How To Check An Index

index checkingIn August 2012 I was eagerly awaiting publication of my first research methods book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide (now in its second edition). I received an email asking me to check and give feedback on the attached draft index. I had absolutely no clue how to check an index. It looked like a credible index to me so I sent an email back saying thanks, it looks great, and hoped that would pass muster.

In May 2014 I was delighted to receive another email telling me that the book had been positively reviewed in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology. Although the review was indeed predominantly positive, the reviewer – as reviewers will – offered some criticism too. For example, she stated that, in contradiction to the book’s title, evaluation had only been mentioned once in its pages. Almost two years had passed since I’d worked on the manuscript and I began to doubt myself so I turned to my copy to check. I was reassured to find evaluation mentioned on many pages. But then I wondered, how could the reviewer have made such an error? The rest of her review suggested that she had read the book quite carefully. I turned to the index – and found that there was only one page number given for ‘evaluation’.

I could argue here that the reviewer should have been more careful, or that the indexer should have been more thorough. But actually I think it’s my fault because I didn’t know how to check an index. On the plus side, this is a useful cautionary tale which demonstrates that indexes are used by many people in many ways. This is something that indexers understand, though they are not infallible and will never know a book as well as its author – which is why authors are asked to check indexes. But nobody ever explains how to check an index. So I’m going to try to do just that. I’m still no expert, but I have learned some points I can share.

There are three key points to consider: what the index does for the book, what the index does for the book’s readers, and whether the index is a good index by the standards of other indexes. These can be converted into three questions:

  1. Does the index accurately reflect the content of the book?
  2. Does it do so in a way that will make sense to your readers?
  3. Is the index, in itself, a good quality index?

To answer the first question, begin by making a list of key words from your title, chapter headings, and sub-headings. Ensure all of those words are properly and fully represented in the index. If they’re not, don’t try to fix it yourself or even make suggestions about how to fix the problem. Simply explain to the indexer which words need more prominence and why. Then let them sort it out because they will be able to do so far more quickly and effectively than you.

Once you’ve done that, read through the index with your book’s readers in mind. Is the language of the index closely aligned with the language of the book? Are the headings and sub-headings concise and useful? Is the index logically organised and easy to read? Are there double postings when necessary, e.g. ‘data: quantitative’ and ‘quantitative data’? Is the punctuation clear and consistent?

Then consider the more detailed indicators of index quality, usefully set out by the American Society for Indexing. For example:

  • Do main headings or sub-headings have more than 5-7 page numbers attached? If so, they may need to be broken down further.
  • Are there a reasonable number of sub-headings for each main heading? If there are more than a column’s worth then some may need to be combined.
  • Are sub-headings at a sensible level? If not, revision may be needed.
  • Are the page numbers accurate? Spot-check some to make sure.

If you want to know more, the ASI have also produced a book on the subject: Indexing for Editors and Authors: A Practical Guide to Understanding Indexes. I haven’t read it myself yet but it looks comprehensive and useful. (Thanks to Nicola King aka @icemaiden1964 for pointing me to these resources on Twitter.)

When my second edition index arrived and evaluation still didn’t have a high profile, I asked the indexer to make appropriate amendments. Which she did, quickly and cheerfully.

These days I feel more confident when I receive an index to check. I hope you will too.

If you have any good index-related stories to tell, please share them in the comments.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

5 thoughts on “How To Check An Index

  1. Hi Helen,
    It’s fascinating to read what you say about checking an index. The only indexes I’ve checked are my own! I’ve done all the indexes for my books and wouldn’t have it any other way. Five or ten or twenty years down the track, when I want to check a point that I once made, I often use the index to track it down. My guess is that for many books, the primary user of the index is the author.
    The easy part of doing an index is names and unique words. The hard part is concepts that aren’t always present in the same words. If it’s hard for the author, it’s even harder for someone else.
    Doing the index is probably less than 1% of the effort in writing a book, so I don’t see it as a burden.
    Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Brian, what an interesting take on the subject! And I know you have written a lot of books. Great that you can make indexes but I’m sure I couldn’t create a good index. I think it needs an ability to look at a book in a certain way that evidently you have and I don’t. I take your point about the concepts, but then there are all the headings, subheadings, locators, double postings, cross-references… it makes my head spin! Another difference is that I rarely use the indexes in my own books, I mostly know where to go to find whatever it is that I want – but I frequently use indexes in other books as I’m working. (I get really cross when there isn’t an index at all!)

      Like

  2. Pingback: Indexing your first monograph: a guide for PhD students and early career researchers – Tanya Izzard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.