12 February 2015

My top seven tips for writing a basic index

By nonfictioness

Authors are occasionally asked to compile their own index and it can seem like a very daunting task but by following this advice you will be able to create your own basic index. A word of caution: creating an index for a complex book with numerous themes needs the attention of a professional indexer.The index of a book

The most important thing to keep in mind when writing an index is: would this term be looked up in an index? Think about how you personally use indexes as a reader and then bear that in mind as you go through compiling the index. It is very easy to get carried away with concepts and cross references and lose sight of the usefulness of the entry.

For a basic index the best method is to print out the full typeset manuscript (it must be typeset as the page numbers need to have been set). Then read through the manuscript and use a highlighter pen to pick out key words and concepts.

At this stage err on the side of ‘the more the merrier’ as it is easier to cut down an overly long index than to have to go back through the whole manuscript again.

People and places are an obvious place to start as these are key words that are frequently looked up in an index. Ignore passing references, only include entries that add to our knowledge about that person or place. So for example if the text read ‘I went to interview David Beckham about his long playing career, he was wearing a Harry Potter T-shirt’ you would index David Beckham but not Harry Potter.

By steadily reading the book and highlighting key words the main concepts should start to leap out at you, but sometimes you will need to figure out the best way to express the concept as it may not always be described in the same terms. For example if it was a fitness book there might be references to getting ready to exercise, including stretching or preparing your body for exercise and these should all be indexed under the concept of a ‘warm-up’, which is the most useful term to index them by as it encompasses all of these aspects.

As I go through highlighting words I also use another pen to note down ‘concept’ words on the relevant pages so I can make sure I tie all of the key words together.

Sub-headings can also be recorded as you go along. For example if the book is about Cambridge University then that word is probably mentioned on every page so indexing it is pointless, instead you need to think about what sub-headings can be used to make the book more navigable. So you might highlight words such as ‘founded in’, ‘admissions policy’ or ‘architecture’ and then list them as sub-headings in the index – so:

Cambridge University

– founded in

– admissions policy

– architecture

Once you have read through the entire manuscript, highlighting the key words it is time to compile the index. I generally use Excel as it has useful sorting tools. I set up the worksheet with two large columns – one for the index terms the other for the page references.

As you go through adding new terms always keep in mind the usefulness of that term and discard any that you think no one would actually look up. If an entry has many page references make sure you elide the numbers where you can as having a long list of numbers is unhelpful.

Always consult the style guide of your publisher but in general names and places should be capitalised, concepts should not.

Once you have compiled the index go through and delete any entries that seem superfluous.

If you have space it is a good idea to group connecting entries. For example you may separately index the British Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the V & A but it is also helpful to index them together under museums, thus:


– British

– of Modern Art

– V & A

Another consideration if you have the space is to think about which search terms might need to be reversed. For example Moroccan tiles and tiles, Moroccan.

Once you have streamlined the index you can select both columns and sort the entries using the A–Z sort tool so that the index comes out alphabetically. Once this is done I usually cut and paste the index and put it into a Word file. You can then go through and tidy up the index making sure there is a line space between each letter of the alphabet as this makes the index easier to read.

If you think it is necessary you can then check your index by searching in the manuscript for the terms in the index and making sure they correspond to your index. However make sure you don’t then add a ton of unnecessary entries where the word is referred to but only in passing as this over-complicates the index.

My top seven tips for writing a basic index:

  1. Print out the typeset manuscript and read through it highlighting key words and themes with a highlighter pen.
  2. Write any concepts/themes/notes in the margin to help focus your index.
  3. Only index page references where the information contained furthers the reader’s knowledge of the subject; do not index passing references.
  4. Try to think about how you might sub-divide large index categories.
  5. Remember to consider if you need to reverse some entries e.g. Moroccan tiles and tiles, Moroccan.
  6. Group some entries together under themes e.g. all the museums mentioned should be indexed under their own names but also under ‘museums’.
  7. The key thing to remember is to constantly be thinking how a reader would use an index and thus if the key words you have chosen are relevant.