Book Indexing, Part 3: Tips for Do-It-Yourselfers

Photo by Hans Gerhard Meier

If after reading Parts 1 and 2 of this series you’ve decided that a computer isn’t competent to index your book and that hiring a professional isn’t an option, and if you’ve never written an index before, you might appreciate some advice. Here are some answers to questions I frequently hear from writers contemplating the DIY solution.

Q. How elaborate an index should I make?

A. Browse through the book and put yourself in the place of a reader or teacher or student and imagine what kinds of things you might want to locate. Consider on a sliding scale where the book falls between a one-time read and a reference book, and provide less or more detail accordingly.

Q. I have never done an index before. I am becoming worried about how difficult, complicated, and time-consuming the task may be.

A. Time-consuming, yes, but most of my writers produce an index in the three or four weeks I give them, even while they’re teaching or traveling. To gauge your own aptitude, you might look at the indexing chapter of The Chicago Manual of Style. If it freaks you out, well, that might tell you something.

Q. How do I start? Is there software? Should I use index cards?

A. Professional indexers use software, but it doesn’t eliminate the brainwork. In fact, normally they use the software in tandem with hard-copy page proofs (not electronic files), reading the pages and typing entries into fields. The software merely provides efficient ways of sorting and formatting. I experimented with Cindex once, and I decided that the start-up costs (time and money) make the most sense for those who expect to use it regularly. I would skip the index cards as well. Instead, just read over each page and start typing entries and page numbers into a Word document. You might want to make an extra copy of the proofs for marking up as you work (highlighting proper names, jotting concepts and topics in the margin).

Q. That sounds fine until I accumulate a couple of pages; then doesn’t it get unwieldy?

A. Yes, but I can give you a couple of tricks for alphabetizing and moving entries around easily.*

Q. Should I type in skinny columns?

A. No. Let the typesetters wrangle your text into columns of tiny type. Type hard returns only to create a new entry or subentry, never within an entry or subentry. Use tabs only at the beginning of subentries. You can see examples in CMOS.

Q. How do I keep track of subentries?

A. It’s essential to identify subentries as you go, since it’s nearly impossible to go back and figure them out later. Subentries are the heart of a good index. Here’s an example of an unhelpful main entry:

food, 50, 65, 66, 12–13, 133, 169, 172, 177, 179, 184–85, 187–89, 209, 214, 215,
216, 258n9, 259n121, 261n4

To avoid ending up with something like this, associate every page number in your index with a subcategory as you go, even if you don’t use all the subcategories in the finished index. If the writer of the above entry were more careful while drafting the index, it might look like this:


chicken, 12–13, 133
cookies, 11–12
dumplings, 169, 172, 185, 190, 312
fish, 50, 65, 66
pie, 259n121
profiteroles, 177
turkey, 216, 258n9

This way, during revision, there would be enough information to allow for editing in various ways. If chicken and turkey each had several page numbers, they could remain as separate subentries. If each had only one or two page numbers, they could merge under “poultry.” Pie and tiramisu could be combined under “desserts.” Sub-subentries might suggest themselves:


chicken: and dumplings, 169, 172, 185, 190, 312; fried, 216, 258n9
dessert: cookies, 11–12; pie, 259n121; profiteroles, 177

In short: make lots of subentries with the idea that you’ll wrangle them later.

A few more tips:

—If you make corrections to names or dates during proofreading, mark the same corrections on your indexing copy.

—Endear yourself to your copy editor by expressing number ranges consistently. Look at how your notes were copy-edited and use the same system. For instance, is it 112–14, 112–4, or 112–114? Is it 300–301 or 300–1?

—When making cross-references (See dumplings), save the reader trouble whenever you can. If it takes the same amount of space or less to supply the page numbers instead of writing a cross reference, make a “double posting”—that is, supply page numbers at both locations.

—Use cross references only if there is added value at the destination entry.

—When you cross reference, don’t send a reader to an entry with a string of page numbers unless all of those pages are relevant. (If you’ve done a good job with subentries, this won’t be an issue.)

—Remember to put subentries in alphabetical order, ignoring articles, prepositions, and conjunctions:

with brio
on a bus
and dummies
by proxy

The main thing is to keep thinking like a reader. And if you decide indexing isn’t for you, you can always call on a pro.


*Word-processing tips for alphabetizing and moving entries around (assuming you’re using Microsoft Word):

—Use the Table > Sort feature to alphabetize entries. Highlight all the entries you want to alphabetize, then go to the Table menu, choose Sort, and hit Enter. They’ll pop into alpha order. Keep in mind that subentries will fly all over the place during this kind of sorting unless you bind them to their main heading. To do this type a “new line” (Shift+Enter) instead of a hard return before every subentry. Always type a hard return before a main entry. (If you find that most of your sorting is at the subentry level, however, don’t bind them together in this way.)

—Put your cursor anywhere in a paragraph and you can move that paragraph up or down the page by holding down Shift+Alt and using the Up or Down arrow. If you aren’t moving very far, it’s faster and safer than cutting and pasting. You can also highlight a bunch of text (such as an entry along with its subentries) and move it up or down in the same way. Take care with this. On some computers, if instead of Shift+Alt you hit Control+Alt with the Down arrow, your screen will turn black and then reappear upside down. It’s terrifying. (Although in my experience it can be funny when it happens to someone else. … )

Splitting your screen can be helpful: you can work in the top part and search in the bottom part, toggling back and forth with the F6 key; or you can work in two views of the same document side by side, toggling with Control F6.

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