When people find out that I’m a freelance book indexer, I’m always asked, “But doesn’t a computer do that?” Then they usually follow with, “Wow, I never knew this type of job existed!” I used to be surprised that people were so interested in indexing after I gave them a bit of background. Now, I’m grateful that I never have to worry about what to say to someone at a party. Once they learn what I do, the questions keep coming.

This newsletter is my attempt to explain indexing, as well as provide a glimpse into the lives of indexers. I might be biased, but I think the final 3% of a nonfiction book deserves to be in the spotlight once in a while. I hope you’ll enjoy the conversation.

If you want to learn more about how I became an indexer, you can read my indexing origin story.

Here are some of my answers to questions people often ask about indexes.

What is an index?

An index is a retrieval device—an information finder for readers, most commonly found at the back of nonfiction books. Indexes are also useful guides to slide presentations, online courses, and even websites.

An index points to the location of words, concepts, and other items like names and places. Think of the index as the librarian at the information desk, helping point out where to find information on a specific topic, quickly and easily.

But can’t a computer create an index?

Yes, of course! A computer can create an index, but not a very good one. A computer-generated index is called a concordance—a collection of words and their found instances in a book.

In his book Index, History of AnDennis Duncan gives an example of a concordance. An excellent index created by a real person (Paula Clarke Bain) follows immediately after the concordance. If you have a chance to pick up the book, I recommend starting with its index. Paula presents the material with a bit of cheeky humor. If you want to learn about the collaboration between Dennis and Paula, this Tiny Type podcast episode is a great listen!

So, what exactly does an indexer do that a computer can’t do?

As a professional book indexer, I’m really good at helping identify what information people want (and most of my peers are similarly gifted). Once I do that, I set about creating a map so they can find what they need.

I’m always thinking about you, the reader. As I work through the book analyzing its contents, I ask myself:

  • What kind of words will you look up?

  • What concepts or ideas draw you to this book?

  • How can I lay out the contents of the book in a logical and concise way so that both the person who’s read the book and the person who hasn’t can find what they’re looking for?

I analyze the book, looking for concepts that were discussed but not necessarily named.

Does an indexer really read the whole book?

I read the entire book at least once—sometimes, a second, or even a third time.

To ensure the right information is included in the index, I ask, “What is the author saying here?” Pages of text are consolidated into one or two words in the index. My job is to extract meaning from the text and position it properly in the index so the reader can easily dip in and out of the book at will.

And I must do this concisely. The index has a small footprint—only 3-5% of the entire book—but it contains all the major concepts, names, places, and ideas detailed by the author.

Depending on the complexity of the book, I’ll make a first pass of the book to set up the structure of the index, followed by a second pass to pick up all the important names, and sometimes complete a third pass to fill in the gaps in the structure.

Shouldn’t the author index their own book?

You might think that the author would be the best person to index the book since they know it best.

But that knowledge doesn’t mean they’ll write a good one.

First, the author is so close to the book's content that they might make assumptions and leave out information the reader might look for.

Second, they’re not trained on how to word headings and subheadings or how to make connections through cross-references and double posting.

But there are some books that can help get them started. The Chicago Manual of Style has a chapter on indexing that is 48 pages long and contains 145 principles of indexing. It’s the most concise piece on how to create an index. Another good place to start would be with Stephen Ullstrom’s book, a 234-page step-by-step guide through the indexing process.

Now, let me turn this question around and ask, “Why would an author want to write their own index?

By the time the book is ready to be indexed, the publishing process is rapidly coming to an end. It’s just weeks before the book goes to print. At this point, shouldn’t the author be concentrating on the book’s launch? Do they really have the time to write and then edit the index?

Then again, some authors do have a knack for creating indexes. Julia Child is probably the most famous author-indexer that I can think of. The indexes she created for her cookbooks are works of art.

Is there more to know about indexing?

Now that I’ve answered some questions about indexing, maybe I’ve piqued your interest. Subscribe to hear more about indexing and why I love to talk about it so much.

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A newsletter about back-of-the-book indexing.

People

Michelle began her indexing career by accident while taking a break from practicing medicine. Indexing—with its variety, flexibility, and opportunities to work with engaging authors & editors—has proven to be the right fit for this former podiatrist.