If you read my post two weeks ago (it’s here if you didn’t), you should have a basic idea of what to look for to make index entries and how to structure them. Also a little bit about what cross-references and keywords are.
Partly in order to save you some time, please don’t get stuck on making a duplicate of your index under the topic of the book itself. If your book is about birds, please avoid:
I kid you not, this sort of thing appears in indexes (perhaps tongue in cheek, but we don’t know). And you don’t need to give an outline of every chapter topic under the main book topic (although for how-to books, this might be useful). You will have to decide on the usefulness of a mini-outline under the book topic for yourself, but certainly don’t put all sorts of details there. Most of the time, the main book topic or topics will either not appear at all in the index, or will have just some very general things that wouldn’t go well as main headings for themselves. Here’s an example of a metatopic with very general stuff under it:
C++ programming language
advantages and disadvantages, 3–4
history of, 1–2
overview of program structure, 4–11
reusable code as goal of, 153
Now, you could also just put:
C++ programming language, 1–11, 153
but for a technical topic like this one, the 1–11 range is a bit long to provide without further detail. More on longer page ranges next. Hopefully, you get the idea. You can also cross-reference using See also to the next most specific topics from this book topic, unless you have more than about three of them. Please keep in mind that most index users will be using the index to find things that are not obvious from the table of contents or the title, so you don’t need to worry too much about providing super-general topics in the index. I usually start providing index topics at the chapter topic level (if it’s about only one thing) and then provide more detailed names, places, and subjects from there.
When to Make Subentries, or Not
Main headings are your primary access points for your readers. If you just give priority to that, you’ll be headed in the right direction. There are situations, however, where it would be useful to provide a more detailed breakdown, but let’s not get carried away with that concept.
Too Much Detail
Remember that an index is designed to take the user to the page or pages where the topic is discussed, not to the word or sentence, so you don’t have to put a bunch of subentries under a topic when they all fall on the same page. If those detailed subheadings are important, make them their own main headings instead. Please avoid:
food choices, 28
Try this instead (assuming the book is about just dragons):
eating habits, 28
food choices, 28
If the book was about other fantasy creatures and not just dragons, you might be able to get away with (assuming this was all that was covered for dragons):
dragons, 28, 34-36
A longer index is not necessarily more useful just for being long and detailed. Overly detailed headings with many detailed subentries can make it slower and more difficult for the user to find things. Besides, all this unnecessary detail is time-consuming for you. 🙂
And then there are the folks who just concentrate on main headings and leave the user with things like this to deal with:
operators, 37, 57–58, 63–77, 100–102, 166, 168, 171, 190, 215–217
Please spare us. Assuming this is a printed book and not an ebook with links for the page numbers, the user will be required to go back and forth looking at each one of these locators to find what they are looking for (in this case, discussion of arithmetic and logical operators in formulas). Not fair! After about five flippings back and forth, most users will give up. So, we indexers have a rule of thumb to seriously consider subentries if there are more than five locators. This rule can vary depending on our client publisher’s needs, but it’s a good general rule to go by. Here’s how you could make something like the above situation easier on your index user:
address of (&), 166, 171
assignment, 68–70, 100–102
calculation, 63–77, 190
dereference (*), 168
dot (.), 37
increment/decrement, 66–68, 101–102, 190
Long page ranges
This one is a little more debatable. One could send a user to a continuous discussion of a large-scale topic that covers more than 10-15 pages (like a chapter topic), but if the range is long, it’s a courtesy to break that main heading down into the next level of specificity (avoiding the too-detailed scenario). I usually make subentries for the page ranges for main subtopics under the main topic and leave it at that.
So, do yourself and the users a favor and leave out unnecessary detail, and do your users a favor by giving just enough when it’s necessary.
Double-posting vs. Cross-references
Last section, I promise! 🙂 This is a little long, but it’s much shorter than a six-month indexing course.
As you are deciding on topics to put in your index, you’ll run into topics that are synonymous or closely related to one another. Just keep this concept in mind: don’t make the user go to more places than necessary to find what they’re looking for. The main reasons we have cross-references are to force users to go to our preferred vocabulary or more usually, to send them to entries that have a bunch of subentries and thus save space by not double-posting in both places. So, your first choice is to double-post synonymous terms as main headings with their locators, so if the user goes to either one, they will find what they are looking for. Second choice is to use a cross-reference to steer the user to the main spot in the index where the information will be given, or to provide connections to related topics that are also covered in-depth.
If you can keep these basic principles in mind when creating an index for your readers, you will make it much easier for them to find more detailed topics that they kind of remember from reading, or get a basic idea of what your book is about if they are browsing to buy, or find that discussion they want to cite when they are using your material in their book.
Just ask yourself, “Is this a useful term displayed in a useful way for someone to find what they need in my book?”
As my own courtesy, I have taken this post and the one from two weeks ago and combined them into a PDF (Writer’s Guide to Book Indexing) that you can download to keep as a reference.
And if you are still overwhelmed by the indexing process and would like some pro help, I’m right here!