Monday, February 25, 2013

The Index Decision: Part 1 -- Writing Your Own Index

So, when I'm not writing fiction, I spend the better part of my day writing back-of-the-book indexes.  Here's a brief look at the practice.  Part 2 will post tomorrow.

This article previously appeared in Roundup magazine. No part of this article can be reused, reprinted, or copied in any manner without the author's consent.  Copyright, 2013.

The Index Decision:

An Overview of the Process and the Practice of Indexing 

By Larry D. Sweazy

            It has been noted by many booksellers that the first action a potential non-fiction book buyer takes, after picking up the book in the first place, is to open it—and look at the index.  A good index can make or break a relationship with the potential reader.  Librarians will also judge a book by the index, as will educators.  So if the index is so important, then why is its creation, use, and production, such a mystery?
            First, a bit of history and definition before that question can be answered.
According to the ASI (American Society of Indexing) an index is defined by the  British indexing standard (BS3700:1988) this way: “An index is a systematic arrangement of entries designed to enable users to locate information in a document.”
That sounds simple enough.  But a good index is anything but simple.  In Books Ireland (February 1994), an index is described this way: “Indexes are among those necessary but never spectacular products of hard as well as skilled work that can sometimes make the difference between a book and a good book.”
An index is not just a list of names, places, and events.  That would be a concordance.  An index is far more than a list noted with page references.  It provides answers to a reader’s question.  It provides an access point into the text, pinpointing the exact location of the information being sought out.  And more than anything, the index provides a conceptual map (or skeleton) of the book, as well as, providing exact details, like names, cities, or events.
Indexes in history can be traced back to Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), and probably farther back in history to the ancient Greeks, but didn’t really settle into an accepted form until after Guttenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s.  Indexing a scroll had its challenges, but information retrieval was on an evolutionary path from nearly the first instance of the written word.  Alphabetization rules evolved in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and the style of indexes we use today grew out of those hard fast rules.  
Even in today’s fast-paced, computer-driven world, the index continues to be used and evolve.  Information retrieval is a primary act of every day existence, and the index is a common, often overlooked tool, that is generally under-utilized and under-appreciated.

Once a book has been accepted for publication, an author it is often given the choice of indexing his or her work on their own, or hiring the work out to a freelance indexer.  At that point, the author has a crucial decision to make, learning a new craft in a short amount of time—one that is acceptable to the publisher, possibly to the academic and scholarly society at large, and to the reader—or entrusting a freelancer with their book, who must be paid a decent wage, usually before royalties are ever paid to the author. 
Each choice has its pros and cons, and there is not a right choice that fits all circumstances.  In the following sections, I will try to address the advantages and disadvantages of writing one’s own index or hiring it out, and how to navigate both situations in the most professional way possible.


