Structuring your index

An index is an index is an index, ne c’est pas? Well, actually, no. An index can come in all shapes and forms – though, as we shall see, in fact your options are reasonably limited.

However, what I shall briefly consider in this post is how many indexes you need, how many levels (or layers) are possible within the index, and the implications of these two factors on the internal structure of your index(es). Thinking through these issues must be done before you start creating any index entries.

Using the mind map

If you have indeed prepared a mind map of your study beforehand (discussed earlier), then its value will be immediately apparent at this point. The mind map is the structure of your index; its contours can be mapped into a skeleton index without a huge amount of additional work (though, as we shall see, if your mind map has a ‘deep’ structure then it will need to be reworked to accommodate a flatter one).

Indeed, all that you need to think about after this is the internal organization and consistency of your entries (plus the use of cross-references), the subject of my next post.

How many indexes?

A single, all-inclusive index may be normal but separate name and subject indexes are quite common. Indeed, in certain literary studies, for instance, it wouldn’t be unthinkable to have three indexes: the general index plus a separate index of authors and another of literary works.

That said, just because something isn’t unthinkable, that doesn’t mean that you need to do it. You will find it a far less complex task to create a single index. I suspect your readers will also thank you for it, too. Ultimately, however, if you are wanting to do anything out of the ordinary, it would be a good idea to talk to your production editor first; there is no point spending a whole lot of time and effort producing an index if it is then rejected.

How many levels?

Likewise, there is the issue of levels within your index(es) to consider. Theoretically, you could have as many levels as you want but in fact you are limited by the layout of the index. There are two factors here:

  • Page layout. Most indexes are laid out in two columns per page (I have seen indexes squeezed into three columns but they look awful and are hard to read). The width of each column will be no more than 6 cm (less than 2.5 inches) wide.
  • Arrangement of sub-entries. The convention with indexes is to indent each level of sub-entry. An index with three levels thus has a huge amount of indenting (and wasted space) to fit into such a narrow column.

In reality, then, the physical constraints of the index limits its depth to two levels. Such a flat structure is also much easier to work with and the resulting index is also easier to read.

Internal structure

Adoption of such a two-level structure has huge implications for the internal structure of your index, especially if you are working from a mind map (as undoubtedly, it will have entities with more than two layers of complexity). Flattening this structure will require:

  • creation of new related entries out of the old entry
  • judicious use of cross-references

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this point is by taking a portion of the mind map that I used earlier and translating this into a skeleton index.

Mapped as:

English
xxxxacademic standard
xxxxquality
xxxxtranslation
xxxxUS/UK
xxxxsee also Cultural Issues; Language
[…]
Language
xxxxcorrect usage/spelling
xxxxplain English
xxxxtools. See Language tools
xxxxsee also English; Presentation; Style
Language tools
xxxxreference works
xxxxspell checkers
xxxxsee also Language

Note here that the mind map is not perfect (hence the index created is not a faithful reproduction) but it will have to do. Hopefully, you will get an idea of what I mean by this as a result.

At this point, you have all of the information needed to index your book. My next post shall be looking at the formatting of the actual index entries.

(Post #9 of the Indexing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

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One Response to Structuring your index

  1. […] addition to structuring your index in terms of hierarchy and internal structure (as discussed in my previous post), you will also need to format and fine-tune your index. Although each publisher may have a […]

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