Indexes, writing about

6th March 2019

John Wyver writes:Most of my waking hours are currently occupied in compiling the index to my book Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company: A Critical History. Not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but this is to be published by Bloomsbury in The Arden Shakespeare series in June. Instead of writing this blog post I should be compiling my index. Instead of eating – and indeed, probably, sleeping, I should be compiling my index. But, well, compiling an index is a process that is both fascinating and deeply, deeply dull, and the occasional distraction has to be a good thing.

I asked colleagues whether I should compile the index, or whether I should pay a professional to do it. Most professionals (see below) advise against an author doing it themselves. But that’s what I opted to do – and I’m not regretting that call. Really I’m not. Along with all else, the process has made me curious about the creation of indexes. So as another distraction I started poking around in the uber-index of Google – and below is some of what I found. Incidentally, one of the best bits of advice I heard was to look at indexes of books you like and respect, which I did – and took the image above from one of them.

How to write a book index: there is a host of sites with tips about writing an index, and this – from the professionals Clive Pyne Book Indexing Services – is perhaps the best, because the most detailed, that I came across. It ends with a quote from Nancy Mulvany who in 1994 did indeed write the book about compiling indexes, which is published by University of Chicago Press.

“I don’t believe indexing can be taught…since a very important aspect of this work comes down to the individual indexer’s judgment and communication abilities… Like other types of writing, it is a mixture of art and craft, judgment and selection.” (Source: Nancy Mulvany, Indexing Books.)

Can non-fiction authors create their own indexes?: in another useful post online Maria Sosnowski, who is a freelance professional indexer, recommends using a freelance professional indexer – but she makes a number of smart points along the way. Others have pointed me to the Society of Indexers, which is a the key source for finding and engaging professionals.

In our Google era, indexers are the unsung heroes of the publishing world: the Society of Indexers features in this very engaging Guardian article by Sam Leith from 2017. At the time of writing, Sam was honorary president of said Society, which he acknowledges in paragraph two, line two. His opening is a joy:

Under “I”, in the index of one of his books, Douglas Hofstadter (of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame) included an entry for “index, challenges of, 598; as revelatory of book’s nature, 598; typo in, 631; as work of art, 598”. As might be said these days: preach! Indexes are challenging to produce; they are revelatory of a book’s nature; and the best ones are works of art. And, as Hofstadter ruefully if wittily recognised (including under “T” “typo in index, 633” in a book that ended on page 632) they sometimes contain typos. But not, you’d hope, those produced by professionals.

Reflections on indexing my lynching book: more on indexes as works of art in a moment, but first follow this link to a fascinating 2014 post by Ashraf H.A. Rushdy for Michigan Quarterly Review. Rushdy is the author of American Lynching and in his thoughtful and heartfelt article he reflects on the ethics of placing the names of perpetrators alongside those of the victims of these hideous crimes:

It pained and angered me to record the names of white supremacists and apologists for lynching, people who justified criminal and genocidal behavior, and have them live ­forever next to the names of people who deserve better, people who fought against their evil or died because of it. So, while I tried to be fair and temperate in the text of the book in my assessment of people who justified lynching, people I thought deceitful and inhumane, people I frankly despised with a bottomless hatred, I found myself feeling a resurgent anger as I dutifully placed their names next to those who represented heroic resistance or inhumane suffering. I fought the temptation to make up a faux concept, a word starting with the appropriate letter, just so that I could separate the names of the admired from the loathed. Every now and then, a legitimate way of separating them came my way, and I cheered whenever an opportune concept or name in a later chapter allowed me in good faith to keep the names of the doers of good separate from and uninfected by the purveyors of evil. These were small victories, the only kind of victories there are in the life of an indexer. In the end, indexing teaches you that the alphabet is unforgiving.

Indexing fiction – a story of complexity: then I stumbled across, in the serendipitous way that good indexes must encourage, a .pdf of a detailed, scholarly article by Hazel K. Bell about, as the brief abstract says, ‘the problems and benefits of preparing indexes to fiction, with reference to the novels of A.S.Byatt.’ Had I but world enough and time, and wasn’t in the middle of compiling my index, I would give this far more attention than I have so far managed, and doubtless derive a great deal from it. I realised, however, from the reference at the bottom of the page, that the article is from the October 1991 issue of…

The Indexer: … and of course there’s a wonderful journal devoted to indexing, The Indexer, which began in 1958 as a publication from the Society of Indexers, and which from this year is being published by Liverpool University Press. The last five years of issues are available only to subscribers, but from 2013 backwards the issues are open access online, either from Liverpool University Press (2006-2013) or, earlier, from The Indexer Back Issues website – full details and comprehensive listings and links are here.

Indexes and indexers in fiction: I was just thinking of getting back to my own index, when I discovered this completely fascinating page from the American Society of Indexing, which references (although doesn’t link directly to) many articles from The Indexer. Here you’ll find brief notes about the mysteries of the index for a broad range of authors including Daniel Defoe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Lucy Ellmann and, inevitably, Vladimir Nabokov.

Dive in, there’s an extraordinary range of leads to much that is rich and strange, including a reference to J.G. Ballard’s novel War Fever, which takes you to this article, also from 1991 and The Indexer, ‘Oneness of index and text’.

I have the feeling that I am far from done with this topic, but I can delay the return to the end of Chapter 4 no longer…


  1. Debdutta Ray says:

    Having prepared several nonfiction book indexes I was left dissatisfied when the book was published.

    Thanks for a very illuminating this dark area.

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