Book Index

How to Index a Book—Part 3: An easy, inexpensive procedure

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

In the first two parts of this series, I began by explaining why I am convinced that book authors should make their own indexes rather than paying someone else to do it for them; in the second posting I discussed the question of categories for your index entries. In this final installment I will reveal an easy, inexpensive, and relatively fast procedure for making your own book index. All you need are your book’s page proofs, a spreadsheet program, and a word processor; for the purposes of these instructions I will refer to Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word, which are what I use [note: I have the 2010 versions of these programs, but there should be no substantial differences in the procedures below if you have later versions].

The following explanation is admittedly a bit long and confusing. I assure you, however, that the actual process is much more simple and straightforward than it sounds. Overall it amounts to four major steps with some details and caveats associated with each. In simplest terms the four steps consist of:

  1. Go through the page proofs carefully to identify all the terms (i.e., headings) to include in the index, noting modifications, page ranges, and possible cross references (see previous post for suggestions about what to include).
  2. Enter each instance of every heading along with modifications, page ranges, and possible cross references into a spreadsheet in order of their occurrence in the text.
  3. Sort the headings in the spreadsheet in alphabetical order, then cut and paste headings into a word processing document, consolidating and formatting them as you go.
  4. Add modifications and cross references to the index in the word processing document.

The first two steps are the most time-consuming and difficult tasks of the whole process. In most cases they will take roughly 80% of the total time and effort needed to complete your index. Once everything is entered into the spreadsheet, the rest of the work is relatively fast and easy.

Step 1: Identify index entries

The actual indexing process begins with identifying the terms, concepts, and information to include as index entries as they appear in the text itself. This requires a careful page-by-page reading of the entire text. As you read the page proofs, mark in the margin any heading and/or modification that you come across (“heading” refers to an index entry, and “modification” is a subcategory of the entry); for example, if you were indexing a book on American religious history as I recently did, you may come across a discussion of Franciscan missionaries in New Mexico, and in the margin you might write, “missionaries” as a heading, with “Franciscan” as a modification. You also should note any possible cross references, i.e., other headings that may be relevant to the current heading; in this example, missionaries and Franciscans could be modifications of each other (in other words, the heading for missionaries has Franciscans as a modification and vice versa) and don’t need a separate cross reference, but “colonization” would be a likely cross reference for missionaries.

If the discussion of the heading term continues for more than the current page, then the page range should also be noted in the margin. Thus, in the example, the margin note on page 93 might read something like this: “missionaries, Franciscan, 93-96, c/r colonization.” Discreet appearances of a heading, however, should appear as separate entries in the index; so, if the text describes the missionaries’ arrival in New Mexico on page 93, and then it discusses other aspects of the Spaniards in New Mexico before picking up the missionary story later, on page 96 for instance, there should be two different heading entries, one for page 93 and another for page 96, not a single 93-96 heading.

Step 2: Put the headings into the spreadsheet

After you have marked in the margins every instance of headings, modifications, possible cross references, and page ranges, then you need to enter all of this into a spreadsheet. Create three columns in Excel: Column A = Headings; Column B = Modifications and page numbers; and Column C = Cross references. Then enter the headings and other information from your margin notes into the spreadsheet, beginning with the first page and working through page by page, recording every instance of all headings each on a separate line (“row” in Excel parlance) in the order that they occur in the book.

In the first column put the heading name; in the second column put any modification that a particular instance may have plus the page number (or page range) where the heading /modification appears; and in the third column list cross references if any that may be relevant to that particular instance of the heading. In the example I have given, when I come to page 93 I will put “missionaries” in Column A, “Franciscan 93-96” in Column B, and “colonization” in Column C. Possibly on the same page I may include a heading for “New Mexico,” but if its page range encompasses the reference to Franciscan missionaries, then there is no need for a cross-reference to “missionaries, Franciscan”; for instance, if the discussion of New Mexico occurs on pages 93 through 101, then I do not need to cross-reference the Franciscan missionaries because readers looking up the New Mexico reference will see the discussion of the Franciscan missionaries; cross-references are only for additional related headings marked as “see also” entries in the index that may lead readers to related topics not encompassed in the current entry.

