The Essential Index

December 2003
by Carolyn Acheson

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The book is finally done, and now it’s ready to go to the printer. But wait–what about the index? Authors tend to forget about indexes entirely, and some publishers eliminate them to save time and money. Does a book really need an index? The answer–except for fiction–is yes. And the index must not be just an afterthought or an expanded, alphabetized table of contents.

Can You Do It Yourself?

Those who entertain the idea of doing an index themselves or getting a novice to do it should read the chapter on indexes in the Chicago Manual of Style. Still a standard in the industry, it provides a detailed how-to guide on the intricacies of indexing.

Although the author–being most familiar with the book–theoretically should be the best indexer, I have yet to meet an author who is capable of doing one that is adequate, let alone excellent. Authors are so familiar with their topics that they tend to lose sight of how the readers will use the index, and they can’t acquire indexing conventions in a crash course.

Nor can they rely on indexing features that come with software. The weakest of these merely pick up headings in a book, and the best are only as good as the humans who use them. Like spellcheckers and grammar-checkers, indexing software provides skeletal tools with built-in limitations. It cannot substitute for the brainwork of picking and choosing and combining.

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