Daily Archives: January 20, 2010

The Index as a Roadmap

What is an index, and why would you want one in your non-fiction book? A good index is a road map to information. It leads readers to all the information on a particular subject, and it also leads readers to related information that might interest them. A good index allows readers to find what they are looking for no matter where in the index they start.

You might wonder if a computer program could produce the index for your book. It can’t. It can produce a concordance, an alphabetical listing of most of the words in the text with their page numbers, but that is not an index.

The index in a non-fiction book has two audiences:

  1. The first is people who are considering buying the book: Let’s say you’re in the bookstore browsing the sports section. You see a book about coaching soccer and wonder if it discusses sports psychology, particularly the mental imaging technique. You turn to the back of the book to check the index. No index. There is a chapter on sports psychology, but you don’t have time to skim the entire chapter to see if it covers mental imaging. Maybe the book next to it will have something. You turn to the back of this one, and it has an index. You find psychology right away, but you don’t see anything about mental imaging. You put the book back on the shelf. What you don’t realize is that the book does have lots of information about mental imaging, but the index only contains the words the author uses in the book. In this case, the author always uses the term “inner soccer” when he describes mental imaging. A good indexer would have entries under both terms or would use a see reference to direct the reader from mental imaging to inner soccer.
  2. The other audience for an index is made up of people who have already read the book: Let’s say you remember reading about something in a book and want to find it again. Maybe you want to quote something, or use some bit of information in an argument you’re having with someone. Maybe you saw a recipe you want to try. You will probably try to use the language of the book to look it up, but you might not remember the exact term the author used. Again, a good indexer will think of other words the reader might use to look something up and provide entries for those words.
The whole point of an index is to guide people to the information in the book. If they can’t find that information, it might as well not be there. A good index will make most non-fiction books more usable to their readers and more likely to be purchased. A professionally written index is a worthwhile investment for any author who lacks the skills and training to write a good one. 

Tia Leschke

Professional Indexer

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