ask a scatterbrain: indexing

So a quick question for those of you out there who have indexed a book before. Any advice? Did you do it yourself? Hire someone? Any tools that are particularly helpful?

12 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: indexing”

  1. I’ve done my own, three times now. It’s actually kind of fun – I just read carefully over the manuscript with a word processing window open. When I come across something that deserves indexing, I type it into the word processor with the page number. I then sort the lines and combine, pruning as necessary. In each case, that represents the last time I ever read the book!

    This past time, I almost had the production company do the index. But they said they wanted a lot of money (well over $1000, I think) and they wanted me to give them the list of keywords to index, which is the heavy lifting in the task anyway!


  2. It does sound like a fun coup de grace for such an extended undertaking. Kurt Vonnegut offers a contrary opinion, however:

    “[I]ndexing was a thing only the most amateurish author undertook to do for his own book.” (from Cat’s Cradle)


  3. I’d say hire someone. See if you can get the publisher to defer the cost by a claim on the royalties, if you can stand to put off buying the yacht for a few more years. There are good freelancers. Doing a good index is harder than it appears.


  4. $1,000 bucks is crazy, unless you are talking about a huge book or multi-volume series. If you have a trusted copy editor, they can do it for much less. I did my own. The book’s text was 220 pages. Andrew is right. It was interesting and I knew the nuances of materials better than most indexers.

    For tools, I used Excel. I made an effort to record all names of people or groups. Then I went through again and worked on topical themes. My rule of thumb was that each page should be indexed at least once or twice because a decent book introduces data and facts frequently, if only to move things along. So once I did an exhaustive name and concept list, it all goes into excel and then sort alphabetically. Then I read it once or twice more just make sure I didn’t make any huge omissions. It’s really not hard.

    If you really want to outsource, ask at the university press if they know some good copy editors who are good indexers. I know some and would be happy to pass along the information.


  5. @kieran: What was so hard about the index? It may be slow work, but it’s not challenging, except in highly technical books. I’d be interested in what you think are the points about indexing.


  6. I’ve never indexed, but I can tell you what the stakes are. If someone else does your indexing, it will probably be a mindless keyword match and will miss a lot of concepts. The index will be largely useless. The only exception is that if the mindless indexer at least indexes names, people will be able to look themselves (or somebody else) up in your book.

    I am going to assume (perhaps wrongly) that the $1000 would be for a human being who might have a chance of understanding concepts. But it is obviously more likely that you will do this well yourself.

    So, to conclude, what you need to figure out is whether yours is the sort of book for which you’d like people to be able to use an index. Perhaps you can look at other people’s books and figure out what kind/quality of indexing really helps. What concepts or events or people might someone want to look up in your book that wouldn’t be obvious from the table of contents? That’s what the index should do.

    As a user, not creator, of indexes, I can report that the biggest problem is vocabulary. If the concept I’m looking for is called by something else in the book, it is very hard to find it. After indexing, it can be very helpful to add “see X” entries for common synonyms.


    1. This is very helpful. It’s interesting: how I’ve used indexes has changed because of Google Books. I often use it for particular words. The problem is, it doesn’t direct to extended passages. But can still be very useful.

      I’m a bit worried that I’ll make a bad index (get lazy/sick of the process). But all these thoughts have been really useful.


      1. Well I’m not sure all books need good indexes. You have to think about what people might look for in your book or what you want them to look for, and how to find it. Examples of things not in a TOC that I as a reader might want to find in your book: all instances of particular characters; instances of particular kinds of events (harassment, academic laziness, “everybody is the best”); experiences of particular kinds of people by race, class of origin, etc. plus of course theoretical concepts or citations to particular people’s work.


  7. I know someone who had a job indexing city codes. (Yes, reading city codes 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.) The challenging part was thinking about the many different terms that people might use to find a given passage of the city code. For example:

    dog, excrement
    dog, nuisance (I kid you not!)
    dog, waste
    excrement, dog
    nuisance, dog
    waste, dog

    and so forth. Boring work, but not unskilled.


  8. I had a summer job indexing a book for a political scientist who was one my advisors when I was an undergraduate (summer after junior year, I think). It took me about 80-100 hours to index a 300 page manuscript. As fabiorojas says, almost every page eventually showed up in the index. This was a fairly technical book, so that certainly affected the level of detail in the index. It was the sort of thing someone might read a chapter or two at a time, but would be more likely to turn to for reference rather than read cover-to-cover.

    It was actually very good experience for me as an undergrad. I was extremely familiar with the material by the time I finished, of course. People and concrete references (events, specific academic terms) were the easy part of indexing. Big-picture concepts or new topics without well known vocabulary were much harder. I had taken enough classes with this professor to have a sense of the concepts before I started the project, but being forced to think through how someone else might describe the material was enlightening. My professor gave me some guidelines in terms of key words at the beginning, and I sent him a list of key words (and how I intended to cross reference them) after an initial read of the book. We iterated from there.

    I wouldn’t do it again myself, but I’d hire one of my more meticulous students if I needed an index created!


  9. Oh no, 80 hours?! andrewperrin & fabiorojas — asking you because you make it sound like a manageable task — what’s your estimate of how many hours the job took you?

    (cuz I have this friend, see…)



  10. Since you’re such a Microsoft fan, you probably know this, but you can do it with software such as MS Word. For instructions, just follow these steps:

    1. let Microsoft take over the world
    2. get tech support to ruin your computer by installing Office
    3. Open MS Word
    4. Press F1
    5. Type “create an index” in the search field

    That should get you started.

    I have no idea if this is easier than any other method.

    BTW, I ran into the late great Robin Williams in the hall at UCI once, when he was in his late 80s, and he told me he was making an index for his latest book (which must have been this), using index cards and pencil. He had opted not to pay Cornell to make the index.


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