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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Don’t Even Go There Do’s and Don’ts of Book Indexing

You know those lists of terminology and page numbers at the back of books (mostly nonfiction) which can be a Godsend when you know you saw something about Shared Psychosis or Unicorn Spit somewhere in that thousand page book but you have no clue where it was?
And man, for late night, last minute studying (Holla at me students!) indexes are a life saver!

But there are good indexes and bad indexes.

Here is a list of index problems guaranteed to drive readers bonkers.

Poor Use of Terminology 1: Say in a Recipe book there was this Apricot Tart you saw and want to make. So you look up Apricot. Not there. How about Tart? Not there. Um…Pie? Nope, not there either. Eventually you find it under Esmerelda’s Tasty Tart. Because that’s the part of the recipe you remember off the top of your head, right? Might as well look at the contents page for that one.

Poor Use of Terminology 2: Speaking of contents pages – indexes are not simply the contents page in alphabetical order. When looking through that car manual for how to change the tyre on your Kia, you might look up C for Change a tyre, T for Tyre, J for Jack, K for Kia…but then after scrutinizing every entry and just about giving up…you discover it under H. For How to change a tyre.

Inconsistent Use of Terminology: Eg. Employees and Staff both listed in the index. If both terms are used in the book, yet they mean the same thing, the indexer really should “For Employees, see Staff” and place all mentions of either terms in the one section as this means that readers looking up employees and readers looking up staff will be directed to the same information. How frustrating if you miss out on important information just because what you needed was under another word for the same thing?

Circular References: Finance: For Finance, see Funds. Funds: For Funds, see Finance. For the Wall, see Throwing this book

Long Strings of Page Numbers: Indexing every mention of the word in the book is not only annoying but unhelpful. Readers only want to be directed to meaningful references to the word. For instance when looking up crabs, the reader might find the section of the book on the evolution of crabs helpful. Similarly, the bit on the different types of crabs and where they can be found in the world could work. They will probably not find the throwaway comment that the author saw a crab on a beach once that helpful. Don’t index that.

When done well, like editing, you just don’t notice indexing, but there’s a lot of skill and creativity involved and I believe credit needs to go where credit is due. Thank you phantom GOOD Indexer for helping me find that page on Unicorn Spit. 

Tot siens,



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