An index, while never the glamorous part of any writing project, is essential to the readability and usability of longer non-fiction and technical works. Building one need not be a chore, but it should not be an afterthought either. Here’s how to make an index useful to readers without it becoming an unduly large project:-
1. Understand the purpose of an index. An index is an alphabetical listing of key words and concepts in the text. It contains “pointers” to those words and concepts, which are usually page, section, or paragraph numbers. An index generally appears at the end of a document or book. This is distinct from a table of contents, a bibliography, or other supporting materials.
2. Begin with a completed text. If the text is not yet complete, you can still begin the process of building an index as long as the text has most of its final structure.
- If you’re collecting page numbers by hand, finish editing and modifying the text first. An edit could push a particular section or subject onto another page.
- A word processor with an indexing tool can keep track of the page numbers for you and update the index automatically if the text changes.
- It’s best to have some familiarity with the subject you’re indexing, so that you know what is important. If you didn’t write the work you’re indexing, do some skimming or pre-reading before diving in.
3. Review the entire text, marking key words and main ideas. In a word processing program that has indexing features, you may begin tagging them directly as you read (or even while you write if you’re keen). Otherwise, create sticky notes, index cards, or other markings on each page.
- While copy editing is not the purpose of building an index, indexing should include a thorough reading of the text.
- You may wish to use the opportunity to catch and correct any lingering errors.
- If you’re using a hard copy, choose something you can mark up with.Key points and main ideas are often clear from the text. Pay attention to section headings, introductions, conclusions, and the natural structure and emphasis of the writing.
- Aim for about two to three index inclusions per key point and main idea, as a minimum.
4. Assign headings to each key concept. Assigning good headings will make things easier for the reader to find, and will make the entire index self-consistent. While you should always check with the house style documentation with respect to creating an index, the following generalities are fairly standard:
- Use singular nouns to begin headings. For example: derailleur headset.
- Include modifiers or verbs, where necessary, after a comma. For example: saddle, leather saddle, adjusting height.
- Capitalize proper nouns. Otherwise, begin entries with lowercase letters. For example: California Schwinn.
- Create cross references for acronyms and initialisms. For example: MTB, see mountain bike.
5. Consider the likely reader and the purpose of the index.
- What headings are readers most likely to choose intuitively to search?
- Do any technical terms need non-technical counterparts?
- Are there terms not listed in the text that might be natural places to look? For example, a bicycle maintenance book might discuss derailleurs, but a reader who is new to bicycle maintenance might look under “gearshift” or “shifter.”
6. Organize the main headings in alphabetical order. A word processor may be able to perform this step automatically.
7. Nest sub-headings under a main heading. Do not nest too many levels; stick to one or two. Nested headings collect related information under a main heading so that a reader can find it easily. Organize subheadings alphabetically beneath the heading.
8. List all the page numbers on which each subject appears.
9. Review the index for completeness and accuracy. If possible, have someone try out the index who is unfamiliar with the work.
Tips for writing an index:-
Refer to a completed index in another work as you begin.
Notice how the index goes together.
Consider hiring somebody to compile your index for you. Various freelancers and services will perform the work of indexing for a fee. If you do hire somebody, choose somebody with some understanding of the topic in question.
If you are writing for a particular publisher or publication, be sure to consult the relevant style guide. Some will have their own preferences as to formatting.
If you are using software to aid in the indexing process, use it for tagging key words and keeping track of pages. Using indexing software to generate the list of keywords or head words will at best give you a jumping-off point for further human review.
If you’re a copyeditor, you won’t usually get to read the index because it is usually created after you’ve participated the production process.
If you’re a proofreader, you will be expected to read the index very carefully and to check that its references are all accurate.
Be careful of missing significant topics when creating the index; go through the text and check against the index to ensure that all major topics and concepts have been covered.
Avoid indexing minor mentions. For example, if a famous person’s name has been mentioned in a quote but is not discussed anywhere else in the text, this person’s name is not index-worthy.
Think about the impression it would give the reader; be guided by the question: Would indexing it cause the reader to assume there is something substantial to read about the word or concept within the text?
Take care not to cross-reference in a circular manner. This will frustrate the reader because there will be no pointer added to let the reader know where to find the word or concept. For example: “Cycle. See Bicycle.” – “Bicycle. See Cycle.”
If using a word processor, double check that it hasn’t indexed an entire sentence from a section header that has no helpful referencing point. For example, a header might be called “Repairing bicycles isn’t easy” and the computer index might add the whole phrase. This doesn’t tell the reader anything helpful in terms of specificity of words or concept.
Sources:Wikpedia, Index (Publishing), http://en.wikipedia.org
Suzanne Gilad, Copyediting and proofing for dummies, p. 205, (2007), ISBN 978-0-470-12171-9
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