by Sonsie Carbonara Conroy
I’ve been involved with publishing (editing, writing, proofreading, etc.) for my entire career; during the last 20 years, I have specialized in indexing.
In this day and age, why bother with an index, especially in an electronic document, when you can use a keyword search?
What does an index add to a document?
Can’t you just use the indexing function of your word processing software instead of hiring a professional?
And above all, just what is an index, and how is it produced?
Let’s start with the last question, as it is probably the most important. An index is more than a concordance or list of terms. It is a detailed map or guide to the information contained in a document—written by a human being, to be used by other humans.
The ability to electronically search a document can be a godsend — it’s one of the great gifts of the computer era. Yet the search function is essentially “dumb”: exact and concrete and unable to deal with higher-level concepts like the human brain does with great ease.
If you’re looking for Zbigniew Brzezinski in a book on U.S. foreign policy, for example, a nearly instantaneous electronic search process may bring up 128 references. But which one concerns his part in brokering the Camp David Accords? His relationship with Jimmy Carter? His current position at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies? You’d have to physically follow each link to find this information.
An index guides you quickly to the pages where each topic is discussed, and the information is accessible several different ways. His part in the Camp David Accords, for example, would appear as a subheading under his name, and under “Camp David Accords,” and probably under several other related topics.
An indexer acts as a go-between, helping the reader find information using the author’s language. This skill is especially important when a novice reader is confronted with the instruction manual for new software, for example. The software uses a specialized language of its own — a language the reader may not understand. The helpful indexer directs readers from common names (“options,” “background”) to program-specific terms (“radio buttons,” “wallpaper”).
When working with most materials, an indexer does not need to be an expert in the field. This is especially true if the audience for the book is a general one. If an intelligent, experienced indexer cannot understand the text well enough to index it, that may point to problems with writing or editing. Highly technical documents intended for very specialized audiences, probably need an indexer who has specialized education and/or experience in the topic, but this is an unusual situation.
THE INDEXING PROCESS
To give an idea of how an index is put together, let me outline my own process.
First, I deal with the clerical aspects. Are all the pages present, complete, and numbered properly? Are there any illegible portions? If I’ve received the document on disk or in email, I like to print it out and work with it on paper.
I read the table of contents and any introductory material to get an idea of the subject and scope of the document. Then, it’s time to dive in.
I use a highlighter to mark definitions, terms, proper nouns, and other indexable items. Then I read for “aboutness.” This is where the concept entries are developed. What is this section about? What is the best descriptive term for an index entry? Should a discussion of the 1978 meetings between Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, and Anwar Sadat be indexed under “Middle East peace process,” or “Camp David Accords”?
Should it be entered under more than one term — i.e., should “Camp David Accords” be indexed as a separate entry and as a subentry under “Middle East conflict,” “Carter, Jimmy,” “Sadat, Anwar,” and “Begin, Menachem”?
Creating concept entries is the heart of the indexing process, and requires the most time and judgment. As the index progresses, the wording of these entries may change, several may be combined into entry, or a single entry might be “opened up” into two or three separate ideas. The reader’s ease of use is uppermost in my mind, and I like to make generous use of “See” and “See also” entries.
The editing process involves checking spelling and grammar as well as polishing and refining individual entries. If there is limited space, I may also have to cut and combine entries to make the material fit in the allotted pages. Often, though, typographic tricks such as a smaller typeface, closer leading, or using two or more columns, can make an index fit without much — if any — cutting.
When does a document need an index? There are no standard guidelines requiring an index if a document is X pages long, though publishers may have in-house rules about length. If a document of ten pages is complex enough, it might need a short index. Generally, any nonfiction publication intended for general distribution in the form of a book of any length should have an index.
Beside being an immense help to readers, an index is virtually required for nonfiction books to be taken seriously by libraries and bookstores. In fact, many libraries will not purchase nonfiction without an index! Most scholarly and technical journals also index by volume or year.
I’m sure we’ve all stood in a book store and scanned the indexes of one book after another, looking for the one that has the best coverage of our topic of interest. A book with no index is almost guaranteed to be put aside during such a search. And a book with columns of undifferentiated page numbers may suffer a similar fate. This is where the quality of the index comes into play, and just another reason why a human must do this job in order to get it right.
