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Author as Indexer

By Madge Walls

It’s standard procedure these days for a publisher to require an author to provide the index for his nonfiction book. The author has two choices: create the index himself or hire a professional indexer.

Why would an author opt to do the job himself? Money, perhaps. Even if a publisher pays half the cost, it’s still money out of the author’s pocket. But why would an author take the time and trouble to write a great book and then leave the all-important index to an amateur just to avoid one last expense? As my mother used to say: “Penny wise and pound foolish.”

More likely is the perception that because an author knows his subject best, he is the most qualified to create the index. Like many intriguing things in life, there’s more to be considered. Sometimes detailed knowledge of the subject matter is a detriment to the creation of a useful and efficient index. As with editing, the author is often too close to his words to see the bigger picture.

A publisher recently asked me to evaluate an index for a book on a rare childhood disease. The index was prepared by the author, a physician, who expressed his doubts as to how well he had constructed it. The publisher also had doubts, but couldn’t put a finger on the problems. Neither of them had ever studied the art of indexing.

The book was a hefty tome, almost 450 pages, written for parents of children with the disease, as well as physicians who encounter the disease in their practice. The book was not meant to be read from cover to cover, but rather to be used as a reference. As such, a good index was critical.

I took the volume home and got to work. With no more than a glance, I spotted numerous items that were dead giveaways of an amateur indexer. The commonly accepted practices of indexing exist for a reason: they make an index easy for a reader to use. Entries need to make sense and not waste a reader’s time. In short, an index’s sole purpose is to make information easily accessible. This requires an indexer to set aside the author’s point of view and get into the mind of the reader.

First I looked at the index from the parents’ point of view. When a child is diagnosed with a mysterious, disabling illness, the parents want instant information on the immediate aspects of their child’s disease. As the disease progresses, other topics become important, and again parents want immediate access to those points. The index needed to be precise, well organized, and written in anticipation of the parents’ needs.

Numerous topics in this book’s index had strings of up to 20 undifferentiated locators. That means 20 scattered page numbers on which a particular topic was found. Which page would a reader turn to first? Where is the main discussion of the topic? How many pages would he flip through before finding the specific reference for which he is looking? Are some of them merely passing references that clutter the index without offering any substantial information and thus should be eliminated? The remaining main entries needed to be broken down into subentries.

So instead of:

prednisone, 27, 79, 85-86, 103-104, 153, 157, 234, 271, 273, 276, 301, 313, 315, 342, 346, 366-367, 369, 371, 429

We might have:

benefits, 27
dietary considerations, 79
dosage, 85-86

As a frantic parent, the first things I’d want to know are, what causes the disease, how is it treated, and what are my child’s chances for recovery. Oddly, terms such as "symptoms," "diagnosis," "treatment," "therapy," "prognosis," and "home care" were either not included or set as subentries under technical terms where I would never have stumbled upon them. The book contained information on these topics, but I had to do a lot of searching to find it. This is a classic example of the author being too close to his subject. He may have been the world’s expert on the disease, and he discussed the topics of interest to parents thoroughly, but he didn’t realize that parents would use the index differently from his fellow physicians. A professional indexer, trained to create an index of maximum use to every potential reader, brings a fresh set of eyes to the project.

The sections written for physicians contained fountains of medical terminology and technical explanations, which a busy doctor would need to access quickly. The index needed to anticipate his needs, too. There were almost three columns of drugs listed under "medications," but few of them were double posted under their own names as main headings. Where perhaps a parent might look under "medications," it is much more useful for a physician, already familiar with the names of the medications, to be able to directly find what he is looking for.

So while there were commonly-phrased topics such as "allergies," "dental care," and "diet," there were also scientific terms like "nasendoscopy," "acanthosis nigricans," and "Mi-2 autoantibodies." In gathering terms and structuring the index, both readers’ approaches had to be considered.

I found many odd inconsistencies in the index; many topics that were overanalyzed, confusing and wasteful; nonsensical cross references (Outcomes. See outcomes) and double posted entries with different pages references (they should have been the same). These are just a few of the things a professional indexer would have corrected immediately, or, better yet, not have done in the first place.

In addition to having technical skills, an indexer works at a substantive level: deciding what terms to include in the index, phrasing them succinctly, connecting related topics, and deciding on the appropriate depth of the index. Are the terms selected in accordance with author emphasis? Are they selected and defined in accordance with content? These decisions are made with varying degrees of educated subjectivity, and they must be well thought out.

Are authors ever acceptable as indexers of their own work? Of course, if they take the trouble to learn the art. Several authors have even won coveted awards in respected literary competitions for their own indexes. More often, however, an author’s index is substandard and therefore of limited help to the reader. Aside from lacking technical knowledge, the author may be sick of the book after the umpteenth revision and find himself unwilling or unable to face the intensity of this final task, thereby producing a hasty and incomplete result.

Worse yet, he may begin willingly but ultimately find the task so overwhelming that he is unable to complete it, and the book is published with no index at all. Sometimes an index by an author is so poorly done that the publisher refuses to use it, and again the book goes to press without an index.

With a poor index, or none at all, a nonfiction book is often overlooked, discarded or not taken seriously by readers, librarians, professors, and book reviewers, resulting in loss of sales. After all the effort that goes into the writing, how unfortunate that would be.

This said, an author who wishes to index his own book and has the energy to do so should be encouraged. He may find he has a natural aptitude for the work. I would only hope that he educate himself as an indexer before beginning. There are several courses available, and some excellent books on the topic.

In the case of the book on the childhood disease, the author and the publisher were right to acknowledge those inner voices telling them the index didn’t measure up. Hopefully, they will hire a professional for the second printing.

–Article reprinted with permission of Madge Walls, a Colorado-based professional indexer. She welcomes your questions at or (719) 591-1511. Her web site is



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