Steps 1 and 2, identifying the headings in the text and then entering them into the spreadsheet, consumes the bulk of the time and energy in the indexing process. I do these two steps a chapter at a time; I read a chapter carefully, marking any possible headings, modifications, page ranges, and cross references in the margins as I go page by page. Once I finish Step 1 for the chapter, I then turn to the spreadsheet for Step 2 and go back through the chapter entering all of the headings and other information noted in the margin into the spreadsheet in order of occurrence. Then the same with the next chapter all the way through the book. (Note that most publishers advise against indexing dedications, acknowledgements, glossaries, or footnotes/endnotes, except in the case of the latter where substantial information is discussed.)

Step 3: Move headings to the document

Once all of the headings for the entire book are listed in the spreadsheet, then the process of sorting and consolidating begins. Start by sorting all of the rows in alphabetical order of the headings: in Excel, under the “Data” tab, go to the “Sort & Filter” box and click the “A-to-Z” icon. With all of the entries in alphabetical order, go through the spreadsheet and “cut and paste” into a Word document every row (line) that has only a heading and page numbers (no modifications or cross references), keeping them in alphabetical order. You should be able to copy and paste several rows at a time that have the same heading with different pages.

Once you have pasted all of the rows of heading-only references, then convert the table to text in the word processor, using commas as separators; in Word, under the “Table/Layout” tab, in the “Data” box on the far right click “Convert to Text” and choose “commas” as the separator. Now you can go through and consolidate the entries, putting all of the page numbers for a single heading on the same line and deleting the multiple heading labels. Thus, as I go through the document, if I find seven lines of “missionaries,” I will consolidate those into a single entry with seven page references. As you consolidate the entries, you also need to format them according to your publisher’s specifications for punctuation, indenting, etc.

Step 4: Modifications and cross references

Once all of the headings in the Word document have been consolidated and formatted, return to the spreadsheet for the headings with modifications and cross references. Go through these by selecting all of the rows with a common heading (for instance, if there are five rows with “missionaries” as the heading, highlight those five rows). Then sort the selected rows by Column B (Modifications and Page numbers)—in Excel under the “Data” tab click on the “Sort” button in the “Sort and Filter” box to open the dialogue box and choose “Column B” in the “Sort by” drop-down menu. Cut these sorted rows from the spreadsheet and paste them into the Word document under the common heading; going back to my example, the sorted “missionaries” rows would get pasted under the missionaries heading in the Word document. Now you can convert the table to text, then consolidate and format the modifications and cross references for that heading entry. Do this for every remaining common heading in the spreadsheet until they have all been moved to the Word document.

As you enter the modifications into the Word document, you need to analyze each one for appropriateness, asking whether the subcategory actually is a narrower modification of the general heading. Also in regard to cross references, be certain that the referenced headings actually appear in your index and consider if they have references in addition to the current heading. If in our example the Franciscan missionaries in New Mexico were the only instance of colonization discussed in the book, then there really is no reason to cross-reference “colonization” since the heading there will have the same page references as the current “missionaries” heading. On the other hand, since colonization likely will be discussed elsewhere besides in reference to missionaries, it would be an appropriate cross reference.

In the end you should have a blank spreadsheet and a Word document with all of the index entries in alphabetical order, properly formatted with the page references, modifications, and appropriate cross references. Once you’ve done a careful proofreading of the finished index, the final step of the process is to send it off to your editor and go celebrate that your book is now complete!  Party

As a footnote, I actually do not know the source of this system of indexing. I came across it while still writing my dissertation around 2000 or 2001, probably on an email listserve, and I adapted it somewhat based on my own experience. If you prefer a more nuanced discussion of the art of indexing, there are several good references available.  Two in particular are Indexing Books by Nancy Mulvany (second edition, 2005, University Of Chicago Press) and Handbook of Indexing Techniques: A Guide for Beginning Indexers by Linda K. Fetters (fifth edition, 2013, Information Today, Inc.).

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