Should you compile your own index?

These last few days I have been indexing one of my health books.

Actually, I have been re-indexing it, because I have updated the 2015 version of the book for a brand new second edition to be published in 2020, and the addition of new material and an amended layout has resulted in more pages, with text moving ‘downwards’. Every entry in my previous index has to be checked and, almost invariably, changed.

I can’t claim it’s the most interesting job I’ve ever had to do …

But I do like indexing from scratch. I have always indexed my books — both my conventionally published ones, and my self-published ones — and while not wishing to incur the wrath of professional indexers, I do think many writers are amply capable of doing likewise.

Going through my own index with a fine tooth comb over the last few days has reminded me I did a decent job. It’s stimulating work. And when you write about gut disorders, indexing can occasionally offer up some lighter moments, as you might see here from a section of the index to my book on irritable bowel syndrome …

But seriously, how do you know whether you are one of those writers who may be capable of indexing?


The skills you need …

I think you have to be a regular user of indexes for reference. If you tend to read books from beginning to end and then forget about them, then you may not be the sort of reader who finds them useful. But if you go back to them time and again for specific purposes, you probably use an index to find what you need — and therefore may already be attuned to what an index needs to do for someone with a similar mindset.

Are you a stickler for detail and precision? I think that helps too. There are odd quirks: for instance, you have to remember that page number ranges in the teens aren’t contracted (eg 14-18) but that numbers beyond are (eg 23–6).

Are you prepared to envisage scenarios where readers might look up hundreds of different words and subjects in your book, and imagine what exactly they wish to be guided towards? You have to think as others might and might not think — because what you omit is just as important as what you include.

When I wrote my first book, my publisher offered to find an indexer for me, but told me it would cost me. It wasn’t particularly expensive, but was a sizeable percentage of my modest advance, and I chose the DIY approach. The publisher sent me helpful guidance, just the basics, and away I went.

It was really quite difficult. I recall lots of stops and starts and tweaking and agonising. I over-indexed, including every reference to every entry I chose, until I realised that this was ridiculous, and that selectivity was the name of the game. It took me days and days. Major headings need sub-headings to more precisely guide the reader. These were fiddly. Looking back at it now, it wasn’t the best index, and I have learned much more since, both by compiling further indexes, and by scrutinising others, including some large and detailed ones found in longer non-fiction books. You can improve a lot from doing this.

My advice: if you don’t have the time, don’t do your own first index. If you do, perhaps do. I think it’s a useful to string to the writer’s bow. But you have to be honest with yourself, because a good index can be fairly unremarkable and inconspicuous, yet a bad index sticks out a mile and is quite maddening, especially in an otherwise good book. You could try it, ask peers for opinions, and hire a professional if you then think you need to.


Further Information

If you want to give it a go, ask your publisher for their guidance and house style. If self-publishing, here is a useful online guide:

The Wiley guide on How to Index Your Book.

Here are some publishers’ indexing guides for authors which you may find useful and interesting:

McFarland Books’ Guide to Creating an Index
Facet Publishing’s Notes for Authors Preparing Indexes
Bloomsbury Publishing’s Indexing Guidelines for Authors and Editors

If you want to seek out a qualified indexer:

The Society of Indexers is the place to go for the UK and Ireland.
The American Society for Indexing is the equivalent in the US.

Good luck, whatever you decide.

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