How to index your book – perhaps

I’ve just finished the index for my new book. It’s taken me pretty much all week to produce the index, and even then I am still not satisfied. Partly this is because I’m genuinely not sure what to select, which you might see as a mainly technical challenge. But indexing also provokes reflection on the nature of knowledge.

The technical task is straightforward enough. The proofs are currently 270 pages long; the publisher tells me that the index must take up a maximum of ten more pages, which apparently amounts to some 900 lines. My word count software tells me that I am well within this limit, but it has taken some hard choices to get there.

This is a book about work camp systems in Britain before 1939. I’ve taken a broadly sociological approach to the history of what I see as a residential pedagogic community, which means that the book contains a lot of factual information about people, institutions and movements; but it also contains ideas and interpretations, as well as references to sociologists and historians.

I set out by reading through the page proofs, and noting down each proper name or idea that I encountered. Then I put these in alphabetical order, and searched the PDF, noting the page number each time the term or a synonym occurred. While I was doing this, I kept finding new ideas or people or institutions, and I also found that some of the entries could be grouped together. And I kept finding reasons to meddle with things.

Then I set about pruning my very long first complete draft. Quite a few proper names, it turned out, featured only once. Some of them are famous people – Charles Dickens, for example – so I thought at first that I’d keep them, and ditch the others. Some were sociologists or historians, so I thought I’d ditch them too. That left the less well-known actors in the work camp field, but some of those made a considerable contribution, so I kept those even if they were only discussed once. Similarly with institutions.

That is one irritation. I’m likely to end up with an index dominated by the well-known and the successful; the Salvation Army will get a lengthy list if I proceed along these lines, and the English Home Colonisation Society will get none; Dickens will get his mention, but Dr Helen Wilson – a Sheffield doctor and suffragette who founded the Women’s Training Colony – will not.

Sometimes the more neglected the person, the more important it is to draw attention to them. But if I include Helen Wilson, I’ll feel better – but will anyone ever look her up? And one topic on which I have relatively little to say – namely sexual relations inside work camps – will still appear in the index. I don’t have much to say on the topic because nobody wrote much about it at the time, and I was too embarrassed to ask my elderly interviewees about it. But what I have found out is still worth pointing out for the reader.

But there is no single reader. In fact, at the moment there are only imagined readers, and they might include historians, social policy specialists, educationalists, and people who mistake this for a book about concentration camps. And it isn’t only the physical or digital reader that I have to think about while I’m indexing. And apparently the index influences how other people discover the book through online searching.

So I need to bear in mind the online user as well as the virtual and physical readers. And I have focused on two main groups of people, social historians and educationalists, with the aim of thinking about how best to signpost these readers towards the parts of the book that will most interest them.  

Then we come to what some might see as the wider epistemological questions. Let’s leave aside the curious convention by which fiction and poetry aren’t indexed, but ‘non-fiction’ (what a category) usually is. You could imagine an index for any book that is wildly different from the actual index before you. In my case, I might play with the idea of index entries for ‘silence’, ‘toilets’ or ‘cake’, each of which features in the book.

In fact, none of these three will be in the index that I send the publisher. But indexing is not just a technical task, it is also about how we think about the world, and how we try to share our meanings and understandings. And because it has this wider dimension, it is a great way of providing your own feedback on your writing – it provides you with a set of possible index entries that help you grasp the shape and focus of what you have written from the standpoint of a reader.

Or  you can pay someone else to do it, whether a graduate student or a professional. It’d save you a week.


7 thoughts on “How to index your book – perhaps

  1. Totally agree with Nick Hopwood; in fact, I would go further: I think a good index is essential. Thank you for this John; it is very timely: I am almost at the stage of compiling the index for my own Meisterwerk, a biography, but the luxury of paying A. N. Other to do it for me is out of the question. Also, I’m a control freak! On that note, I’m curious to know why your publisher dictates a maximum number of pages for the index: possibly some arcane methodological book-binding stricture? [although irrelevant with e-publishing?]

  2. I checked out the indexes to other books in my field to see what terms they used (or didn’t) and so what my readers might find helpful when coming to my index. I actually do this for lots of book writing things- so when I wonder how should I structure my intro/conclusion/particular chapter, I check out what are other people doing, how many words are they spending on it, what major issues they think are important to mention, etc etc.

  3. Another issue is how hierarchical to make the index. For example, does one index further education colleges under ‘education – further’, or under ‘further education’?

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