The Good Index: We Know It When We See It

Posted by Ann Donahue – Senior Editor for Literary Studies at Ashgate

Occasionally, an author asks, “How do I go about creating a good index?” As an editor, I am frustrated that the answer is not as clear and straightforward as someone who reads grammar blogs for fun could wish.

Thus, it is with a certain degree of fear and trembling that I offer a few guidelines to authors who are compiling an index or checking one prepared by an indexer.

We can all agree that a good index is much to be desired and we know one when we see it. But, alas, to some extent, compiling an index is an art rather than a science. The 14th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style enjoins us that “a good index records every pertinent statement within the body of the text.” Notably, Chicago does not attempt to define pertinent, which means the selection of names and terms relies on the judgment of the author or the indexer.

Consistency is certainly a goal, but it is not the only goal, nor is it even desirable in all instances. Professional indexers do have principles of selection in mind, but each book is different. Often whether or not to include a name or a term requires a judgment call. For authors who are reading this, you are the person best-qualified to compile the index, because you know your own book better than anyone. If you decide to work with a professional indexer, you will want to check the index with care.

In the case of names alone, selection criteria may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Whether a critic or other figure is mentioned just once or multiple times
  2. The extent to which the ideas of a particular individual are discussed. A person who is mentioned six times is more likely to be included than someone cited just once in a note. On the other hand, a critic who is cited once but discussed at length should be included.
  3. Length considerations

Of these, length is the most difficult to defend in terms of consistency. The indexer knows a publisher has an ideal length in mind for an index and tries to comply with this. Though this may influence an indexer’s choices, the quality of the index need not suffer. As with writing, it is not axiomatic that longer is better. In fact, it may be frustrating to a reader to look through an index and see a term that is key to her research, only to find a glancing reference in a note. And speaking of the reader, keep in mind that the primary goal of the index is to make a book as useful to readers as possible.

When an author asks me what to bear in mind when compiling or reviewing an index, I recommend the following:

  1. Obviously, you will want to proofread the index carefully to make sure all names and terms are spelled correctly.
  2. Are the terms indexed appropriate? Will experts in the field find them useful?
  3. In the case of a term or theme, are the page and note numbers associated with it correct? Is it discussed in other parts of the book in a significant way? If so, be sure to add those page numbers.
  4. Cross-referencing. Cross-referencing can be very useful to a reader, but should be kept to a minimum. Chicago recommends it be used only if the “see also” leads to additional information as opposed to supplying the same information under a different heading.
  5. Misattributions. Occasionally a work may be attributed to the wrong author. This is rather easy to do if the work is obscure and it is discussed in the context of another writer’s work. Recall that professional indexers are not likely to be experts in the field.

Finally, remember that this post is intended only to get you started. For more information, I recommend consulting the preferred style guide for your field and a visit to the website for The American Society for Indexing or the UK Society of Indexers. Both sites have a good index!

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