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How to make a user-friendly book index

Book indexI've used books where the indexes drove me nuts.  My least favorite was a field guide that separated the common and scientific names into different indices --- I always seemed to flip to the wrong index when in a hurry and then wondered why my word wasn't present. 

Even worse is a non-fiction book without an index, or with an index less than a page long.  When I pick up a non-fiction book and notice it has no index, I generally put it back down in disgust.

At the other extreme, I've flipped through indexes that made the contents of the book not only easy to access but also clearer.  These indexes draw connections between sections I hadn't really considered, pointing out ideas that all fit within the same theme.

I'm not going to talk about the nuts and bolts of actually creating an index because that's program specific and seems to be pretty simple.  What I'm having a harder time working my head around is --- what factors will make my index easy to use?  How can I create an eye-opening instead of an eye-rolling index?

Here are a few tips I've stumbled across:

Decide on basic formatting first.  For example, most indexes make all words lower case unless they're proper nouns, but some indexes will capitalize main entries.  The entry should be a plural noun, so if you wanted to index "red cats", you'd list it as "cats, red."  And unless they're absolutely essential to parsing the entry, prepositions just use up space and can be deleted.

Think like a reader and use synonyms.  A great index will allow a reader to find a paragraph they vaguely remember...even if they can't bring any of your terminology to mind.  So, in my section about the benefits of no-till gardens, I should keep in mind that readers might not be as familiar with the term "no-till" as I am.  I might add in some index entries for terms like "tilling, problems with", "rototillers", and "plows."  In addition, it's helpful to index key terms in several different ways --- a reader might look up any of the following terms when searching for my kill mulch section, so I'll include them all: "kill mulch", "lasagna garden", "sheet mulch."  In fact, "kill mulch" is an odd term since a reader might not be entirely sure whether the "kill" is just an adjective or an essential part of the phrase, so I'd probably index it both under "kill mulch" and "mulch, kill." 

Decide whether to cross-reference.  There are two options for dealing with all of these synonyms.  You can either say "see kill mulch" under both "lasagna garden" and "sheet mulch", or can simply insert the relative page references for each synonym.  If "kill mulch" is a main heading with several entries under it, you'd probably want to cross-reference to save space.  But also be aware that readers have limited attention spans and would vastly prefer to see what they're looking for immediately without being sent to another entry.

Figure out how deeply you want to index.  Do you want a reader to be able to find that one paragraph on Swiss chard, or do you think they'd be just as well off if they can easily find the section on summer vegetables?  An in-depth index will often take up 5% to 10% of the length of your book, including two to three columns of terms per page.  If your index is clocking in a lot longer or shorter than that, it's probably either too detailed or too light to be handy.

Think of your metatopic.  Your book should have one main thesis that the whole text revolves around.  This metatopic isn't actually included in the index --- I won't want to have an entry for "homesteading" in the Weekend Homesteader index because I'd have to put every section in the book underneath that main heading.  However, knowing what your metatopic is will help you conceptualize your entire index as subheadings, giving you an idea of what main headings you want to emphasize.  For my book, primary headings under the metatopic "homesteading" would include terms like "gardening", "emergency preparedness", and "cooking."

Choosing main headings.  Every indexer has a different method of actually creating the index, but I really liked the idea of simply tagging all of the terms I found important during the first run through the book, ignoring the fact that some of them will end up as entries under other headings.  Next, I can print the index rough draft (or open it in another file) and spend some time thinking about what sorts of headings could lump terms together and make them easier to find. 
Too many page numbers
Adding subheadings.  As a rule of thumb, you need some subheadings if you have more than three or four pages listed for a heading.  Think of how annoying it would be if I summed up the sections of my book about heat during power outages, backup lighting, and storing drinking water as "Emergency preparedness...5, 34, 71, 85, 103, 150."  Isn't it more handy to see:

emergency preparedness
flashlights.........5
generators.........103
lanterns.............34
sleeping bags...85
water................71
wood stoves.....150


Don't include too many subheadings.  If you've got more than about 15 subheadings under a certain entry, you're probably trying to fit too much into that topic.  For example, I could list a hundred subheadings under "gardening" if I felt like it, but who wants to skim through two columns worth of entries looking for their keyword?  There are two ways to deal with headings that feel too large.  You can either completely delete that heading and make the biggest subheadings into main headings --- for example, remove "gardening" and instead have entries for "vegetables", "no-till", and so forth.  Or you can leave some entries under that main heading, but include a note to "see also mulch" and "see also soil testing."

Have you run across any other tips for making indexes user friendly?  Do you have horror stories about the world's worst index?  I'm getting ready to whip out an index on my Weekend Homesteader book and could use any advice you have.




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