Book Index

How to Index a Book—Part 1: An Argument for DIY

Book Index
Book Index (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2017)

In this revision of an earlier series on indexing a book, I discuss why authors should index their own books rather than pay someone else to do it (this post), consider what you should include in your index (Part 2); and explain a simple, efficient, and cost-effective procedure for making your own book index (Part 3). If you are already convinced that you should do the index of your book yourself, and if you already know what should be included in your index, then go directly to Part 3 for an easy, inexpensive, and relatively fast procedure for indexing that requires only the book’s page proofs, a spreadsheet program (e.g., Microsoft Excel), and a word processor (e.g., Microsoft Word), which for most authors means no additional outlay for costly software.

Completing my survey of American religious history (Formed From This Soil: An Introduction to the Diverse History of Religion in America) reminded me of the frustrating yet rewarding task of making an index for a book. In this three-part series of postings on “How to Index a Book,” I first will explain why I think authors should do their own indexing. Part two will contemplate what goes into an index, helping you to decide which categories will capture the important points of your book that readers will find useful. Finally in the third part of this series I will share an easy, cost-effective and efficient procedure for making your own index.

A Thankless But Necessary Task

Without doubt, indexing remains a thankless job. Most academic publishers still require an index, and many authors regard it as a necessary but unrewarding exercise (or expense). On the other hand, almost no one takes much notice of it. Astute readers of course will peruse the list of categories at the end of a volume to get a sense of what the book contains, and researchers looking for specific information or topics will find the index an invaluable tool. But I have never seen one discussed in a book review (“Great book, but the index sucks!”) nor have I ever had a conversation with other scholars about a book’s index.  Much like page numbers, the index is a useful tool that goes entirely unnoticed until it is needed.

There certainly are varying opinions on whether to do your own indexing or hire someone else to do it for you. I am convinced that authors should make their own indexes. Without disparaging the many talented indexers-for-hire, no one knows your book as intimately as you and therefore no one can match your qualifications for making a thorough and useful index. I must respectfully disagree with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s posting (November 16, 2010) on the ProfHacker blog that suggests paying $1,000 to a professional indexer beats doing it yourself. It is clear from her posting that Dr. Fitzpatrick had no idea how to apply readily available tools to make the indexing process more efficient and effective; her method (described in her posting) is an example of how not to make an index. Unfortunately, she suggests that the only alternative to her experience is to invest in exceptionally expensive software or hire a professional. It is just not worth the frustration, tedium, and more than a month of lost writing to make your own, she insists. My experience with indexing, though, has been far different. Using just a spreadsheet and word processor, much of the time and tedium can be eliminated, and a rewarding process of indexing can offer new insights about your book.

Making a Useable Index

A good index includes all the relevant topics, concepts, and data that a reader or researcher may be reasonably interested in when consulting your book. It is not merely a concordance; searching key words or phrases is not sufficient for making an index, because many of the concepts or topics that your book discusses may not be easily reduced to a single word. Conversely, the word that captures the concept may appear in other contexts irrelevant to the topic that you are trying to include. As an example, my book includes a discussion of “voice” in terms of who is able to speak, under what circumstances subjects are empowered to express themselves, and what are the power dynamics involved in public discourse. But the word “voice” appears throughout the text in ways largely irrelevant to the concept of voice that I discuss. In fact, the word itself shows up ninety-nine times in its various forms throughout the book, but the index has only a single entry for “voice.”

Clearly, indexing is not a merely mechanical activity of locating keywords. This is why word processor indexing tools, like the one included in Microsoft Word, on their own are not adequate; as technical writer John McGhie points out in his very good article about indexing, the “automatically generated” tool in Word makes something that “looks like an index, but the reader can’t use it.”   Creating a useable guide involves careful consideration of which terms to include, which ones to leave out, and which instances of the included terms to reference. It takes someone with a thorough and nuanced understanding of the text’s arguments and insights to identify the key concepts and terms to appear in the index. No one is better suited to that task than the author.

Indexing for Better Reading

The nuanced art of indexing can create a useful aid that remains indispensable even for e-books. Although digitization has added powerful tools for both authors and readers, the various electronic reading devices and applications have a ways to go in identifying the key relevant concepts of a book and its various arguments, perspectives, and insights. Fortunately for all writers, the written word still needs engaged readers to fully appreciate the complexity of ideas expressed in the work, and a thoughtful index remains a useful tool to guide curious readers to those ideas.

Next time, I will discuss the process of deciding what to include in your index. ♨

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