Someone Writing With Fountain Pen in Open Book Displaying Typical Book Index

How to Write a Book Index: A Step-by-Step Guide

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One of the first things you typically see when you open a book is the table of contents. While that may tell you which page to flip to if you’re looking for a certain chapter, it isn’t always the best guide for finding particular references or topics within the text. That job goes to the humble book index – a vital, yet sometimes overlooked component of many books (especially of the non-fiction variety).

Because the index of a book acts as a map and compass to readers, ideally pointing them in the precise direction they’ll need to find the information they’re looking for, they should be carefully crafted. If you’re interested in learning how to write an index, this is the guide for you.

What Is a Book Index?

Before making an index in a book, you must first answer the question, “What is an index?” The most basic explanation of a book index is that it is an alphabetical list of words and corresponding page numbers. These words will help you navigate the topics and subtopics in the book and direct you to the exact pages where you can find them. It’s a thorough view of all the information within the text and how to get to it.

Anything the index writer has understood to be important or anything someone may want to reference will likely be included in the index. This might include things such as:

  • Names
  • Places
  • Important events
  • Concepts

The book’s topic will, of course, determine how to write an index and its contents. In a book that has focused on specific blocks of time, as you might find in a subject like military history, you’ll likely see dates in the index of the book.

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Why a Book Index Matters

A crucial part of knowing how to make a book index is understanding why it’s essential. Having a detailed index means someone can pick up the book and locate information without reading it front to back. If someone wants to use the book as a reference, they’ll be able to find what they need more easily.

Overall, a well-made book index can help to quickly direct the reader to any information they’re trying to find.

How to Write a Book Index

Now that you know what the index of a book is, it’s time to lay out how to make one. To get started, you can use the following guide to learn the basic steps of index writing and why they matter.

Step 1 – Read the Book

It might seem as if some software program could generate an index, but a great index requires a real person with an understanding of the content. To gain that understanding, you must read the book itself. It isn’t generally recommended that an author create their index, but if you go that route, you should still read over the text again!

Step 2 – Create Your Style Guide

You want a clean, professional index, and the best way to achieve that is to lay out your formatting and the conventions to which you intend to adhere. You can use a style guide if you find it helpful. Regardless of how you decide on the formatting, you must remain consistent. For instance, if you choose an indented format, continue with the indented format throughout the index. Changing things up can make an index messy and harder to follow.

Step 3 – Mark Up the Text

Some people might find this step easier when combined with reading the book, or it can be done independently. In whatever order works for you, mark up the text. You can do this with a physical book by highlighting, writing in margins, using sticky tabs, or whatever method is easiest to navigate; you can also do it by highlighting your way through a digital copy.

The takeaway is that you’ll need to indicate what you will turn into an index entry within the text. Find your main terms, headings, subheadings, and so on.

Step 4 – Make the Index Entries

Now that you have settled on the formatting, understand the text, and have scribbled and highlighted your way through all the words and topics you want to include, it’s time to get to the meat of how to write an index. Make the entries! The fundamental part is having a word and the associated page number, but it’s better to go a few steps further.

It’s best to use nouns for the main headings and then break those down further into subentries. For example, if you’ve written a book about interior design, you might have a heading for “couches.” Subentries that follow might include “sectional couches,” “leather couches,” “patterned couches,” and things of that nature.

Another helpful tip is to work in groups of five. If a particular term shows up in the book five or more times, you can typically add subentries for it. Encountering the word “cake” seven times probably means there’s an opportunity for something like a “chocolate cake” subentry.

You may also evaluate certain terms for synonyms or related words that people might look up to find the information. If someone searches for “Second World War” and you’ve only indexed “WWII”, they might not find the information they want that is contained in the book.

Before you finish making your entries, refer to all the marks you made in the text and ensure they’re accounted for (unless there’s some reason to exclude them from the final index).

Step 5 – Proofread

Once you’ve finished writing your entries, don’t let that index go anywhere without editing it first! Proofread for the basics – spelling, grammar, punctuation – and scan to see if anything is irrelevant, can be removed, or might need to be broken down further into subentries you didn’t include in the first round. You might also notice opportunities to include cross-references that you didn’t notice while creating the entries.

Try to look at the index with a fresh set of eyes. Imagine that you’ve never encountered the book before and want to find something with the index. Can you do so? Is it easy to use and a generally good experience? If the answer is no, edit to fix that. You could even hand the index over to someone else for their feedback.

Once the proofreading process has been completed, you’ll have a finished book index!

Book indexes are a fascinating – if often overlooked – part of writing. Creating a truly helpful index takes excellent attention to detail and care. By following the steps listed above, you’ll be well on your way to crafting a book index of your own.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you have lingering book index questions, you’re not the only one. Here are answers to some of the most common inquiries people often have.

How do you use a book index?

To use an index, go to where it’s located and search for the term you’re interested in. They’re in alphabetical order. To the side of the word, you’ll find a corresponding page number (or multiple numbers). Then, when you go to that page in the book, you’ll find information about or related to the topic you searched.

Where is the index in a book?

An index is typically found in the back of a book. Its exact location might vary slightly depending on what other pages (Bibliography, About the Author, etc.) are included, but it will be one of the last, or the very last, pieces of content.

Can an index be at the front of a book?

Conventionally, the index is at the back of the book behind every page (save, perhaps, for the About the Author section). Including the index at the front of the page may cause confusion with the Table of Contents. It’s best to go with the standard back-of-the-book index.

Do all books need an index?

If you’re publishing a non-fiction or academic book, yes, you will need to include an index. As mentioned above, indexes are important for several reasons. That’s especially true for those categories. Otherwise, they can still be helpful for long fiction or books with a wealth of different information or lore (like fantasy novels).

Is a book index the same as the table of contents?

No, these two things are different. A Table of Contents lists the parts of a book and their location. To know where Chapter 7 begins, you’ll find that on the Table of Contents. An index is a comprehensive list of the important topics, people, concepts, and places within the text and documents where all occurrences of them occur.

Is the book index the same as the glossary?

No, these two things are different. A Table of Contents lists the parts of a book and their location. To know where Chapter 7 begins, you’ll find that on the Table of Contents. An index is a comprehensive list of the important topics, people, concepts, and places within the text and documents where all occurrences of them occur.

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