Your book is finished, and has been delivered to the publisher.  You’ve gone through the copy-editing and proofreading processes, and your editor sends you a note (or email) stating that the page proofs are in the mail, and the index needs to be written and returned in two weeks.  A good editor will give you an idea of when to expect this, so the schedule and notification of the index process should not come as a surprise.  But sometimes it does.
So you have the page proofs, now what?
Since you’ve agreed to write the index, then hopefully, you have prepared yourself by familiarizing yourself with the indexing conventions your publisher has set forth in their guidelines. 
Most publishers will base their guidelines on a style manual, like by The Chicago Manual of Style, and use it as their firm set of indexing rules and guidelines.  If you have not done so, the first thing you’ll need to do is read the indexing section of the style manual recommended by your publisher. 
You will begin to figure out very quickly that indexing is a writing discipline in itself. 
There are indented styles, run-on styles, See and See also conventions, alphabetization rules like word-by-word or letter-by-letter, and so on, that must be learned and put into practice. 
The indexing section in The Chicago Manual of Style is over 60 pages long, and like any other style manual, there are instances that will not apply to your work.  But there are many that will, and a good editor will know by looking at your index if you understand the indexing process at the bare minimum—so the index will be as publishable as your non-fiction writing. 
The publisher will also usually give you formatting information such as margins, double- or single-spacing requirements, as well as what type of electronic file to deliver. 
Most all of today’s indexing tasks are done on the computer with software, and there are several programs that include reasonably sophisticated indexing features.  The most common are Microsoft Word, Adobe FrameMaker, Quark, and InDesign. 
Publishers will generally ask for a Word file, or a .rtf (rich-text) file, so it is important that the program that you choose has the capability of being saved  with a .doc or .rtf file extension. 
There are also several software programs available for use that are designed specially for indexing.  Cindex, Sky, and Macrex, are the most popular, and all have different features, but produce an index in the necessary file types.  All of these programs can purchased for less than a thousand dollars—and may not be advantageous to an author writing one or two indexes in their career.  These programs are most often used by freelance indexers.
The days of using actual index cards for creating an index are long gone.  Software speeds up the process dramatically.  But like all software, there is a learning curve, and it will take time to get up to speed on the programs. 
    So, we have page proofs, a style manual, formatting instructions, and systems (computer software or otherwise) in place to create the index—now it’s on to the fun part: writing the index itself.
The next step in the writing process is term selection, and it is extremely important.  There’s a lot more to it than picking out important subjects and listing them. 
Again, we are creating an index not a concordance, and no, a computer program can’t just list all of the keywords and have it pass as a usable index.
The index has to be written word by word, just like the book was.
The first thing an author must do—as they stare at that blank index page—is realize that the index is not about them.  It’s about the reader.  One of the greatest pitfalls of writing one’s own index is the closeness to the material that all authors must possess to create a tangible work of non-fiction. 
Everything in the book is important to the author, and therefore must be included in the index.  That would be a false assumption.  One that would lead to ruin, and an index so dense it would be of no use.
As an indexer, you are acting as an advocate for the reader...answering their questions by providing terms that might not even be in the text.  Remember that term, conceptual map, I used early on?  This is what I meant. 
If there is an assassination in your text, wouldn’t it also be considered a murder?  You would then enter both terms as an entry—even if murder wasn’t used as a description or event in the text.
Of course, the important names, places, and events would be included in an index.  But…there has to be more information than a listing of page references—there should be sub-headings, and sub-sub-headings if necessary. 
How many times have you seen an index entry like this while conducting research:

acacia trees, 14, 58, 70, 104, 156, 109-110, 110, 136, 147. See also trees

Wouldn’t it be more useful to the readers for there to be an entry in the index like this instead:

acacia trees, 14, 156. See also trees; vegetation; charcoal production, 109–110; as crops, 110; distribution of, 58; as fuel wood, 70; leaves, 136; prohibitions on removing, 147; as sources of feed, 104

This type of entry and term selection offers the reader more specific information, saves them time, and gets them to the exact location, or access point, in the text they were looking for in the first place.   The first example offers no specific information, and each page reference must be looked up and searched.  This is a poor indexing practice, and does not take the reader into consideration at all.
There are times when the publisher will dictate size, or a number of specific pages, to the index, and there may not be room for such detail.  My first suggestion is to advocate for more pages.  You don’t get what you don’t ask for.  If pages can’t be added, then try to write as detailed an index as you can, and avoid listing unspecified page ranges more than five times.
            A good index is usually 5% of the text.  Five pages of index for every one hundred pages of text, usually double column, but sometimes three column.  If you get the font size from the publisher, you can calculate how many entries per page of text you’ll need to write using this formula:  number of lines in the index multiplied by the number of columns, multiplied by the total number of index pages, divided by the number of pages of text.  It should look something like this:

            45 lines x 2 columns x 10 = 900 entries.  Now divide 900 by 200 (assumed number of text pages), and you’ll need 4.5 index entries per page.  

This formula will help narrow down what is important and what is not—so that thick, unusable index is truly a usable one.  Using a See reference will help restrain the number of entries, if that is necessary, due to page limitations.
            One thing about See Also references to keep in mind if you use them, they shouldn’t create a circle for the reader.  In other words, there shouldn’t be references like this:
            acacia trees. See also trees
            trees. See also acacia trees

            You are sending the reader one place, then back to another, then back to the original access point.

            Obviously, there is much more to writing a good index, but the key things to keep in mind are reader advocacy, term selection, specificity of terms (use of sub and sub-sub headings), brevity, and clarity of See/See also references. 
The index is a tool for the reader that reflects directly on the writer, and it should have the same intensity, the same insistence of quality, that was placed in the text in the first place, otherwise the author is letting the reader down, as well as their own work.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2: Hiring an Indexer           

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