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Writing

How to Write a Book Index: 7 Steps for Creating an Index

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

In the age of smartphones and ebooks, a book index might seem like a relic of the past. That being said, many researchers and readers still rely on book indexes to assist them in navigating large books and aid them in research. Book indexing is a vital job that professional book indexers do on a regular basis.

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What Is a Book Index?

A back-of-the-book index is a list of words with corresponding page references that point readers to the locations of various topics within a book. Indexes are generally an alphabetical list of topics with subheadings appearing below multi-faceted topics that appear numerous times throughout a book. Along with elements like the front matter and table of contents, book indexes are found in most non-fiction research books. Indexes are often outsourced to freelancers who may be technical writers or have other roles in the publishing industry. The American Society for Indexing is a national trade organization that promotes uniform standards for indexing books and technical writing.

What Is the Purpose of a Book Index?

A quality index should first and foremost help readers find topics within the main text of a fiction or non-fiction book, as well as reference any related terms. A good index should be thorough and clear. Professional indexers are skilled at making comprehensive indexes that are easily navigated by casual readers and researchers alike.

How to Write an Index

Being a book indexer is a hard job that is well suited for detail-oriented people. Creating an entire index can be an arduous task, but it doesn’t require much more than a word processor and a good work ethic. Indie authors or those who are self-publishing books may choose to write indexes for their own book or books. If you’re just getting started as an indexer, here is a step-by-step guide that can demystify the indexing process for you:

  1. Read the book. The first step may seem obvious, but it’s important to do a thorough readthrough of any book before you start on the indexing process. If you’ve already read the book casually, you still want to read it through completely while you do your indexing.
  2. Use indexing software. There are many good indexing software programs available on basic word processors. It can be a good idea to utilize indexing software to simplify the process, especially if you’re new to indexing.
  3. Mark up the book. Whether you are using a hard copy or reading an ebook or pdf, you need to mark up the text as you look for key terms and possible section headings. Mark all topics you plan to include in the index and make note of similar entries on index cards or in a computer document.
  4. Address formatting questions. Before you dive into the actual index entries, decide: How will you format cross-references and page numbers? Looking at other indexes and talking with peers can help expose you to different styles and give you a sense of what you prefer. A style guide like the Chicago Manual of Style will often have a guide for the formatting and layout of a book index.
  5. Make index entries. Once you’ve done a thorough readthrough of the main text and taken copious notes of your main headings and subheadings, it’s time to make your index. Make sure that everything you’ve marked in your text is accounted for in your final index and that you are following a uniform style.
  6. Order your index entries. All indexes are sorted alphabetically, so ensure that your entries have been organized into alphabetical order.
  7. Edit your index. Once you’ve finished the first draft of your index, it’s time to do some copyediting. Before you submit your final index, make sure that there is no redundancy in subentries and subheadings and that you haven’t left anything out.
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