Frequently Asked Questions on Indexes

The creation of indexes seems to have it’s own language, especially when it comes to determining what is included in an index, or how to format and style it according to the publisher’s demands. These are some of the frequently asked questions on indexes that I’ve been asked over the years.

Why do I even need to have an index?

This question’s been given it’s own page, but the importance of a proper index to a non-fiction book is well known in many circles. For myself, even before I became an indexer I found books without indexes to be frustrating to use – and don’t get me started on really bad indexes!

What do “run-in” and “indented” mean when it comes to index formats?

In short the two terms refer to how the index is set out on the page.

The difference between these two styles of index is the placement of the sub-headings. In an indented index such as the first example above, each of the subheadings is on it’s own line. This is often the easiest to use style of index, however it frequently uses the most space.

Sample of an indented-style index

An indented-style index.

In a run-in style of index such as the second example, the subheadings are all on one line, wrapping around as needed. Depending on the wording of the subheadings, using this style with an index can allow for more lines of index. A run-in style index can sometimes be the best choice when limited space is a consideration. However, many people feel that a run-in index can be harder to use.

There are also a number of variations of these two styles as well. One of these is run-in from the main heading, where the subheadings start on the same line as the main heading. A common variant for handling sub-subheadings is to have the main heading and sub headings in indented format, and any sub-subheadings in a run-in style.

Sample of a run-in style of index.

A run-in style index.

Often these considerations are laid out in the publishers style guide.

Alphabetization. Such a simple thing, and yet…

The alphabet is the alphabet, is it not. “B” follows “A” and “C” follows “B” and so on down the line. However, when it comes to indexing, things are always just a little more complex than they seem. Alphabetization becomes a bit trickier in actual practice because of things like spaces, dashes and other forms of punctuation.

Alphabetic sorting examples (word by word and letter by letter sorting order)

Word by word and letter by letter sorting examples.

The biggest difference between the two sorting methods is that in letter by letter sorting the space is ignored while in word by word sorting the space ‘re-sets’ the alphabetization. Thus in the word by word column you get New Jersey, New South Wales and New York grouped together. However, in the letter by letter column those same entries are interspersed throughout the rest of the entries as though the spaces weren’t included.

Payment rates…

Per-page vs. hourly rates. Both ways of determining a fee are used by different indexers. However, the most common one I’ve seen is per-page, or more specifically, per indexable page. Each has its advantages. Hourly rates are a common way of working in many fields, but do end up leaving the final bill unknown until the job is done.

Per indexable page on the other hand gives a known flat rate from the beginning of the job.

Some indexers use a combination of both types of billing, with a per-page rate for the initial job of indexing and then an hourly rate for editing the index afterwards.

Two other methods of calculating payment rates I have seen are per word and flat rate. Calculating rates by the word makes sense for certain types of projects such as electronic documents that aren’t going to have fixed pages. Flat rates on the other had, are exactly what they say they are. Sometimes that can be a positive when compared with per-page rates. However, while I have often seen a book come out with fewer indexable pages than initially stated, I have found it much rarer for a book to be longer than initially stated.

What counts as an indexable page? Any page with content that could end up in the index – which varies from book to book and publisher to publisher. Generally though, front and back matter are excluded from the index.

Names, Names, Names, why aren’t all the names in the index?

The short answer is because current indexing best practices backed up by the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) are to not include names that are only present in citation form such as parenthetical citations or in footnotes that contain no additional information.

By default, this is how I handle names in the indexes I do. However, should you want all the names, parenthetical citations included, I can do that instead. Or, perhaps a separate names index might be appropriate for your project.

Passing on passing mentions

So, what are passing mentions?

In short, a passing mention refers to a section of the text which mentions something that might be indexed, but adds no substantive or real information about that subject. For example, something or someone illustrating a point about something else unrelated.

The thing is, sometimes a series of minor passing mentions can add up into real, substantive content through the sheer quantity of them, turning into an unstated theme in the book. Or, and this is common too, what might seem like a passing mention in one book is actually quite key in another on a different subject. For example, three separate short sentences on police behavior and attitudes might not merit a mention in the index of one book, but in a book on racism, become substantive content suitable for indexing.

It really boils down to “does this mention tell me something about the topic?”. If the answer is “yes”, include it. If not, then it might be a passing mention.

Specialized Indexes:

The most common form of index in a book is the general, or subject index. In most cases, this index will contain everything: people, places, things, dates, all of it. Some books with a lot of citations will pull all of them out to form a names index specifically.

One of the first books I ever remember seeing with multiple indexes is the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, which has a general subject index and a Middle-Earth-specific index.

The other common variant I see sometimes is in nature guidebooks, which sometimes include an index of species names.

Another common specialized index is the Index Locorum, sometimes also called a Scriptural Index or an Index of Primary Sources. If your book is involving a close examination of one or more specific texts, it might be a good idea to include one of these indexes.

Contact me at for more information. I’m looking forward to working with you.

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