Indexing: When Should You Include an Index?

An index is an alphabetical list of topics or names mentioned in a printed work that gives each item the page number where it may be found within the text. For example, in a history book about the Civil War there may be a chapter on weapons, but in order to find where a particular weapon (for example the Gatling gun) is mentioned in the book, the researcher would turn to the index. There may be chapters on Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant and Jefferson Davis, but if you want to see what the author has to say about Stonewall Jackson, you would consult the index. So, an index is a way for a reader to quickly find a specific item, topic or name in a book.

Not every book requires or is enhanced by including an index. You won’t find an index in your favorite novel, for instance. That’s because a novel is a story. Its purpose is to engage and entertain, not to instruct. Granted, some novels purport to be instructional, but for the most part they are undocumented, and their version of the truth requires no authentication. The take-home lesson: Indices add value to scholarly, scientific or “how-to” books, but are not necessary for works of fiction.

Whether an index is required is not determined by the format of the book itself. An eBook can utilize an index as readily as a printed work. In fact, eBooks not only owe their existence to the digital revolution; they also reap certain benefits when it comes to indexing. An eBook can include an embedded index. This means that certain words can be hyperlinked to point out where that word can be found in the text. Depending on the sophistication of the eBook software, word searches can also serve as an effective index.

If you’re trying to figure out whether an index makes sense for your book, think about the type of book you’ve written. An index is advisable when if you want to provide the reader a source for quick reference. Textbooks, “how-to” books, biographies and scientific and scholarly works are some of the types of books wherein an index adds value. Novels are not. And, whether you’ve published a traditional, printed book or a digital eBook does not determine if an index is needed. It’s the content and the purpose of the book that drives this decision.

See other articles here on the author Learning Center about who should do the indexing, some best practices, and how to do it.

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