indexing Q & A

I’m in the middle of hitting an indexing deadline. (Yes, right now I have the PDF page proof open in one window and my preferred indexing program, SKY Index, open in another.) Having been asked a couple of questions about indexing this week, I thought it would make a good topic to discuss here. I’m going to do it in question and answer format, using questions I’ve been asked over the years. If you have any others, feel free to ask in the comments. As always, thank you for reading.

Q: What does an indexer do?

A: Indexers create the indexes in the back of nonfiction books, including cookbooks, textbooks, gardening books, how-to books, biographies, and more.

Q: You mean people do that for a living?

A: You might be surprised at some of the things people do for a living. (Check out Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel — owl vomit collector?) But, yes, there are people who specialize in creating indexers for others. For many technical books or in some micropress houses, the indexing is done in-house. At other presses, some authors do their own indexing, but if they don’t, either the publisher or the author can hire an indexer to do the work for them.

Indexers even band together in national societies and have e-mail mailing lists!

Q: Do you have to read each page?

A: Yes.

Q: When you read each page, do you say, “That looks like a word that should be in the index?”

A: Sometimes. Indexing is more nuanced than that — the indexer has to pick up on the “aboutness” of the material, often using words and phrases that aren’t actually on the page. Synonyms have to be considered, as well as whether to double-post (post the same references under two different entry points) or cross-reference material. In addition to all that, the indexer should note the use of jargon or terms of art and include those.

Q: Can’t a computer create the index?

A: A computer program, such as Microsoft Word, can create a concordance, which only uses words that are on the page and does not consider alternate methods a reader might look up material. To use Word to generate an index, the document has to be tagged with what the entry word should be, and ranges need to be marked (by the use of bookmarks) for terms or ideas that are discussed over a range of pages. One of the simpler ways to create a decent index in a Word document is to index it in an indexing program, edit the index to produce a final result, then go back to the Word document and insert all the index field codes.

Q: Is it hard?

A: Some projects are easier than others, but I’ve learned a lot over the years from books I’ve worked on.

Q: Shouldn’t you be working on that deadline instead of making this blog post longer?

A: Yes.

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