How To Write A Book Index

The mechanics of writing an index are frequently underestimated. Book indexing is both an art and a craft involving meticulous hard work, clear thought, and numerous interpretations and judgments.

12 Step Guide to Book Indexing

Step 1: Plan Your time!

  • This is probably the most important factor for managing your work-flow, and hence your income. Indexing is a time intensive process. An academic book of 300 pages may take an experienced indexer 7 days to index, whereas a beginner may need two or three weeks
  • Make sure to negotiate the required indexing time with your client.

Step 2: Choose Your Indexing Source

  • Indexing from page proofs. Printed books must be indexed from the final page proofs, in final layout. If the pagination is not final, the entire book might have to be re-indexed.
  • Indexing from a PDF. Use of a searchable PDF ensures that the indexer will not inadvertently delete or alter the book’s text or layout. It also allows the indexer to easily search for additional occurrences of words/phrases elsewhere in the book, thus ensuring a comprehensive listing of entries.
  • Indexing directly from the computer screen. Some indexers prefer to work directly from the computer screen, rather than from a marked-up hard copy; however, it can be harder to comprehend the text and to discern keywords and concepts, so this may be a less effective approach for complex books.

Step 3: Prepare Your Tools.

  • Software Programs. Professional indexers generally use dedicated indexing software programs to automate certain tasks. Such programs can be expensive and need time to learn and master; not everyone is so inclined; some may prefer to use a word processing program to enter terms and page numbers. (See also the appended list of dedicated indexing programs.)

  • Publishers’ Style Guide. The publisher’s style requirements must be clearly understood by the indexer. The primary style guide is the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. However, the indexer needs to know if a publisher has preferences for the conflation of page numbers, alphabetizing, run-in or indented style, inclusive numbers, handling of numerical headings, handling of pictures, tables and figures in the text, etc.

  • Length of the Index. Before starting to compile the index, the indexer needs to know how many pages the publisher has allotted for the index, and how the index will be laid out. There are many variables affecting the length of an index, e.g. the average number of index entries per page, double posting of entries, cross-references, and the typography and layout of the index.

  • List of Key Terms. An author may compile a list of key terms for the indexer’s use. However, a long list of terms can actually cause duplication and hinder a professional indexer’s task of structuring and compiling the index.

Step 4: Decide What to Index.

What to Index

General Rules:

  • The entire text of a book, including introduction and substantive content notes must be indexed.
  • Book appendices containing supplementary information should be indexed, except when they duplicate documents discussed in the text.

Footnotes and Endnotes:

  • If footnotes or endnotes continue or amplify discussion in the text, then they should be indexed.
  • Important and substantive endnotes should be indexed with the page number and letter ‘n’ [for note]. Example: 251n16.
  • If the endnotes or footnotes continue onto another page, normally only the first page number is given. However, if the reference in the note appears on the second page, then the second page number should be used, as it has the reference.

Author Index and Author Name Indexing:

  • In some fields, it is customary to index every author named in the text. Check with the publisher as to the degree of inclusiveness required.
  • Authors are cited in the text usually by last name, but occasionally discrepancies occur. Make separate entries for each author whose name appears in the text, but do not index those names that are concealed under ‘et al’. in the text citation.

Illustrations, Tables, Charts, Pictures, etc.

  • Illustrative items are indexed if important to the discussion.
  • Illustrations can be set in italics or bold. The illustration number is usually included. Alternatively, an abbreviation can be used: t or table for tables, f or fig. for figure; pl or plate for plates.
  • A head note should be placed at the start of the index, explaining how the illustration has been indexed. (Note: f refers to figure)

What NOT to Index

  • Front Matter such as title pages, dedications, epigraphs, lists of illustrations and tables and acknowledgements, are not indexable.
  • Glossaries, Bibliographies, and other such lists are usually not indexed.
  • Footnotes and Endnotes: If they are source citations, then they are not indexed.
  • In-Text Citations (parenthetical citations) are used to document any external sources used within a document. They are not normally indexed.
  • Author Names. Do not index those author names that are concealed under ‘et al’ in the text citation.

Step 5: Marking Up a Hard Copy of the Text.

