What is Self-Indexing?

While many authors opt to hire professional indexers to produce a book’s index, you may feel like tackling the process yourself. That’s great! Self-indexing is complex, but if you’re curious about the process, feel you know your book better than anyone else, and believe yourself to have the language skills and attention to detail necessary to do it well, then self-indexing may be the best option for you. 

Self-indexing is almost like writing your book in reverse. While you’re writing, you’re combining unique ideas and presenting them as one simple theme or concept. When you’re self-indexing, you are taking those concepts apart again and thinking about what separate ideas people might be looking for.

Think about it like this: When an author is creating a cookbook, he/she is putting ingredients together to create a unique dish. Many readers will flip through the cookbook, see the dish, and decide to make it. Others, however, may be looking specifically for a recipe that contains chicken. Instead of flipping through the entire cookbook to find the recipes that contain chicken, it would be much easier for them to look at the index and find the exact page numbers of recipes that include the ingredient they are looking for.

Being able to identify and understand the key concepts of your book is essential for self-indexing—which possibly makes you, the author, one of the best people to do it. However, it does require you to step into many readers’ shoes to imagine what they may be looking for.

So let’s start at the beginning.

What is an Index?

In its simplest form, an index is an alphabetical list of names or topics that appear throughout a book, alongside the page numbers for where a reader can locate that information. Many things can have an index—websites, books, e-books, and periodicals, to name a few—but they all exist for the same purpose: to help readers quickly and easily find what they’re looking for.

Think about walking into a bookstore. If you’re looking for a travel book on Mexico, you know to go to the travel book section and look alphabetically under “M”. Indexing is a similar concept. Just like a bookstore, your book may be full of great information. But a reader may be looking for one specific thing. If you provide them a guide to find it, they find what they need, and the process is as easy as it can be—they’re much more likely to come back in the future.

An index should include every part of a book, including the introduction and any footnotes or endnotes that elaborate on topics covered in the main text. However, there are a few exceptions. Front matter such as your title page, dedications, table of contents, and acknowledgements do not get indexed. The same goes for glossaries, bibliographies, and citations or references throughout the text. Prefaces, footnotes, or endnotes also don’t need to be included unless they contain information not found elsewhere in the book.

Should I Include an Index?

Not every book requires an index. In fact, most books probably don’t. But it’s ultimately up to you to decide whether or not an index would actually enhance the reader’s experience with your book. Can you imagine a reader coming to your book to look for something specific rather than reading it cover to cover? If so, you’re right to consider an index. Putting together an index—especially self-indexing—can be tough work, so make sure it’s worth the effort before you dive in.

In order to decide if an index makes sense for your book, think about the purpose of your book. Are you writing a book that’s written more to entertain than to provide information? Does your book cover one topic that’s not incredibly complex and is simple to navigate on its own? Then you probably don’t need to worry about self-indexing.

Is the primary purpose of your book to instruct or provide in-depth information on complicated topics? Do you cover many different subjects throughout your book? Do you frequently reference people, places, or themes in more places than one? If so, your book would probably benefit from including an index.

How Do I Self-Index?

Self-indexing can be a complex process. Doing all the work yourself—especially if it’s your first time—can be a difficult feat. But you also know your book better than anyone else, so if you’re up for the challenge, you’re the best person to do the work.

You probably don’t need to worry about self-indexing until your book is fully written and edited. This is because so much of your book gets altered and removed during this process. You don’t want to take the time to self-index just to have to re-do it again at the end. However, if you’re still writing, feel free to take the extra step and write down any names or topics you think may be important to include later. 

There are many great programs and software for self-indexing, each slightly different, that can help ease the process. However, none of them can do the work for you. Just like writing, indexing is not mechanical—it’s an art. It requires you to make constant value judgments on what to include and what to leave out.

The self-indexing process as a whole can be broken down into 5 basic steps:

1. If you know your book is going to have an index before you begin writing, keep a running list of any names or topics you may want to include in the index as you go along. If your book is already written, take it line by line. Write down every name, term, or concept that may be important. It’s better to start off with too much than too little.

2. Keep your list of terms in an alphabetized document and include the page number. Don’t worry about organizing them yet—just get them down.

3. Combine terms by checking the document for duplicates. Make sure every duplicate actually refers to the same person or concept. For example, ensure two people with the same name are not combined into one.

4. Go through your terms and try to think of any variants—is there another way this term could be phrased? If someone were to go looking for this, what exactly might they look for?

5. Repeat the process until you feel confident you’ve done all the self-indexing you can. 

Self-indexing can be difficult because it requires a lot of decisions and assumptions about who your audience will be and what they will find important. Every judgment about what is and isn’t important is up to you. Not to mention, there is little opportunity for feedback, so it’s hard to know whether or not your efforts are successful until it’s too late. However, with the right focus and attention to detail, self-indexing ensures your index is up to your standards—and will be a great skill to add to your writing toolbox.

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