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Ins & Outs of Indexing

Help for writers

The Ins and Outs of Indexing

We all know that computers can do everything far better than mere humans, right? Those who argue the point are usually labelled as luddites or technophobes. In this computer age we are (understandably) turning more and more tasks over to computers, leaving us free to spend our time on more worthy pursuits, such as... reading books, for example?

So where does this leave the humble index, idly languishing at the back of a book, waiting for someone to come along with a burning desire to find that elusive bit of information? Do we even need an index, some ask? In the days of full-text searching (the method by which a computer searches text for specific words, similar to a search engine such as Google), why do we need the human touch at all? These are not only serious questions for the art of indexing, they also apply to the wider profession of writing as a whole, especially at the moment.

Very few works of non-fiction can do without an index of some description. From the simple cookery book to the mammoth legal tome, each book has a reader, and each reader will at some point want to look something up in the book. They may scan the contents page first, but this doesn’t always help. The next step is the index. If the reader is lucky, the index will allow them to find the term they seek and take them immediately to a relevant and useful mention of that term or concept. If they are unlucky, they will search in vain, eventually being led up and down the garden path before throwing the book to one side in disgust. These unlucky individuals are often using author-compiled indexes or those which were produced by a computer.

If you are an author considering whether or not you need an index for your book, spend a little time in a bookshop. You will usually see more than one customer browse the index of a potential purchase before taking it to the till. An index gives the reader the flavour of a book – and a bad index can put many a potential reader off. Watch as they move on to another book and flick to the back of that one. What if that were your book they had just disregarded due to a poor index – or worse, no index at all?

Not only should an index be useful, it should also mirror the language and complexity of a book. A hobby book aimed at teenagers can get by with a fairly simple index of terms relating to skills, materials, projects etc. A complex historical or educational book will require a far more detailed index, with many sub-headings and cross references. A formal business book should have an index which matches its manner; likewise, a light-hearted look at a subject will need an index to reflect the tone of the work.

So why can’t a computer programme achieve this? After all, a computer produced index is both faster and less expensive than an indexed compiled by a professional. James Lamb, in his article ‘Human or Computer Produced Indexes’, says: ‘Some computer programs and word processors claim to produce indexes but, in fact, produce "concordances" – lists showing where specific words or phrases appear in the text.’ There is a huge difference between a concordance and an index. This article itself offers an example of why a list of words is not a true reflection of content. In the last paragraph the word ‘teenagers’ appeared, but the content actually had nothing to do with teenagers. If this article were to be part of a collection of articles, indexed by a computer, and a user were to look up ‘teenagers’, imagine how frustrated they would be when they were read the sentence: ‘A hobby book aimed at teenagers can get by with a fairly simple index’.

Writers write with a compulsion to share their knowledge, passion and experience. Usually they are speaking to their readership with a voice full of nuance, their meaning carefully crafted by just the right choice of words. The most powerful and successful works of non-fiction complement this level of skill with a thoughtfully compiled index, enabling the reader to delve into the text time and time again, prolonging the life and relevance (and sales) of the book. No matter how sophisticated, a computer cannot index a manuscript as well as a professional indexer – at least, not yet.

So what about author-compiled indexes? There is nothing wrong with authors compiling their own indexes – many do a fine job, and the Society of Indexers

British professional body representing indexers. The site at gives useful FAQs about indexing and a professionally-respected course.

in the UK offers a preliminary training course which can teach the basics, should an author wish to take this route. But many authors are simply too close to their work to be able to step back and view the text from an index user’s point of view. The job of a professional indexer is to think backwards: what might a reader search for, and which words might they use, particularly if they are unfamiliar with the subject? Authors who are experts in their fields often find it difficult, if not impossible, to be this detached from the subject.

A bad index is a disaster for any book. Readers are frustrated, annoyed, disappointed and confused – and they will blame the author every time. If you pick up a book with a bad index, you don’t get angry at the faceless indexer. (Most readers aren’t even aware that the job of ‘indexer’ exists at all.) They will look to the author every time. It is up to you to make your work as accessible as possible, not only to satisfy your readers, but also to encourage repeat sales of this and future books. Another, not unimportant, point – a great index can help to convince mainstream publishers to take on a previously self-published book. Why? Because it shows professionalism, a regard for and knowledge of the needs of the reader (the target market), and sets the book apart from the hundreds of self-published titles which are considered to be little more than an indulgence for their authors.

One final thought: if we turn the compiling of indexes over to computers we are giving the message that we believe computers understand our sophisticated language as well as we do. How long, then, before computers are writing the books as well?This is a chilling thought at the moment, but we are not thee yet.

Our new Indexing service

Preparing an index

Joanne lives in Cheshire, England with her teenage daughter. She writes and produces audio dramas as GravyTreeMedia, and romantic comedies, literary fiction and cozy mysteries as an indie author. An award-winning novelist, Joanne has a Masters in Creative Writing, and is a freelance publishing professional. Connect with Joanne at and on social media - she loves hearing from readers (and will probably send you some free stuff to say thank you)

Connect on:
Twitter: @joannegphillips

Other articles by Joanne on the WritersServices site:

The Business of Writing
How to Market Your Writing Services Online

She is also the author of The WritersServices Self-Publishing Guide, newly revised for 2024.