  • The indexer peruses the table of contents and the book as a whole, then identifies all the terms for indexing by highlighting and marking them on hardcopy. Indexers may develop their own shorthand notations.
  • Marked text greatly speeds up indexing; makes it easy to locate the context of an entry, and is helpful during the editing process.
  • Some indexers work chapter-by-chapter, making index entries as they go. My preference is to first read and mark-up the entire book, mapping out the book’s structure, and getting a grasp of all the relationships between various key ideas/phrases.

Step 6: Identify Key Terms/Phrases.

  • Identifying and understanding the key concepts of a book is essential before one can finalize the index structure. Key concepts can be broad or narrow in scope: simple or complex. Sometimes they are implied, but not stated or obvious.
  • Key terms/phrases are used in headings, but it is not a good idea to use them in subheadings.
  • Subheadings tend to represent important concepts in the book, but cannot stand alone without the key concept in the main heading to support them

Step 7: Indexing Software Settings.

The following are some of the basic settings:

  • Set the alphabetizing rule for the index: Chicago Manual of Style (CMS); International Standards Organization (ISO); or Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).
  • If MS Word is used, the alphabetizing default is the same as used in the white pages of your phonebook.
  • Set the locator (page) reference rules for conflation/non-conflation of locators.
  • Set the locator (page) abbreviation rule (CMS or Hart’s Rules)
  • Set the number of columns in the index.
  • Set the style for headers: initial cap, all caps, bold, italic, underlined, etc.
  • Set the style of the index: indented or run-in; line spacing of the index, indentation setting, etc.
  • Set the maximum number of characters allowed in records
  • Set the font and font size for the index
  • Set the style of the index: either indented style, or run-in style. (There are also variations of these two styles.)

Step 8: Begin Indexing.

How to make index entries.

  • Index entries consist of three elements: a heading, a subheading, and a locator (page or page number). The entries are made either by typing tem, or by copy/pasting from the PDF.
  • Succinct entries help to reduce the density of the printed index. Dense index pages make it harder for readers to scan the index and locate information. When index entries are kept to the minimum number of words needed for clarity, the usability of the index is greatly enhanced.


  • Headings should be nouns or gerunds that function as nouns. The key terms identified during mark-up are input as headers.
  • Headings with more than five or six locators should be broken down into several subheadings so that readers can quickly find information.
    Headings are alphabetized in letter-by-letter, or word-by-word order.

How to phrase sub-headings:

  • Subheading should be as concise and informative as possible, and begin with a keyword. Prepositions ‘a’, ‘an’, and ‘the’ are omitted whenever possible.
  • As a general rule, ‘and’ should not be used at the beginning of a sub-heading as it greatly reduces the ability to quickly scan the index.
  • If a number of subheadings contain the same key word, they can be made into a separate header under the keyword, with a cross-reference back to the original header.

Subheading sorting:

  • Subheadings can be sorted alphabetically or chronologically.
  • Symbols, hyphens, slashes and numbers are usually ignored in alphabetical sorts.
  • If required, the alphabetical sort can be modified in the indexing software to recognize three classes of characters: letters, Arabic numerals and symbols.
  • Individual characters or words at the beginning of the entry sometimes need to removed from a sort.
  • Entries beginning with numbers or symbols may need to be spelled-out.

Locators (page references).

  • Page ranges are often not expressed in full, but are compressed by dropping some of the repeated digits. There are different rules for the compression of numbers. Check with the publisher’s indexing style guide.
  • All occurrences of a key term/phrase must be searched using the PDF search feature to ensure that the list of page locators is comprehensive.


  • Cross-references should be added to direct the reader to related topics.
  • Ensure that the cross-references match the exact wording of the headings.
  • Cross-references can also be made from subheadings.


  • Synonyms can be added to help the reader navigate and find information.
  • A cross-reference is used to connect the synonym with the corresponding key term.
  • Parenthetical phrases should be added to identify relationships for the reader (e.g. Newcastle (Australia))

Step 9: Edit the index.

