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Preparing an Index

Preparing an Index

By Abe Gibson

"I'm always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work.  It's a shameless exhibition--to the trained eye.  Never index your own book." [1]
-Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

 Vonnegut's warning notwithstanding, it is not only possible for an author to draft the index to his/her own book, it is often advisable.  For better or worse, no one knows a book better than its creator, and no one is better equipped to catalog its contents.  Below are some tips for drafting a concise and effective index in a timely fashion.

 What to Index

When compiling the book's index, read the text for proper nouns.  Dictionary.com defines proper noun as "a noun that is not normally preceded by an article or other limiting modifier, and that is arbitrarily used to denote a particular person, place, or thing without regard to any descriptive meaning the word or phrase may have a noun that denotes a particular thing." [2]    A more concise definition identifies proper nouns as simply "any noun that denotes a particular thing." [3] (emphasis added)

Proper nouns are usually capitalized, and therefore easily distinguished within the text.

 

Sample Common Noun                                        Sample Proper Noun

astronaut                                                             Neil Armstrong

navy                                                                    United States Navy

war                                                                      Cold War

president                                                              President William J. Clinton

clean room                                                            Johnson Space Center Clean Room #3                                             

Cross-referencing

A good index will also anticipate its readers' intuitions and direct them accordingly.  For example, a reader interested in U.S. Naval history might understandably consult "navy" in the index.  Because "navy" is sufficiently broad, however, the index should direct them toward more appropriate sub-headings.

 navy - see: United States Navy, 23, 45, 93; Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, 8, 33

Constructing the Index

            The best way to prepare an index requires a hardcopy of the final laid-out page proofs and a word processor.  The author should then proceed through the final page proofs page-by-page, compiling entries and respective page numbers within the word processing software, alphabetizing manually as each new term is added.  This allows the author to edit, omit, and insert entries where appropriate. 

Please use Microsoft Word or compatible word processing software to compile the index, rather than other software such as a spreadsheet, because this will facilitate copyediting and layout of the index.

 Points to Remember

NASA is aware that software programs exist which are designed to aid authors with indexing.  For a variety of reasons, NASA encourages its authors to index their books manually.  Software programs operate in one of two ways.  First, the program will simply index everything in the book.  This is wholly unhelpful, however, as the purpose of an index is to facilitate easy reference and navigation.  The second manner in which software programs compile indices requires more legwork of the author.  The author identifies key names and concepts, the repeated presence of which the program then locates in the text.  Because authors will have already identified the items to be indexed, however, NASA encourages authors to index manually in order to prevent errors. 

For more information

The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, has an excellent guide to the "mechanics of indexing." This 15th edition is the latest of this book and was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2003.



[1] Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle  (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963), p. 119.

[2] proper noun. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/proper noun (accessed: May 30, 2007).

[3] proper noun. Dictionary.com. WordNet® 3.0. Princeton University. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/proper noun (accessed: May 30, 2007).



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