Why Index and Who Should Do It?

Time for a quick test of your knowledge of back-of-the-book indexing. Would you say the following statements are true or false?

  1. The index can be created by a computer.
  2. Creating an index is a simple job.
  3. A good index adds value to the book.
  4. The best person to create the index is the author.
  5. The indexer should have some knowledge of the subject matter.

First, let’s talk about statements 1 and 2. These are false and are common misconceptions about indexes. Regarding indexes, The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition (University of Chicago Press, 2017) says:

A concordance—or a complete list of terms (typically minus articles, prepositions, and other irrelevant elements) and their page locations or frequency of use—can be produced automatically. But a concordance is not the same as an index. Most indexes . . . are produced from scratch. (16.5)

A good index . . . gathers all the substantive terms and subjects of the work, sorts them alphabetically, provides cross-references to and from related terms, and includes specific page numbers or other locators or, for electronic formats, direct links to the text. This painstaking intellectual labor serves readers of any longer work, whether it is searchable or not. . . . In a word, a good index makes the text more accessible. (16.2, emphasis added)

A well-written index is concise, accurate, audience appropriate, and complete—and therefore adds value to the book because it makes the information within the book more accessible. In fact, “indexes are written, not generated. As creative authored works, indexes are granted copyright registration” (Nancy C. Mulvany, Indexing Books [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005], 8). In other words, an index adds value to a book—so statement 3 is true.

Perhaps surprisingly, statement 4 is false. Many people think the author is the perfect person to index their book—and while it’s true they “know better than anyone else their subject matter and the audience to whom the work is addressed, not all can look at their work through the eyes of a potential reader, nor do many authors have the technical skills, let alone the time, necessary to prepare a good index . . . and would do better to enlist the aid of a professional indexer” (Chicago, 16.3).

Statement 5 is true. The indexer must be intimately familiar with the language of the book and the readers’ language in order to enable readers to locate information efficiently. Indexers must also anticipate how the language of the readers may be different from that of the author, and provide several access points for the information through the use of cross-references.

So, an index is not just an appendage to a book—it is an integral part of it. An index increases the accessibility of information, enhancing the book’s usefulness and, therefore, adds value to the book. A good indexer is analytical and detail-oriented, having a good command of the English language and being able to discriminate between relevant and nonrelevant information.  They have an enthusiasm for the subject matter as well as have the passion and the gift for writing indexes.

I have that passion for helping to make a great book even more useful and accessible to the reader. Indexing is an art form that I have been working hard to master, and that—added to my proofreading and editing skills—makes me your best choice for indexing your next Christian nonfiction project. So let’s get started today!

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