Structuring your index

19 March 2010

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:

xxxxacademic standard
xxxxsee also Cultural Issues; 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.)

What to index

16 March 2010

Apart from the number of pages available, there is another important factor determining the length of an index: just what is to be indexed. This is not an issue considered in advance by most authors, I suspect, but your choices here will add to readers’ perceptions about the index and your book.

Does it look as if the indexing job has been thoroughly done – but not overblown – or is this a skimpy (even sloppy) affair? Although a threadbare index useless to its purpose will immediately signify that the rest of your book is equally inadequate, more is not necessarily better. There are limits.

So what material should be indexed in your book?

Obviously, your body text must be indexed, but what about notes that comment on the text? Citations and bibliography are usually not indexed; will you follow that practice? Some publishers think it unnecessary to index a glossary (indeed, sometimes an index becomes a kind of glossary), but consider it essential to index any illustrations and captions. What does your publisher say?

With luck, your publisher will have guidelines on all of these matters but otherwise simply use your common sense.

As you can see, decisions need to be made here but they are not life and death issues, nothing even to lose sleep over. Indeed, although what you chose to index can be significant, the ultimate quality of your index depends on other factors, not least the intellectual conceptualization of the index (or mind map, discussed here) and its ‘visualization’ in the index structure, the subject of my next post.

(Post #8 of the Indexing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Use of cross-references

5 February 2010

It should go without saying that the pagination of your manuscript will never match that of the finished typeset book. This means that you cannot insert actual page numbers in any cross-references within the text. Instead, you should refer to entities like ‘Chapter 3’ or ‘Table 5.1’.

Indeed, although a few well-placed cross-references can be useful, they should only be used where there is a significant benefit to the reader. Having to flick backwards and forwards through the book may be OK once in a while but more than that is annoying.

Moreover, cross-references can be counter-productive. All too often, they distract your readers, taking them off on wild-goose chases to remote regions of your text. The danger is that your readers will lose the thread of your argument or, worse, lose patience altogether with your text, perceiving it to be badly structured.

Finally, remember that cross-references can be plain wrong. There is a risk that the text that you are referring to has been moved – or even deleted.

In other words, handle with care.

(Post #17 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)