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Why Index?

July 12, 2016
Why Index? ©Ye Liew/

Just when it seems that the book you’ve written is about to appear, the publisher writes with a query, “Will you be indexing the manuscript yourself, or would you prefer to hire a professional indexer?”

Just when it seems that the book you’ve written is about to appear, the publisher writes with a query, “Will you be indexing the manuscript yourself, or would you prefer to hire a professional indexer?” This question strikes fear in the hearts of many authors. Indexing is viewed as a mechanical, thankless task. So, why did I choose to index when professionals could probably do the job much better? (By the way, there is a professional association for these highly skilled folks, the American Society for Indexing, which publishes an 84-page guide Best Practices for Indexing.)

Why even bother? Is an index necessary, particularly in this era of searchable e-texts? Well, yes. Readers, especially scholars, expect to find an index, which may be even more important than the book’s table of contents. It is a quick way to find topics of interest. I remember getting a new book on a topic in composition studies and eagerly turned to the index to see what the authors had to say about undergraduate research. No index. The value of the book plummeted.

So there is a good reason to include an index even in a digital age, but that brings us back to the choice offered the author: to index or not to index. The danger of an author writing a bad index is real. Just ask my friend and frequent collaborator Laurie Grobman, who told me that poor indexes are a nightmare for the researcher doing a review of literature. Again, the value of the book is diminished.

Shouldn’t indexing be a snap with computer software? Professional indexers do make use of special software, with an emphasis on special. Authors may be tempted to use the index facility in their word-processing program of choice, but what may result is not an index but a concordance, simply a list of the words in the text.

Rather than the facility of indexing software, the major argument for authors indexing their own books is that “they know their work best.” Yes and no. Yes, we have labored over each word, sentence, paragraph, and page in our books—sometimes for years. And, no, because the fresh eyes of a professional indexer may be able to see the subjects, topics, and subtopics better than we can—because they are not invested in the same way.

Still, indexing my latest book was the best choice for me. Why? I resaw my manuscript in a different light. This particular book will be used in university classes, and I needed to put myself in the role of the students and their teachers who will be using it. How could I create an index with topics logical to student readers? One of my dialogues with myself was over whether to use the term research settings or research sites. The latter is more typical in books about research methods, but many in my audience will be students majoring in English, who may be naïve about social scientific research methods. I chose research settings as I thought it a more recognizable term, particularly to those engaged in literary analysis. I’m also a typical English professor in that I value variety in word choice, so using more than one term is attractive. But I’ve made a note to myself that in a second edition—sales willing—I will reconsider my decision to use research settings instead of research sites.

An index is more than a list of keywords, though. It also embraces concepts and relationships among concepts. The responsible conduct of research (RCR) includes issues of ethics and integrity. Information in the text about first authorship, mentor-mentee relationships, and peer review clustered under this RCR entry.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, offers advice in “How to Index Your Book (and Why I’ll Never Do It Again).” Indexing cost her a month out of a sabbatical leave; on the other hand, a professional indexer may charge in the neighborhood of $3.75 per final, designed book page, a fee that the author pays since the author is responsible for providing content. My index project took about three days while I was on a river cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Indexing on vacation? Well, it rained a lot. The first part of indexing is excruciating. Every relevant concept or theme must have an entry; as a result, the early pages drag. For instance, page 6 had ten index entries. Once the entry is identified, then the indexer finds all other entries within the manuscript. On the other hand, by page 120 of the 340-page manuscript, I was sailing, terms already keyed into the index. The completed index numbered six pages, and as a bonus, I also submitted two pages of proofreading notations. I’ll add that I had terrifically helpful advice from my editor before starting the project.

Indexing is not for everyone, but for me, it provided invaluable insight into a book that I thought I knew cover to cover.

Joyce Kinkead is professor of English at Utah State University, the 2013 US Professor of the Year for the state of Utah, and a founding member of the International Writing Centers Association. She was named a Fellow of the Council on Undergraduate Research in 2012. Her upcoming book with USUP, Researching Writing: An Introduction to Research Methods, will be available in July and is her thirteenth book.

University Press of Colorado University of Alaska Press Utah State University Press University of Wyoming Press