Overview Of Indexing

Jump to:  Indexing Basics |  From Whence the Project Comes |  My Indexing Process

Indexing Basics

I wrote an overview of indexing for the American Society of Indexers website that other indexers have continued revising. Martha Osgood has written a wonderful Indexing FAQ that answers to common, basic questions about indexing.

Indexing is not simply copying words out of a text and alphabetizing those words. Indexing is subject analysis. That is, reading a passage and labeling what it is about rather than what it actually says on the page. For example, numerous passages in a book about dogs might talk about food and nutrition but not actually ever use the word diet.

This is partly why computer-generated indexes are rarely useful without some human manipulation. This is also why when authors index their own texts, they index what they intended a passage to convey, rather than what readers may actually understand the passage to be about. It is uncommon for authors to objectively index their own work and to be open to seeing that they are saying much more than they intended to say. For the book I co-wrote with Sherry Smith, we knew from the very start that we would not index it ourselves. I still discover gems in that index and think “really – did we actually write about that?!” (Interestingly, there are a couple of well-known indexers who have written books and indexed the books themselves and most of their readers find the indexes in their books to be extremely frustrating to use. )

From Whence the Project Comes

Most often, it is publishers and editors who contact me about their projects that need indexes.

Authors’ contracts usually specify who is responsible for supplying the indexes. Currently in the U.S., indexes are often the authors’ responsibility, but it is rare that authors actually locate and contract with indexers. Instead, they usually ask their editors, publishers, or packagers to arrange for the indexing and indexing fees are taken out of payments due to authors. (I find it interesting that fees for illustrators, editors, and proofreaders are not treated the same way.)

The index is frequently the last thing on their minds until it is needed, so a few weeks before a book goes to press, someone remembers that they’d better find an indexer. This situation can be a problem for some publishers: indexers they rely on might be booked, and with little time they have to locate and contact other indexers. There are a few publishers who actually schedule index preparation at the planning stages of their projects. As you can imagine, they often end up with better indexes because they have time to select an indexer perfectly suited to a particular text, and the indexer can make any necessary preparations in advance of receiving the text.

When a potential client contacts me, I ask questions about the work to determine if it is a project I’m able and willing to  take on. After we discuss the important details, we sign a contract. (I supply a service agreement if the client doesn’t have one of their own).

My Indexing Process

Each indexer has their own writing process, as illustrated by the processes described in the two-part article I wrote titled “How do I index thee? Indexers count the ways” from the April-June and October-December 2004 issues of Keywords: the newsletter of the American Society of Indexers.

My own process varies a bit, depending on how much time I have and whether I have tight length limits. I prefer to work from page proofs or galleys, after a book’s layout is complete and page numbers are set. Electronic copies can be an excellent complement to the printed copy, and I appreciate having access to these files. When schedules are tight, I sometimes work with drafts of page proofs before page numbers are set. This allows me to create index entries and solidify the structure of the index, and then at the last minute I only apply the page numbers rather than constructing the entire index under a tight deadline.

Below is an excerpt from my book Inside Indexing that provides a good overview of my index-writing process.

Typically, I follow the steps below when writing indexes. I’m not rigid about following these steps in the order presented here. For example, I often intertwine Steps Three and Four. I might do Steps Three and Four for one chapter, then Steps Three and Four for another chapter, and so on.
STEP ONE: Browsing. I browse through the text, reading the table of contents, chapter headings, and sections within chapters. Doing this gives me a sense of where the author is going and the vocabulary he uses to get there, as well as what the major themes are and how those themes are presented.
STEP TWO: Building the skeleton. I create entries for section headings in SKY Index Professional, my indexing software. I work in fully formatted, sorted view the entire time in order to see each new entry in the context of its alphabetical neighbors. I rarely stop to solve problems or focus on wording during this step.
STEP THREE: Marking text and fleshing out the index. I do a detailed reading of the entire text. Sometimes I mark the text and note in margins other possible entries, double-posts, and cross-references. If necessary, I consult reference materials. Doing so provides me with guidance in establishing a logical index structure and also reassures me that I’m including adequate access points.
STEP FOUR: Entry input. I create entries in my indexing software for topics that I identified in my Step Three. I overindex during this step because I find it easier to whittle down a long index than to inflate a short one. I also add notes to myself in these entries.At this point, I have a first draft of my index. It is rare that my first draft looks much like my finished product. In this book you’ll see excerpts from my first draft of my index so I want to explain some of my entry-creation quirks. My tendency to overindex manifests itself in my first draft in several ways. First, I often create several levels of headings, including sub-sub-subs. Doing this makes it easier for me to keep track of relationships and potential access points. Second, my entries are wordy. This is another way for me to pack entries with information that I might use during editing. Third, I create some enormously long entries that have a lot of subheadings. Beginning my editing phase with long, wordy, multi-leveled entries means I revisit the text less often than I would if my first draft included scant entries.
STEP FIVE: Editing. After the detailed entries are in my software, I edit the index. This is my favorite part of the indexing process. Editing usually takes 20-40% of my total indexing time.
STEP SIX: Spot checks. I sort the index by page and spot check entries and page references. This also gives me another chance to make sure that my index isn’t missing any unstated or subtle concepts.