How to compile an index

How to compile an indexIf you’ve written a book or a long document you may well be expected to compile an index to go with it. For years I ran in the opposite direction when my book publishers asked me to do one and in those days, they were willing to pay someone else to do it.

However in our current belt-tightening climate publishers have grabbed me by the hair as I tried to run away and said “no way, princess. You do it. End of.”

And guess what? Once I tried it, I found it wasn’t difficult. And it didn’t take 6 months to complete.

Needless to say there are software packages you can buy which supposedly do the indexing for you, but from what I gather (e.g. here) many such packages are about as user-friendly as a cornered rat. Doing it manually, or semi-manually, may seem very last century but offers two distinct advantages:

1)You don’t have to download, install and learn how to use any software before you even start indexing

2)Because you have written the book or document you know which words, phrases, topics etc. are truly important, and which aren’t

Step One: print out the final  document

This may seem obvious, but don’t let a publisher, client, colleagues, etc. expect you to work on a draft, because if you don’t want your index to be all over the place, you need absolutely final  page numbers. Once you’ve got the final version, print it out. You can also use printer’s proofs provided that you or anyone else is certain not to be making anything other than very tiny changes to them.

Step Two: highlight important words, very short phrases, topics, sub-topics etc.

Do this on every page, using a pencil to underline or a highlighter pen. Don’t go berserk, either; unless your book or document is highly technical, academic, medical or other highbrow genre you don’t need every last noun or verb. Main points and topics are usually enough for most readers; with an average self-help, business or biographical book, you might only need to highlight one entry every other page or so. Make sure you highlight key words and phrases all the way through even though some will crop up several times.

Step Three: create a list

Begin copy typing everything highlighted / extrapolated from the main document as a list, into a Word document. Group them into manageable chunks, e.g. A, B, C … D, E, F etc. Be sure to put the relevant page number from the book or document immediately after each entry. 

As you go through your document you’ll almost certainly find that you have highlighted the same words and phrases more than once. Find the original entry for each one, and add the subsequent page numbers of where such entries appear again, in numeric order against the original entry. Here’s how one group of your list might start out:

Group A,B,C
Animals 2
Bicycles 17
Astronauts 24
Carriages 13
Airplanes 5
Boats 18
Cars 14

Now, here’s how it will look as you go further through your highlighting:

Group A,B,C
Animals 2, 23
Bicycles 17, 46
Astronauts 24, 75
Carriages 13, 54
Airplanes 5, 28
Boats 18, 61
Cars 14, 19

And when you’re done, the group may well look like this:

Group A,B,C
Animals 2, 23, 45, 98
Bicycles 17, 46, 67, 87
Astronauts 24, 75, 82, 94
Carriages 13, 54, 63,
Airplanes 5, 28, 34, 45, 80, 98
Boats 18, 61, 72,
Cars 14, 19, 35, 47, 54, 67, 92

Remove all the group titles and place the entries in a list. Don’t worry about whether it’s vaguely alphabetical or not; arranging the entries in rough groups was purely to make it easier for you to find everything. And here comes the science bit…

Step Four: put the list into alphabetical order

If you’re using a version of Word from 2007 or later, it’s very simple to get it to do the donkey work. Here’s what you do:

Highlight your existing list (place cursor at the very beginning, press “shift” on your keyboard and hold that down, then press “end” on the right-hand side of your keyboard.)

On the “home” tab, go to the area called “paragraph.” In the top row towards the right, you should see an icon that says “AZ” with an arrow pointing downwards. Click on that. Make sure the two boxes say “paragraph” and “text.” Then select “ascending” (assuming you don’t want your list in reverse alphabetical order…) and click “OK.” Bingo.

If you don’t have that facility, it’s not that hard to do this manually. Do it in two stages; one, just clump together all words/phrases starting with the same letter. Two, rearrange each letter category.

And voilà – one perfectly-formed index.

Good luck!

Now: perfect the rest of that book or document…

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