how to index a book manuscript

Just yesterday I finished preparing the index for my forthcoming first book. For some reason, maybe because it’s my first book, I felt like I needed to do the index. In the end, I guess I’m glad I did it, though I don’t think I will do it again in the future. Heck, there was even some money available from my department to pay for it. But, for many, that’s not the case. And maybe you don’t want to cash in your <sarcasm>massive academic royalties</sarcasm> having the press arrange for it. Or, maybe that’s not an option. So, how does one go about indexing a manuscript? Here’s how I did it:

My publisher provided me with both a physical copy of my page proofs, and a pdf. I figured I’d be going through the page proofs carefully anyway, I might as well index along the way. So, first, I imported the pdf copy of the manuscript into DEVONthink and produced a concordance of every word in the file. I then copy/pasted those terms into a separate spreadsheet file and printed it out three columns per page. The concordance was useful for both proofing and indexing. The first task with the new file was to go through and circle every  term I thought I might want to index, and every term that seemed to be misspelled. I put the indexable terms in to a new .docx file, which was much shorter than the concordance (we’re talking going from 13,000+ words to around 500). I then stared at a two-column print out of those terms until they were fairly well stuck in my head. And, now to the laborious part…

1. I read through each chapter of the page proofs and marked corrections (with a sticky note) and underlined terms for indexing. If concepts or terms spanned multiple pages, I made a not in the margin. I used printouts of each chapter from the PDF of the manuscript for this purpose. I also, of course, noted all the page numbers needed for the table of contents, the list of illustrations, and for the page ranges of the endnotes.

2. After marking the whole manuscript, I transferred my corrections to the official page proof pages.

3. I then went through and created an index for each chapter in a separate file. The trick here is to just make a never-ending list of each term for a given page. After finishing that chapter, I would then use Word’s sort function (on the dropdown menu from the Table tab), selecting “sort by term 1” to put all of the terms into alphabetical order. From there, I then consolidated the terms and their page numbers following one master term. So, subcategories of the indexed term were decided at this point.

4. I then copy-pasted each chapter index into a master, consolidated index file. After adding a new chapter to this file, I would resort using the Table function, and edit the new entries into the already existing entries.

5. Finally, once the master consolidated index was fully combined, sorted, and edited, I created one last new file from that index where I polished off the formatting– paragraphs with hanging indents, uniform See and See also cross-references, making sure page numbers were separated by commas and subcategories by semi-colons, etc.

And that’s it. Though this description may sound complicated, it’s actually fairly simple. It can also be easily demonstrated to a grad student or other “non-professional” indexer that you might like to hire. In fact, I was given the outlines of this system (minus the concordance step) by a former professor and now-colleague of mine who used it with a graduate student to index her first book.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Books, Panic and Terror, Processes, Research and Writing
2 comments on “how to index a book manuscript
  1. Claire Mitchell says:

    Your description of indexing is very informative for a novice. Can you tell me what DEVONthink is – you reference this in your second paragraph. is this a software package I can purchase?

  2. As an “old-school” indexer who indexes by hand with index cards(!), I find the electronic process more daunting. However, that being said, ALWAYS provide an index! I have several books here that should have them, and I feel like I’m expected to know where every word is in each book. The author knows where they are, but that is too much to ask of the reader. These reference books are useless to me without an index.

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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