifeTree Media
Jesmine honed her editing and marketing skills at Geist Magazine, Greystone Books, and Quietly, among other organizations. In between freelance projects, she is either engaging in acts of mindfulness or whittling down (and adding) to her TBR list.
Jesmine Cham

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