DIY Indexing Book Indexing

If you are going to produce an index for a book for publication then it is essential that you get hold of a copy of the style guide appropriate to the location in which the book is to be published. Individual publishers will have their own ‘house styles’ but these only really explain the differences from the standard style. Some may be as small as a single sheet of paper. If the book is to be published in the US then you need the Chicago Manual of Style. If you are on a budget then you can get away with having just the chapter on indexing which is published separately. If the book is to be published in the UK then you will need the Oxford Guide to Style. This is also know as Hart’s Rules.

In addition to the style guides you will need a general book on indexing, to answer all the myriad questions which you haven’t even thought of yet. My favorite is Knight which explains things clearly and imparts a good understanding of the underlying reasoning, but the recognized authority is Mulvany. Others to consider are Wellisch and Booth.

Software for indexing does not do the indexing (see why) but handles the formatting of the index, in the same way that a word processing program does not actually write a novel. The main three packages used by professionals are MACREX, Sky Index andCINDEX. They vary considerably in input style and different people have their own favourite. All have demo versions which can be downloaded and tried out. You can, however, index using simple software such as Wordpad, which actually is better for this purpose than using a more sophisticated word processing program – Word processors are concerned with the appearance of text, treating it as prose, and can ‘helpfully’ auto-capitalise, repaginate, auto-correct typing and so on, which is not what you want. Also, the automated sorting of such programs will probably not match the style guide you are using.

The procedure for indexing using WordPad is:

  • create A B C …. Z lines in the WordPad file
  • identify a cohesive unit of indexable text and think up an index heading for it
  • if the heading does not already exist in the index file
    • enter the heading in the index file in the alphabetically correct position
  • otherwise
    • add the page range to the existing heading
    • if there are now more than 6 page ranges (or 5 long page ranges, what really matters is how many actual pages you are directing the reader to look at)
      • go to each of the 7 page ranges in the book and work out subheadings to divide up the 7 page ranges – ensure that each of the 7 page ranges is assigned to a subheading
  • do you need any other headings for this passage of text?
  • repeat for the next unit of text

When done, you need to add in cross-references (which will probably be double entries if the entry has no subheadings). You then do a final edit, ensuring consistency between the phrasing of subheadings etc., and you have an index.

I must stress that the step about identifying a piece of indexable text is overly simplistic – it can be a considerable challenge, both to identify where a topic starts and ends, and to work out a suitable index heading.

This will take much more time than using specialist indexing software and will require great care and attention to detail to produce an acceptable index, but it can be done. Furthermore, you will gain an insight into exactly which features are important if you go on to buy indexing software. If you are planning on doing more than one index then, of course, specialist software will repay the time spent in learning it very quickly.


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