Tuesday, January 03, 2012

How to How-To: Part 6 - Creating a Leakproof Index

Most writers run for the hills when it’s time to create the index. Many view the index as either a convoluted mystery to which they don’t have a clue or an odious task that must be done before the book can go to print. The result is often a poorly constructed index, done at the last minute, which omits many necessary entries, is inconsistent in depth and style, contains book-specific terms that readers aren’t familiar with (and therefore can’t tell whether they should pay attention to), or contains only enough entries to call itself an index.

If readers can’t find what they’re looking for in the index, the book isn’t going to help them as it should. Here's how to create a leak-proof index.

The process
Creating the leak-proof index is easy—and, yes, enjoyable—when you have a process.

Note: The following information assumes you know how to use indexing software, such as the tools provided in many common word-processing applications. Other indexing applications work outside the book file. (You can also create an index “the old-fashioned way,” but who would want to do that? If the pagination changes, all the page numbers in the index have to be rechecked.) If you don’t know the mechanics of using your indexing software, learn them. Read the user’s guide, study the online Help topics, or take a training class.

Build the master list
1. If you’re indexing a book that someone else wrote, read the book to understand its contents, running concepts, and underlying themes. If you wrote the book, make a list of these things about the book.

2. Using this information, create a “high-level” list of concepts. An index is like a database—or a filing cabinet filled with folders. The index is the cabinet, and each folder in the drawers is a category of information. Inside each folder are the details about that category. Your high-level concepts are the file folders. They will become your master list of first-level entries in your index.

  • Make one entry for each concept—don’t think of a hundred different ways to say the same thing—yet. For example, “Stew beef” is fine for now—not “Stew beef” and “Beef, for stew.” Save that for later.
  • Include nouns and verbs in the high-level list. Choose a style for nouns (singular or plural? I prefer plural—”Sauces” sounds more like a category than “Sauce”). Choose a style for verbs. (I prefer the gerund form of verbs—”Frying” can include more information than the imperative form “Fry.”) Don’t include commonly used verbs, such as “adding,” “stirring,” or “changing.” Instead, add these verbs as details or second-level entries (see “Create sub-entries,” below), which is how most readers will search for these “soft” terms, anyway.
  • After you begin indexing, you will add to and delete from this list, but this gives you an idea of the main points you need to include.

Create sub-entries
1. Now, look at your master list, and under each item, make a list of the details you know about each first-level entry. These details will become your second-level (or sub-) entries. For example, under “Frying,” write everything you know that the book contains about frying, such as fish, potatoes, oil temperature, safety precautions, vegetables, turkey, chicken, pan frying, deep frying, and so on.

2. Decide how many levels of index entries you want the index to include. The standard maximum is three levels. There are benefits and drawbacks of two-level and three-level indexes. Two-level indexes are easier to keep readers oriented—the deeper they go, the harder is it for readers to remember what the category they’re searching. A drawback of two levels is that the indexer must be very precise with wording the second-level entries. A benefit of three levels is that they make the pages easier to scan, and a drawback is that readers can lose their bearings from page-to-page and might find a third-level entry that’s the same as another sub-entry for an entirely different category.

3. If your index will have three levels of sub-entries, repeat the previous step for each second-level entry.

Tag entries and generate the basic index
1. With your list in hand, open the book file and start indexing from front to back.
  • As you index, you will add to and delete from the list. That’s fine—the list is only a guide.
  • Index the foreword, preface, and introduction sections, and the text in all chapters and appendixes. Include tables, charts, and illustrations. Do not index the copyright, dedication, contents, cover, glossary, notes, and bibliography pages.
2. Generate (run) the index, and see what you have. Pretty neat, huh? Plan to do lots of editing. Note additions, deletions, and changes. Keep the style consistent throughout the index. Go back into the index and make those changes. Then run the index again. Continue doing this until you have a solid index.
3. Using the entries you have, think of other ways readers will look up the term. This is their “point of entry” into your index.
4. Do the same for second- (and third-) level entries.
5. Generate the index again. Then, make sure that similar first-level entries have the same or similar sub-entries. For example, make sure beef, chicken, and pork all have entries for baking, roasting, barbecuing, and so on, as applicable.

Fine-tune the index
1. Add cross-references. These are the "See and See also" entries. For example, to make sure readers who look for “Gala apples” see all the information about apples.
2. Make another list of terms that readers might search for that aren’t included in this book. For example, if your book uses the term “fry pan” but not “griddle pan,” add “griddle pan” to the index, and include a "See" cross-reference. You can construct the entries in either of these ways:
  • Direct readers to the entry for the books term
  • Tell readers the term this book uses, and include the page number for the entry
3. Generate the index again, edit it until it’s perfect, and then celebrate. You just created a leak-proof book index!

Making it work for you
Now that you have the basics, you can fine-tune your indexing skills by reading books and taking classes on the subject. There are several organizations for professional indexers and those interested in the profession, including the American Society of Indexers (www.asindexing.org).

Happy indexing!

Copyright © 2012 by Marilyn C. Hilton

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