Writing with a view to indexing

A post for National Indexing Day 2023 that also, efficiently, responds to this week’s LinkedIn for Humans course challenge to share some expertise. I’ve been thinking about this since I saw this Tweet last year:

Can you take steps during the writing process that will make indexing easier? I think you can. Here are seven points to consider, and they will help whether you eventually hire a professional indexer or decide to DIY:

  1. Names. Make sure that names are spelled consistently. This applies especially to transliterated names, which may not have a fixed spelling in English. Choose one version and stick to it. And try to disambiguate identical names clearly. For names that change (eg women’s names, on marriage; people with peerages or honours; places that change their name or cease to exist; organizations that rebrand or merge) you may want to clarify which version you are using.
  2. References. Similarly, ensure your referencing is consistent. The names of authors can vary, often according to referencing style. An author might be known as Sarah Smith, Sarah A. Smith, or S. A. Smith. Make sure it’s clear who you mean in your citations – especially with names like Smith where individuals could be confused.
  3. Titles and headings. Make these meaningful. Do they reflect what that chapter or section is about? Good titles and headings are really useful prompts when indexing – they help indexers get a high-level view of the content before scrutinising the detail. They will also improve your table of contents, which is important metadata for your book. Captions for images or tables should be similarly informative.
  4. Terminology. Use specialist terminology consistently. Are you using near-synonyms in a distinctive way? Does your work cross disciplinary boundaries, and are your terms used differently in those disciplines? If so, it’s worth defining your terms somewhere in the introduction. You don’t need to restrict yourself to using one term for a concept, though, making your writing repetitive – indexers look out for synonym use and construct the index to reflect it.
  5. Notes. When adding material to foot/endnotes, think about whether it would be better placed in the main text. Notes are often identified in indexes, usually in the form 45n20, where 45 is the page number and 20 the note number. Lots of note entries can take up space in your index. If there is a tight page limit – and there often is – then all those ‘n’ entries might squeeze something else out of the index. If your publisher requires an embedded index, adding that little ‘n’ usually has to be done manually at typesetting, which means another thing to check when you get your proofs.
  6. Readers. Related to point 4, think about the likely readers of your book – and likely users of the index, who may be a slightly different group of people. Indexers consider the needs of different groups of readers who may need to access a book, and build the index to make it accessible to them. Are you a literary scholar working on a book that might be of interest to historians? Consideration of their needs during the writing will make it easier to create an index that helps them access your research.
  7. Content and themes. Check that your book (or chapter, or section) is really about what you think it’s about. Try reverse outlining or creating a Word cloud (there are various generators out there) to get an overview of what you’ve actually written. It’s not unusual for a book to appear, ready for indexing, with a word or concept in the title that actually appears very little in the text.

If you decide to commission a professional indexer, here’s some guidance on the process from the Society of Indexers, and my post on the indexing process for academic authors.

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