Just about all word processing programs come with an indexing function. Why not just use this automated feature to generate an index? Because like the search function for an electronic document, the indexing feature is essentially “dumb.” It can only deal with the words in the document, not with the concepts. And probably the most important contribution of an indexer is organizing the index around the concepts presented in the document.
Any search or indexing program can find some indexable terms, such as proper names, common nouns that name ideas, and so on. What a computer cannot do is understand the higher-level concepts involved in, say, a book about dogs. The names of all the breeds mentioned in the book will be caught by the software, but there will also be hundreds of undifferentiated page numbers after the word, “dog” or “dogs.” All named training exercises will be indexed, but there probably won’t be a main heading called “training,” with a subhead for “exercises” and perhaps even sub-subheadings for each exercise.
Concept indexing is something only humans can do, and informative subheadings, which are the meat and potatoes of any good index, will be absent. A long list of undifferentiated page numbers following an important idea is next to useless. It takes the careful analysis of an indexer to make that idea accessible via useful subheadings.
EMBEDDED VERSUS BACK-OF-THE-BOOK INDEXES
Embedded indexes are created by placing tags, or pointers to information, in electronic documents. Word processing software, like Word, or page layout programs such as Frame, InDesign, or Quark are used for this process. Embedded indexing is useful for documents that change often, because the tags stay with the text and so page changes don’t make a difference.
The thought process involved in creating an embedded index is the same; the difference lies in the finished product and means of access. It’s somewhat more difficult and time-consuming to create an embedded index, and not always practical or necessary.
Back of the book indexes are the tools we are most familiar with. A standard index can be created using a shoe box and packets of index cards (the only method available until the advent of the computer), or you can use your word processing program to perform some of the clerical functions and speed up the process. Professional indexers use stand-alone indexing programs that are relatively costly and have a steep learning curve . . . not something most novices will need or want.
I hope I’ve convinced you that your masterwork needs an equally fine index. So, who is going to tackle this project? In most cases, hiring a professional is the way to go. As the author, you’ve given your all and are probably plumb out of creative juice to tackle any related project. Also, since you know virtually every word and paragraph, you’re not in a good position to pretend to be an uninitiated reader looking for concepts expressed in unfamiliar language.
In most cases, then, you’ll want to hire a professional. This person will need to see a sample of the text (several pages up to a full chapter, depending on the length of the work), and you’ll discuss price per page, index style, depth, and length, and other important details.
You can find a professional indexer several ways; two of the best are via Indexers Unlimited or the American Society of Indexers (see handout for Web site addresses).
If you decide you can do this yourself, there are several resources to help you. Dedicated, stand-alone indexing software has a fairly steep learning curve and is expensive; you don’t need to use it for fairly simple projects. However, the downloadable demos offered by most software manufacturers will allow you to create indexes (with some limitations) should you wish to give this method a try.
Instead, you can invest in a shoe box, a set of alphabetic dividers, and a stack of — guess what? — index cards, and create your index by hand, to be typed in final form later. This is the cheapest and perhaps the easiest method, and it’s how I got started years ago.
Or, if you want to be a little more up-to-date, you can use Word or WordPerfect to do some of the work for you, and eliminate having to type a complete index at the end of the process. A colleague has developed a simple method to do this, which I’ll be happy to share via email.
Copyright 2007 Sonsie Carbonara Conroy
For more information or questions, contact Sonsie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More resources on indexing:
- Indexers Unlimited: www.indexersunlimited.org (a consortium of experienced, professional indexers, many of whom specialize in technical materials and embedded indexing)
- Standalone indexing programs (with trial packages available)
- Embedded indexing and Web page indexing:
Sonsie Carbonara Conroy of Catalyst Communication Arts is an expert indexer who has also authored a book and written articles on a variety of subjects. For more than 20 years, Catalyst Communication Arts has served trade and textbook publishers by performing professional indexing of general and technical subject matter. Sonsie creates indexes written from the user's point of view that illuminate, and provide easy access to, the author's ideas and the terms used to explain those ideas.