Indexing Your Scholarly Monograph? Tips for the Faint of Heart

You know they’re called index cards for a reason, right? Also, this one is pretty smart.













There are several reasons why you would choose to index your own book. Your publisher may encourage you to do it yourself. Your topic requires detailed knowledge that you have, but a freelance indexer doesn’t. Or maybe you’ve already spent several hundred dollars on image and other copyright permissions (nope, not bitter!) and are unwilling or unable to pay someone else to do it.

But when you tell people that you’re going to index your book, they’ll offer their own reason: you have masochistic tendencies and should probably get some treatment for that. And maybe you would if those images hadn’t cost so much (still not bitter!).

Having indexed my own book (and another while a grad student), I’m here to tell you that it’s not as bad as it seems, as long as you’re organized. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Before Deciding to Write Your Own Index

Before agreeing to index your own book, you should think carefully about whether you have the skills to do this well. If you try and don’t produce an index that’s good enough, your publisher will outsource it to a freelancer, charge you for it, and delay the publication of your book. Some questions to seriously ask yourself:

  • Are you completely burned out by the publication process? Publishing a book takes years, from peer review to rewrites to copyediting. For people who are on the tenure track, there’s the added pressure of getting the book out before going up for tenure. You may be so exhausted by this process that you kind of hate your book. That’s not a good place to be for writing an index.
  • Are you riven with anxiety at the idea of indexing? Your emotional state is important. If indexing the book is giving you nightmares and making you snap at your kids or kick your cats, it may be worth it to pay the money to have a freelancer do it, if you have that option. I’ve heard that freelancers will index a book for as little as $350, which seems pretty low to me, while my press quoted me $1000 as a ballpark. Expect to pay something in between, though if you work with a freelancer, you will also be involved in making decisions about how terms will be indexed, so you may end up having to do some of the most arduous work anyway.
  • Do you have a methodical eye for detail? Are you the person who other people bring their work to for copyediting? Indexing requires a set of skills that not every writer has—the ability to parse ideas into their root forms. If you’re the kind of person who leans back in your office chair, stuffs a cigar in your mouth and says, “I’ve got this crazy idea about how to recreate the university from the ground up…” then you may not have the detail skills to be the best indexer.

Getting Started With Your Index (Hint: Don’t Alphabetize!)

  • In the drafting phase, don’t bother alphabetizing the index. If your book is like mine, you have certain terms or names that tend to occur as pairs (like the co-authors of a musical, for example). I found it useful to have these pairs next to each other in my draft so I could quickly add page numbers to both. To move through the index, I used the search function. When I had my master list, I used Word’s sort option to alphabetize it. Though do be sure to list people with last name first. I didn’t do this and it added unnecessary work later on.
  • I separated my index draft into people, places, things and concepts. This helped me think about the kinds of items I needed to be on the lookout for while I was reading (and rereading and re-rereading) the text. Most likely you’ll collapse everything into one index, but having the categories helped me make sense of the process.
  • I know you’ve got a deadline looming, but take breaks or you’ll get sloppy. As soon as I found myself skirting over terms just to get through a chapter, I would stop for a few minutes to play Candy Crush or check email or throw a toy for the cats. This is meticulous work; being fully engaged is key, so don’t try to do it all in one sitting.
  • After an initial scan during proofreading, I went through with a fine-toothed comb and reread the mss again, pulling out ALL proper names, references to books, films, events, and concepts. For items with multiple entries, I also started considering how to break them up into subheadings, putting these in parentheses next to the page numbers. At the bottom, I recorded questions to myself about terms that I wasn’t sure about how to describe or how to differentiate them from each other. For example, for my book, I use the phrase “white working-class rebel” to describe juvenile delinquents in the 1950s. Should I use “white working-class rebel” (wow, that’s a mouthful) or “juvenile delinquents” in the index? Or just have one point to the other? This wasn’t a decision to be made in the middle of gathering, so I jotted it down and moved on.
  • Once you have your master list of index terms, save that file as “master list.” Then create a copy that you can work from to start deleting terms and refining concepts.

Once You’ve Got Your Master List:

Refine and refine and refine. I started with entries that had more than 5 locators associated with them. Chicago suggests that such entries need sub entries to be more usable for readers. I went to each term and each page to subdivide into smaller, but logical categories. I also flagged any entry with only one locator. Did these need their own index terms? This was a judgement call on my part. I mentioned many movies in passing in the book, but didn’t want readers to flip through the index and think that all of these films were discussed substantively, so I only included titles of films where I explicated them, even if only in a clause.

While I’m happy with the index I wrote, I honestly ran out of time to do everything I wanted to, like cross referencing all cultural texts under their author as well under their title. I didn’t realize this was something I was supposed to do until 11pm the day before the index was due to the publisher and it just had to be left out. I comforted myself with the fact that in most of these cases the author and title would appear on the same mss page, so a reader wouldn’t likely miss anything.

Have you indexed your own book? What tips worked for you? What did I leave out?


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