  • Careful editing of the index is essential. Editing shapes the index into a cohesive unit. This involves checking headings and subheadings, spelling, capitalization and fonts, punctuation, cross-references, as well as seeking out false locators.
  • Check also for consistency and comprehensiveness of the index.
  • Identify any long strings of unanalyzed locators that require subheadings.

Step 10: Proofread the Index

Spelling and grammar mistakes

  • The entire index must be proofread line by line for spelling and grammar mistakes.
  • Proofing a hardcopy of the index is usually more effective than on screen.
  • Spelling should reflect that found in the author’s text.
  • Indexing software has a spell checker, which can be customized, but having the index checked by “second set of eyes”, namely a proof-reader, can be just as good if not better.

Incorrect locators.

  • The accuracy of page numbers (locators) is critical. Systematically carry out spot checks of page entries.
  • With indexing software, the index can be sorted by page number so that one can flag incorrect numbers. The software can also be set to prevent “out-of range” numbers from occurring.

Step 11: Format the index.

General comments:

  • After the index has been proofread and edited, the index should be formatted to the dimensions required by the publisher.
  • In print works, indexes are usually set with a font smaller than the main text.
  • If the main text is twelve point, the index will probably be set at eight or ten point. The index is usually set in two columns, but for large format books, indexes may be set in three or four columns.

Index indentation:

  • All run-over lines are indented in an index, whether the subentries are in ‘run-in’ or ‘indented’ format.
  • For indented indexes, the subentries are usually indented one em, the sub-subentries two ems, and the run-overs for all entries are three ems.
  • The indentation format must be consistent throughout the index.
  • Indexing software makes it easy by having default settings for indentation, but these can be adjusted if necessary.

Trimming the index:

  • If the index is too long, begin by further editing to rephrase and shorten headings or subheadings.
  • Minor or trivial entries can often be deleted.
  • Some cross-references and acronyms can also be deleted.
  • Try adjusting the layout. But be careful that you do not ruin the entire index.

Bad breaks:

  • The index should be checked for bad breaks in the flow of headings and subheadings. These occur at the bottom or at the top of a column. They can be readily fixed or eliminated by using a carriage return, or transposing lines from one column to another, and adding a line of white space.

Step 12: It’s done! (or you hope so)

  • Send the index off to your client … but be prepared to make any changes that may be requested
  • How to Evaluate an index

What does it take to be a Book Indexer?

Book indexing is actually a rather complex, intellectual process. On the other hand, there is no mystery involved, and the task can be learned and mastered. It needs a well-developed sense of order and punctiliousness; a good memory (especially during the compilation stage); a great deal of patience; and above-average general knowledge of the world, and often highly specialized knowledge of a particular field or discipline.

Book indexing needs a certain flair for the task of analyzing the text; for recognizing the major topics (both stated and implied); for identifying relationships of topics; for arranging terms so that they can be easily found; and for indicating the exact place in a document.

Book indexing can only be learned the hard way, by example, training, and experience. Nevertheless, there are basic guidelines, and relevant provisions of national and international standards that need to be followed. (Source: Hans H, Wellisch, Indexing from A to Z, p. 175-176)

Book indexers constantly must make value judgments as they work through the text, deciding what to include and what to leave out of the index. That is what makes book indexing an intellectual challenge as well as an art.

Book indexing is an organic process with the book indexer addressing large and small structural problems; wording and confusions in the text, and issues of indexability, all at the same time.

Book indexers constantly make value judgments as they work through the text, deciding what to include and what to leave out of the index.

The book indexer needs to assess the “degree of exhaustivity” while book indexing. “Over-indexing” or “under-indexing” are twin mistakes. Over-indexing lists too many names, topics that are trivial and have little value for the reader. Under-indexing is the omission of indexable terms which short changes and annoys readers.

That is what makes book indexing an intellectual challenge as well as an art – something that computers simply can not do.

Nancy Mulvany maintains that:

  • “book indexing is something that you will either enjoy or detest; and there is little middle ground.
  • “You either have a knack for it, or you won’t.”
  • “I don’t not believe indexing can be taught…since a very important aspect of this work comes down to the individual indexer’s judgment and communication abilities… Like other types of writing, it is a mixture of art and craft, judgment and selection.” (Source: Nancy Mulvany, Indexing Books.)