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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Gee

Authors - how do you check an index?

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

I undertook my indexing training with the UK Society of Indexers (SI) and I am now a course tutor. The indexing standards required to qualify are very high, and it’s not for everyone. So, you can be assured that when you hire an SI Accredited Indexer to index your book, they will produce an index that adheres to all the relevant standards and guidelines for good indexing practice. Ideally they will also bring some specialist subject knowledge and indexing experience to the table. But of course, you will still want to satisfy yourself that you are happy with the final product. I doubt you will have either the time, or the inclination, to do a line-by-line check of every single page reference, however! (Trust me: it takes hours, if not days.) So here is a quick guide to the key things you should look out for when you check over a completed index.


quick guide: how to check your book index




1. Coverage

Take a quick overview of the whole index and the relative weight given to important topics and themes, and passing/minor mentions.

  • Important topics and themes should be given ample weight – you’d expect a lot of index space to be devoted to these, typically having large headings with detailed subheadings, and/or cross-references to more specific terms (more about cross-references later).

  • Passing/minor mentions should be given less weight. Don’t be surprised when absolutely every topic, every person, or every place, you mention in the book doesn’t make it to the index. Remember that an index is not a concordance (an alphabetical list of all the words that appear in the book). Indexers make judgements about which passing/minor mentions are worth including and which are not, and especially if the space for the index is tight, they will prioritise those more important topics and themes.

2. Reader-friendliness

In a previous blog ('Keeping everyone happy') I wrote about the need to hold different reader groups in mind when creating an index. This is something you should bear in mind when reviewing your index, too. Does the index cater for different levels of expertise, and new or returning readers? And will the index encourage the reader to follow up the page numbers and actually read (or buy!) the book?

  • First things first: an introductory note should be provided at the top of the index to tell the reader what is going on if bold or italics page numbers are used to indicate Illustrations, material in Tables, or Glossary entries for instance. Also sometimes it is pragmatic to use abbreviations or initialisms throughout the index (e.g. DD for Delia Derbyshire) and this is the place to explain them. If the reader is in any doubt as to what a particular index entry means, the head of the index is the place they will look for enlightenment.

  • The reader might use different words to express a concept than those you use in the book. The terminology of the book will map to ‘preferred’ terms in the index (where all the page number information is), but the index should also include information at alternative access points, that directs the reader to these ‘preferred terms’ (e.g. ‘settees see sofas’ in a book about furniture).

  • Sometimes the relationships between different concepts in the book is not necessarily obvious; even if they are obvious to you (the author) or the expert or returning reader, they might not be obvious to the less-expert, or new reader. The index should show these relationships explicitly using cross-references between related terms. This way you know they will find everything relevant to the concept they are looking up.

  • There shouldn’t be any long strings of page numbers after an index heading. Don’t these make your heart sink when you find them? Only the most dedicated reader will follow them all up. Typically, these should be broken up by using subheadings, and in most instances indexers will look at subdividing at around 6-8 page numbers.

  • The index should only point the reader to meaningful information: something that is worth the trouble of looking up. This means that, generally speaking, passing mention should not be indexed. Of course, there are exceptions: some books (e.g. local history, or diaries) seem to be collections of ‘passing mentions’ so the indexer’s treatment will be different to this ‘rule’.

3. Accuracy

Helpful headings, subheadings and cross-references are all well and good, but they aren’t much use if they point the reader to the wrong pages, or they appear in the wrong place in the alphabetical sequence.

  • Do some spot-checks from index entries to the text: is the index pointing to the right pages?

  • Do some spot-checks from the text to the index: if an important topic (be it a person, place, object, or concept, and not a passing mention) appears on page 73, can you find it in the index?

  • Have tricky names been indexed correctly? There are (naturally) rules around this and indexers routinely refer to reputable reference resources to establish how to index names of people of different nationalities, titles of nobility, and so on, but if something seems odd, it’s OK to query it.

  • Check the alphabetical ordering of the headings: does anything look out of place? NB there are differences between word-by-word and letter-by-letter alphabetical order so there may be some orderings that seem weird but are technically correct. But again, do query anything that you think looks odd.

  • Check the ordering of the subheadings: sometimes they are kept in strict alphabetical order, sometimes chronological, or sometimes (e.g. for biographies) something different. But there should be consistency across the index, and it should make logical sense.

4. Index presentation

Of course it is important that the index will be presented correctly on the printed page. This is a matter for the publisher and their typesetter, but there are some aspects that should have been confirmed with the indexer before commencing work, so it is worth checking them.

  • Have the appropriate layout conventions been used? (e.g. whether subheadings appear as a paragraph, or in list form, and what capitalisation and punctuation marks appear within the headings and subheadings).

  • Is the index the right length, i.e. not too long?


 

a word about embedded indexes


Embedded (tagged) indexes in Word or InDesign do look a little bit strange to the untrained eye. Your indexer should also provide you with information helping to explain what you are looking at – don’t be afraid to ask if they don’t! But most of the points above still apply.


 


making changes to the index


Having reviewed the index in light of the points above, there might be some things you want to change. The best approach is to liaise with the indexer about this.

  • Indexers are best placed to implement any changes to your index, whether that is heading/subheading wording, addition of new headings, page number changes, or cross-referencing. There may be knock-on effects elsewhere in the index, so that other index headings or cross-references need subsequent adjustment. (Note that changes to correct indexing errors would be free of charge, but we typically charge an hourly rate for other changes that take more than 1-2 hours to implement.)

  • Any changes to the layout are best done by the indexer, probably at the press of a few buttons of their indexing software to ensure it is done comprehensively and consistently.

  • Sometimes the indexer might respond (politely, I trust) to the effect that some of the changes you suggest are not appropriate because they contradict indexing good practice. Members of the SI are bound to maintain and promote high indexing standards, so if the indexer pushes back, it is for a reason and the chances are the changes you are suggesting would disadvantage the reader.


 

how I work with authors


From my perspective, it is naturally much better if I get everything right first time. So when I work with an author, I typically ask whether there are any important concepts or connections I should tease out, that might not be immediately apparent from the text itself. One aspect of indexing that requires particular attention in my experience, is how to handle cited authors. We usually agree an approach that I will use at the outset of the project. (Whether I index all cited authors, or none, or just those who are given ‘significant’ treatment – and agreeing a definition of what we mean by ‘significant’ treatment.) And of course I make sure I understand the index layout conventions I am to use (if authors are self-publishing, I will suggest what will work best for their book), and any length restrictions I am working to. If I am not sure of anything as I am indexing, I will check in with the author to check my understanding and interpretation of the text. And if I feel I need to depart from ‘usual practice’, e.g. in how I organise subheadings, I will also flag this up with the author to explain my approach.

Ideally, the author has no surprises when they review my indexes – or if they do, only good ones. It is lovely when authors comment that my index has teased out relationships and themes that they weren’t even fully aware of themselves.


 

an even quicker guide to what to check


In summary, here are the points to watch out for:

  • Coverage: are important topics given more weight than passing mentions?

  • Reader-friendliness: does the index give alternative access points, useful cross-references to related terms, and does it invite the reader to explore rather than put them off?

  • Accuracy: do the headings point to the right pages and are they in correct alphabetical order?

  • Presentation: does the index adhere to the requirements of your publisher?

You might also like to refer to the Society of Indexers publication, 'Commissioning an Index' for more general information about the whole process.

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