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Editing Your Index: A Guide for Project Managers

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So your book is camera ready and about to be shipped-and your index arrives hot off the e-mail. Take the time to read it thoroughly. A good index will help sell your book.

Major Items to Check

First, examine the length. Is it as complete as you wished? If not, you may have to settle for making sure that the main topics are covered (all major headings should, of course, be noted). Are there any tables, illustrations, or figures that you would like to give special attention? Make sure they are mentioned in the index, with or without a notation in parentheses that it is a table or other special element. Or is the index too long, with entries that seem silly? Eliminate or rephrase anything that would insult the reader.
How about the number of subentries per main entry? If there’s more than, say, twenty or so, you might look for ways to group some of them under a different item. For instance, “database” could be broken into “database basics” and “database management” with ten subentries each.
If you’re dealing with an indexer you have not worked with before, you might like to spot-check a dozen or more entries. Pick an item in the index, note the page number, and then go to the page to see if the topic is really there (take careful note not only of the beginning of a discussion but where it ends as well). Next, reverse this process. Open the book to a page, note the topics you think are important, and see whether you can find them in the index.
Most indexers read, during the edit of the index, all cross-references to see that each entry actually exists and that the wording has not changed. However with a new indexer (or one new to you), you might like to run a quick spot-check of cross-references.

Other Possible Errors

While reading, try to spot any of these mistakes:

  • Check that all special characters (accent marks and so on) are retained. You will need to verify this again once the index has been put into the typeset font. Check also that all references to book titles are italicized.
  • “See” (meaning “see instead”) should only occur when no pages are given for the original item. “See also” is used to refer to related topics, but where page numbers are actually given for the first item.
  • “See” and “See also” should be italicized. (An indexer often adds cross-references for clarity during his or her edit of the index and could forget to format them.)
  • If an item occurs with subentries, but there are no page numbers for the first-level (general) entry, make sure there is no comma following the main entry.
  • When the same topic is listed two different ways in the index (for instance, the author refers to “Windows” and “Microsoft Windows” synonymously on pages 12, 178-179), identical page numbers should be given for both items.
  • Keep an eye out for typos and incomplete entries. Some of the most common are items like these: 11-113, 127-118, 238-24. If you can’t figure these out from looking, go to the pages in question and correct the entry.
  • If an entry occurs with no page numbers following it (ouch!), eliminate the entry if you can’t find the page number.

While most of these mistakes should be corrected by the indexer during editing of the index, it is your job to make sure that your book is accompanied by a good index. While you are learning to read an index, you might like to start by choosing a few things to watch for and then go back for another pass looking for different elements. Eventually you will be able to give the index just one thorough read-through, and anything that’s odd will jump out at you.

 

Adjustments for the Future

While the project is fresh in your memory, take note of the indexer’s style and jot down anything you would like to discuss with him or her for future reference. For instance, does the indexer use too many prepositions (when these occur before a key word, they can confuse the reader because they are not to be alphabetized). Pay special attention to the use of nouns. Readers do not think in terms of action items (verbs) when looking up a term, they think in terms of “things.” If you would like your indexer to make any adjustments in the future, be sure to make such suggestions.
Janis Paris © 1997

Janis Paris can be contacted regarding her indexing services at 510/237-5817.

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