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Creating Your Book Index

Our Editorial Coordinator Hayley recently visited the Society of Indexers. Here’s what she found out about that most complex of beasts: the index, which they define as an ‘ordered arrangement of entries … designed to enable users to locate information in a document or specific documents in a collection’.

Your book may be complete with a fantastic cover and great looking interior. But, for non-fiction books, the index is the real nitty gritty that ties all of the book’s content together. So where to start? It’s a question we often get asked. At Troubador, we point authors in the direction of The Society of Indexers. Since 1957, this professional body has been promoting improved standards and techniques in all forms of indexing. National Indexing Day itself was launched on the 30th March 2017 to celebrate the society’s 60th birthday. This year’s National Indexing Day was a very well-organised event (well, what do you expect from a group whose purpose it is to organise things?). It was eye-opening to learn just how an index really works, meet the indexers themselves and find out about all sorts of indexing conventions that many readers and authors would never have thought of!

Indexers aren’t robots

Contrary to popular belief, computers haven’t made indexing redundant – a good and effective index is written, not generated from a computer search through the document. A full-text search through the book will retrieve simply too much information for the reader to sift through. Think of it like a Google search – there will be too many instances for the reader to easily find the information that they are looking for and they will simply give up. Even when reading on an e-reader with a search function, an index is necessary for the ease of the reader to find the information that they’re looking for.

Use a professional

Similar to the editing process, authors are often too close to their work to be able to create an effective index. It’s always worth seeking out the services of a professional indexer, as they will be able to analyse the text and pick out the most important aspects for the reader.

There are different kinds of index

With indexes, it’s a not a one size fits all approach. There are specialist indexers for cookbooks, medical, law and historical books. Best to find an indexer that knows your potential audience best!

Not so fast…

An index should always be made at the final stage of the production process, when the page numbering has been finalised. You could spend hours carefully creating an index as part of your manuscript in Microsoft Word, only to find later on that the page numbering has changed when the book is typeset in its final layout. There’s also the possibility of a thorough proof read moving around great swathes of text, so the index should really be created at as late a stage as possible.

Layout matters

There are also style decisions to consider when creating an index. How do you want to deal with indefinite articles? How detailed do you want your headings to be? Would you like to alphabetise the entries: word-by word or letter-by-letter? Do you want a separate index for a prominent topic in your book, like an index of names? It’s essential for there to be a consistent style throughout the index, or it will look messy and unprofessional to any potential readers; it may even put them off the book altogether!

Some golden rules…

There are important indexing conventions that can make the difference for an effective index.

• A heading should ideally have six entries before branching into subheadings. Any more is likely to be overwhelming for the reader to check each of these individual entries.

• A subheading shouldn’t have only one entry, as this means that it likely isn’t necessary for the book, and should instead be combined with the main heading.

Quite a handful, right?

For any non-fiction book, an index is a necessity. It’s a map for the reader to be able to navigate the information in your book. Spare a thought for those indexers too, the people whose meticulous attention for detail and painstaking work helps the reader find exactly what it is they are looking for.

Indexing might come last, but it certainly shouldn’t be least.

For further information and to find an indexer for your project, visit https://www.indexers.org.uk/

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