The Dressmaker’s Companion has just turned 4 and I thought I would share part of the writing process: the index.
I hope that doesn’t sound too dry and ordinary! (You can read my whole publishing story here.)
I had always (mistakenly) thought of an index as a kind of expanded table of contents, but it’s more like a reverse-contents page; the index writer has to anticipate what word a reader will use to look up what they want. What words will they logically try?
There are many books, especially in the “how-to” genre, that would be almost useless without an index. It’s one of those things that’s taken for granted until it’s not there.
While I was digging around on the internet for the rules and tips on indexing, I discovered some fascinating things about the world of indexing. Did you know there are professional indexers? They typically specialize – some do science and medical books, or are experts in cookbooks or only do legal textbooks. There are also awards for excellence in indexing.
Indexing cannot be done by automatically by computers, although there’s software to help organize and edit. It needs a human being to select the entries and recognize what a reader will want from the book. Sometimes authors do their own indexes, other times a professional does it.
How does one write an index?
The index in The Dressmaker’s Companion took two weeks to do. I did it last, after the book was written. I went through the book and made a list of words – I remember having the printed-out manuscript sitting on my lap and typing words into a Word doc. Then I looked through the indexes of several other sewing books, including The Reader’s Digest Complete Guide, to collect more words and also concepts. I clicked to put the list in alphabetical order. It was quite long so I edited it down to get rid of trivial words and made some sub-headers for easier reading.
Apparently the index should consume less than 5% of the pages in a book. I used 3 columns for the index (the rest of the book has 2) to fit more words in.
One needs to be careful with cross-referencing; we don’t want (for example) Necklines – see Collars and then Collars – see Necklines!
When I got the proof of the finished book, it took two solid days to look up every entry in the index to check the page numbers. It was VERY boring! but it had to be done.
I resisted the temptation to hide a nerdy sewing joke in the index 🙂