How Is an Index Made?

How Is an Index Made?

First let me introduce some basic terminology: compositor, compositing, comp. It all refers to building the pages of the book on a computer.

A compositor is the modern version of a typesetter. A typesetter produced a column of type of a specified width, which was given to the page layout person. The page layout person literally cut and pasted to combine the typesetter’s column of type with any figures or tables or boxes or photos onto the pages. Once computers were used to lay out pages, the typesetting and page layout jobs were handled by one person, a compositor.

When the compositor finishes laying out the book pages, a PDF of the pages is produced. This PDF often goes to

  • the author for proofreading
  • a proofreader for proofreading
  • an indexer for indexing

If the author had been planning on indexing the book, that author would need time in the schedule for both proofreading the pages and indexing them.

Indexing styles and methods vary and some indexers prefer to work from hardcopy (printed versions of the PDFs), using the PDFs mainly for searching, while others prefer to work directly from the PDFs.

Once the indexer receives the pages for indexing, she first checks that she has all the material and that there aren’t obvious paging errors. It is very helpful for an indexer to have as much of the book as possible.

  • The front matter table of contents gives the indexer a good overview of the book, as does the preface.
    A preface may or may not be indexed. If it merely summarizes the book then it is not indexed; however, if the preface and/or foreword provide information then index entries may be made.
  • The indexer also needs to see all appendixes for the book.
    An appendix may be referred to in the index in its entirety, with its full page range, or may be indexed in more depth, providing multiple, more specific entries.
  • The indexer needs the bibliography or references to be able to fully identify names that may be only partially provided in the text, such as by last name only.
    The bibliography/references are crucial to the indexer if a name index is being written in addition to the subject index.

Many indexers at this point mark the manuscript; some work chapter by chapter while others will mark a larger chunk of the book. Section head page ranges are noted, as are varying levels of information. Once a chunk has been marked, the indexer then goes back through the pages, making index entries based on her marks.

Other indexers read the book front matter, perhaps the first chapter, and skim the rest of the book, especially looking at section heads and summaries. Then they dive into reading the book and indexing it without marking.

The first chapter often presents the book to come; some indexers may wait to index the first chapter at the end to better unpack the dense overview material.

Yes, indexers read the entire book, often more than once.

The author’s own terminology is used in main headings, but there may also be main headings that provide synonymous terminology that points to the author’s term with a See cross-reference. If the author presents the same concept with more than one (synonymous) term, the indexer will select for the index entry the term used most often and put See cross-references to that term from all the other synonyms. This way, all of the information associated with that topic is gathered into one place in the index and not scattered across more than one entry.

Most indexers use indexing software to make the task quicker and more precise. The software autofills entries and handles sorting (alphabetization). The software does not index, just as a word processing program does not write; they each make the job easier.

There are two steps to indexing a book.

  1. First entries are gathered. This is where the indexer goes through all the material and creates the necessary index entries.
  2. The second step is to edit the index. This process involves more than looking for typos; the indexer refines the structure of the index so that the index best reflects its text. Subentries are reworded for clarity and to better support their main headings. The indexer checks that there are no long strings of page numbers; these should be broken into appropriate subentries. The indexer checks her double-posts and cross-references.

The indexer delivers a Word doc file of the finished index, which a compositor flows into pages.

See more articles on indexes and indexing at my website:
Perhaps you’re interested in the short article Can a Computer Write an Index?