Working with a professional indexer is one of the best ways to ensure readers can navigate and use your book well. When your indexer sends you that first draft, it can be thrilling to see for the first time how readers conceptualize your text. But what are you supposed to actually do with that document? How can you evaluate the quality of the index and what does your indexer need from you at this point?
Here’s what to look for in an index draft and how to address any changes you may want your indexer to make.
Confirm what changes can be made at this point
Do you need to restrict your requested changes to typos and grammatical errors only? Or can you request new entries or changes to subentry language? How long does the indexer have to make the requested changes and are your requested changes possible in that time?
Make sure you’ve checked with all the relevant parties on this. If you’ve hired the indexer directly, these details should be worked out between you two and reflected in the contract you signed before the project started. If the publisher took care of the hiring, you may or may not have direct contact with the indexer. In this case, ask the press to confirm with your indexer what kinds of changes are possible.
Confirm how to request changes
When they deliver their index draft to you, your indexer or publisher contact should tell you how they’d prefer you indicate your revisions requests. This might be using Track Changes in Microsoft Word, compiling a list, or another method. Follow those instructions.
If your indexer or publisher contact did not tell you how to request revisions, ask them. Make sure you are clear on how they need to receive requested changes so that they can respond accordingly.
Keep to the publishing and indexing timeline
Check your indexing and publishing contracts to confirm when you need to get your review to your indexer to ensure they have enough time to meet your publisher’s deadline.
Keep in mind that indexers run businesses and thus many don’t work outside of business hours. So if you email your indexer on Saturday morning, don’t assume they will read the email or be doing any indexing until Monday.
Spot check to ensure accuracy
Pick 5–6 index entries at random from the draft and run a search for them in your page proofs. Make sure the locators in the index match up. If you find the page numbers are off or there are typos, that should be noted.
Indicate errors you find on the draft or in whatever format your indexer has requested. Draft means just that so expect to find a few errors in the document at this stage. Your indexer should fix those before sending you the final version.
Deep dive to ensure thoroughness
Review the entries that are core to the book’s argument. The number of these will vary text to text, but most scholarly books have 4–5 of them. These are the major concepts readers will be looking for. Make sure those are in the index and run a search for those entries in the page proofs. (If upon review you discover that NO important concepts are included in the index draft, that can mean a mismatched indexer. In that case, talk to your publisher and indexer ASAP to figure out a solution, knowing this may affect the cost and publication timeline.)
Here you’re looking for thoroughness, meaning that all major mentions of the name or concept are found in the index.
Keep in mind that not every single mention of a name or concept goes in the index. Passing mentions and citations should not be indexed nor should things that are unimportant to the book’s main argument and case studies.
Take note of how the indexer has phrased these core entries. If you’d like any changes to that phrasing, indicate that in the manner your indexer has requested. (See below for how to avoid introducing errors when doing this.)
Additions and deletions
If you’d like the indexer to add any entries or subentries, now’s the time to say so. Sometimes authors are hesitant to do this, but an addition request is perfectly fine and expected—within reason. For most indexes, adding 2 or 3 new entries upon author request is not a problem.
If there are entries or subentries you’d like deleted, tell your indexer about that as well. Unless your indexer has said otherwise, it is best to not make the deletions yourself as you risk breaking the cross reference scheme. Instead, mark them using Track Changes or compile them in a separate list. Your indexer can then delete them before sending you the final version.
Avoid introducing errors to the draft
Most authors are not familiar with the industry standards that indexes must follow, as this information is not usually taught to them by presses or scholarly communities (indeed, professional indexers learn this stuff so authors don’t have to). When you’re reviewing your index draft and making notes on revisions you’d like to request, make sure you don’t inadvertently introduce errors to the index.
Common author-introduced errors to avoid:
Adding locators for citations rather than actual discussions. Only people directly discussed in the text or notes are indexed. Those who are only mentioned in citations are not. This rule is set by your publisher and the style manual they have chosen. So if you wrote “This is a clear example of disidentification (Muñoz 34),” Muñoz should not be indexed. But if you wrote “Muñoz argued that disidentification works in this way,” Muñoz should be indexed. Similarly, for a footnote in which you wrote “See, for example, Hartman’s book,” Hartman should not be indexed. In contrast, for a footnote in which you wrote “Hartman defines this term in this way, [quote],” Hartman should be indexed.
Changing the document format in any way. Index formatting is delicate and follows specific publisher and style manual requirements. If you find that your requested changes are resulting in document formatting changes, it’s best to make those requests in another manner to avoid causing your indexer unnecessary extra work (and costing you extra). For instance, if deleting text changes the tabs in the document, undo that change and write up your requested change in a separate document or email.
Using hyphens instead of en dashes or incorrect inclusive page range formatting. If you add any additional locators to the index draft, make sure you follow the index’s page range formatting exactly. Better yet, just tell your indexer what you want and they’ll make the change directly.
Changing entries/subentries without changing the corresponding cross references. For instance, if you delete an entry, any cross reference that points to that entry needs to also be deleted or modified accordingly.
Disrupting the alphabetization by moving entries or subentries around. All indexes are alphabetized by one of two main systems, set by the publisher: letter by letter or word by word. If you make any spelling or wording changes, the alphabetization will need to be updated accordingly to ensure alignment with publisher requirements.
Using adjectives or verbs instead of nouns for entries. So “postcolonialism” or “postcoloniality” can be entries but “postcolonial” can’t. If you want the index to include an adjective term, let your indexer know and they can choose wording that turns it into a noun so it can be included. For instance, “Indigenous” can be recast as “Indigenous nations” or “indigeneity,” depending on the meaning in the book.
Adding entries for metatopics. A metatopic is a subject the entire book is about. Metatopics are not indexed, as the locator range would look something like 1–200. So if your book is titled Queer Timings: Sexual Ethics in the Long Nineteenth Century, its metatopics would include things like nineteenth century, sexual ethics, and queerness. These should not be index entries.
Directly changing the cross reference scheme. Do NOT do this, pretty please. Cross reference schemes are complex and making small changes requires a bunch of other steps as well. If you’d like a change to the cross references (which is a totally legitimate request), for instance you’d like to add an additional cross reference, tell that to your indexer. They will format it correctly.
Reviewing an index draft can often give you new insight into your book as you see for the first time how readers will be approaching it. Working closely with your indexer and communicating your requested changes clearly and productively means they can turn around the best final version possible.
A (very) brief glossary of indexing terms:
Locators are the locations where a reader should go to find the thing referenced. Most locators are page numbers but locators also include tables, figures, and plates.
Entries are the main headings in an index, usually found flush left on the page. Subentries are the more specific groupings under entries.
Cross references point readers to additional entries related to the entry they are currently reading. They come in See and See also formats: See is exclusive, meaning there should be no locators in the entry. See also is non-exclusive, meaning there can be locators in the entry.
Metatopics are the subjects an entire book is about. They should not be indexed. Sometimes metatopics can be found in a book’s title but not always. If you run a search for a concept and find it on hundreds of pages, it might be metatopic.
Inclusive page range formatting refers to how page ranges should be truncated or not—for instance: 126–127, 126–27, or 126–7. This formatting is determined by the publisher and the style manual they have chosen.
Join our newsletter
Get articles, podcast episodes, and event announcements sent straight to your inbox