To Index … or … Not to Index

To Index … or … Not to Index

Indexing is a pain—an essential pain, however—if you are an author who wants to serve your readers up, from your “how to” or informational tome, a digestible list of important terms used and contained within. Your book is a mine of information; the reader needs a map to know and then find the hidden treasure they seek within sometimes hundreds of pages. That is the Table of Contents first, a very general guide, then followed by the Index—labeling in detail the subjects and ideas—as entries and subentries—within the myriad of topics, both related and unrelated, to help the readers zero in on the subject of interest, in their quest for details on a favorite idea. If your book is “library bound,” Indexes are much favored in the Non-Fiction category.

Your Index is the Guide to your book. It creates the doorway to your ideas. | John Maling, Editor

Your Index is the Guide to your book. It creates the doorway to your ideas.

As with books, there is a Beginning, a Middle and an End.

In the Beginning

An Indexer should work with the author during the process of its creation. The author is the guru, the expert, the know-all of the subject matter. Without the author’s input, the indexer is alone in that wilderness, guessing the importance of terms, expertly of course with experience and knowledge, but intuiting nevertheless. What does the author intend; what will the readers be looking for; what headings will they consider that reveal clearly the written presence of their interests? Inclusion and Exclusion are key operational terms. What terms are essential, or merely important, or can be omitted as not relevant enough to be included? Economy of page space is also a consideration. What is the author’s printing “budget” regarding the final size and scope of the book? An Index without the author’s input can become a patchwork of intuitive guesses often right but possibly wrong. An experienced Indexer will do well, just as an experienced literary explorer would, to serve both the author and audience. But, a truly satisfactory final product is best achieved in collaboration.


It is essential that the manuscript to be Indexed be finished—words, paragraphs, chapters and pagination “in cement.” Indexing must wait until Layout is complete and the manuscript is ready for the printer. Resist the impulse to continue to revise. Often it is the case with an author to “improve” the manuscript after editing has officially finished and the process of Layout has commenced. Continuing to edit—to revise—during and after Layout by the author and allowing it by the editor, layout person and/or Indexer, is a No-No! It is a very real and understandable impulse—but to be resisted under pain of financial and deadline death by additional time, cost and complication. If a Layout has gone to Indexing, revision of the Layout will almost certainly require a new Index. The author is urged to redirect that desire—and the brilliant clarifications and new ideas driving it—into the creation of “the next book.” Keep in mind that modest changes can be inserted post Layout accompanying corrections resulting from the final, “cold-eye” read-through that is part, at least, of our publishing routine. Modest changes must not flow to another page or cause a change in pagination in any way. Otherwise the Index referencing will be rendered incorrect! And then—guess what!

Getting Started

The most primitive approach to creating an Index is to simply read and list, during a manuscript “read-through” on three by five cards or note sheets, the terms that are judged important enough to be Index entries—a totally manual process. But manuscripts are universally these days digital files, created with a word-processor program like Word. The Menu bar for the “Home” Tab in the Word program has a “Find” button (on the horizontal far right on the bar). By using it during a manuscript “read-through,” it is possible to select each desired term as you read, and then Find and manually list on the cards, all the page numbers—locators—where that given term can be found. The Index can then be created fairly efficiently manually (in two columns for economy) from the stack of cards or the list. It is not necessary to restrict the effort to one inclusive Index. If appropriate, there can be an Author Index for example, i.e., one for a collection of related terms as well as a general term Index. It depends of course on the nature and purpose of the manuscript. There is also a myriad of detail with regard to format, well beyond the scope of this article. For example: indented (listed) versus “run-in” subentries (paragraph), capitalization, name and titling formatting, alphabetization (letter-by-letter or word-by-word), and punctuation.

The Essentials

Word has an Indexing subprogram as well. The manual, Word 2013 for Dummies, outlines the process—a three-stage program—to create an Index. It is not the purpose of this brief article to outline these steps; they can be found within the Word software program and outlined in the above manual. That program, in the opinion of the author of the Word 2013 for Dummies manual, is an “excellent” one, however it is limited, still requiring a great deal of organizational work to create a final, satisfactory Index. My opinion is that a single-purpose computer program devoted to Indexing is the way to go.

Organizational details are taken care of as well as a presentation of up to thousands of terms drawn from the manuscript with locators already listed. The work is then selection of the entries from that presentation and possible additions to the list as the manuscript is reviewed on screen. Commercial programs offer various levels of capability, and prices ranges from several to many hundreds of dollars. It is also not the purpose of this article to recommend one version over another. Do a Google search and seek the opinion of those who have experience with a given program.

A manuscript consists of three parts: Front Matter (FM), Text, and Back Matter (BM). An Index should be limited to the manuscript text, but with some exceptions. A preface may or may not be indexed; an Introduction, the same, and Appendices, as well. The straightforward test of inclusion in the Index is if those FM and BM elements contain information relevant to the textual material.

Key elements to an Index: The main heading, subheadings forming a grammatical relationship with the main heading, and “locators, ”(page numbers or paragraph numbers, depending upon the chosen format). An important element of the heading or subheading usage is cross-referencing. Cross-referencing links a heading or subheading with another, related term, having its own set of locators. The words see or see also follow the term in those cases.

If a heading requires more than five or six locators, it is usually found best to break the set up with appropriate subheadings for clarity and ease in the search for the appropriate term or idea. Finally, serious considerations in the creation of an Index are economy of time, effort and expense as well as effectiveness in clarifying the author’s purpose.

The Central Idea

In summary, the purpose of an Index—major elements of which are briefly described above—is to help clarify a manuscript—the book—for the reader. The Index can be an important—even essential—element of a literary work, usually Non-Fiction, and its presence and effectiveness is often overlooked in the evaluation of a non-fiction literary work.

John Maling


John2005John Maling is an Editor and Indexer. He’s the author of the multi-award winning book, Have Your Ever Held a Mountain? His website is and email

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