Ten principles for creating better indexes—Margie Towery (ISC conference 2014)

Margie Towery, two-time winner of the American Society for Indexing’s award for excellence in indexing, not to mention an indexer of The Chicago Manual of Style, treated Indexing Society of Canada conference-goers to a three-hour seminar covering ten principles for creating better indexes.

An index, said Towery, should

  • help readers find specific information faster
  • have an easy-to-use structure
  • reflect the text
  • provide multiple entry points.

Indexing is both an art and a science; when we choose what to index, we rely on reason, experience, and intuition. To create better indexes,

1. Consider your audience

Who are the readers, what are their expectations, and what terminology might they look for? Towery suggests getting familiar with terminology by referring to

  • subject dictionaries
  • similar books
  • the author’s previous works
  • the author’s website
  • the press website
  • online searches on the topic

Also refer to the book’s table of contents and introduction, as well as the author’s concept list, if it’s offered. Some indexers refuse to work with an author’s concept list, a position Towery doesn’t understand. To her, it’s easier just to include those terms in the index and keep the author happy.

Add cross-references as soon as you see the opportunity—for example, if the author mentions using two terms interchangeably.

For a long project, Towery encourages immersing yourself completely in the subject, using other books, movies, music, and art.

2. Consider the metatopic

How to treat the metatopic can be controversial among indexers. Towery believes that the metatopic main heading is a keystone to the index and can be a teaching tool, as new users may naturally want to start looking in the metatopic.

A good approach may be to begin with a table of contents structure that points readers to the main headings that will let them find what they need. You may also find mind mapping helpful; there are apps that can turn a mind-map into an outline for you.

Refer to the “indexing” heading in Hans H. Wellisch’s Indexing from A to Z for an example of a metatopic done well.

3. aim for accuracy

  • Ensure the terms accurately reflect the text (more on that later) and are spelled correctly.
  • If you’re providing dates for events or years for legal cases, make sure those are accurate.
  • Disambiguate similar names—e.g., Smith, John (dentist); Smith, John (doctor).
  • Don’t allow subheadings to make adjectives of main headings.
  • Cross-references have to be accurate and consistent, in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.
  • Triple-check accuracy of double-postings.
  • Make sure your page locators are accurate—not only that they point to the right pages but also that they are of the right type. Should 2, 3 be 2–3? Are the locators correctly formatted according to press style?

4. Aim for comprehensiveness

“In best-case scenarios,” said Towery, “every index would be comprehensive—that is, it includes all substantive information and provides multiple ways of finding the information.” In reality, however, we face space, time, and wage limitations, so the key is to achieve balance. Indexers have to consider the many ways a user might “name” and search for something.

5. Aim for conciseness

Encapsulate meaning in as few words as possible: avoid using a fifteen-letter word when a five-letter one means the same thing. Balance jargon with everyday language. (Although clarity, reflexivity, accuracy, and audience issues are equally important.)

In some cases, conciseness may trump specificity (for example, if the heading “railroad development” has only two locators and “railroads” only one, you might want to combine them under one heading.)

6. Aim for consistency

Topics of equal weight in the text should be treated similarly in the index, both in depth and specificity. Do they have similar numbers and types of locators and subheadings?

Also ensure that you have consistency in

  • cross-references (Are cross-references from similar entries—e.g., initialisms—treated the same way?)
  • formatting details (e.g., does the text use the serial comma? Where are you placing your cross-references?)
  • structure (i.e., headings should be parallel)

Finally, said Towery, don’t be afraid to be consistently inconsistent. In some situations, you have to bend rules for headings of a certain type. Just ensure that all of the headings in that category are treated the same way, and you won’t confuse your readers.

7. Aim for clarity

“The relationship between the main and the subheading must be instantly obvious,” said Towery. “Indexers shouldn’t have to figure out what’s meant.” That’s why function words like as, of, by, and so on, are so critical. “They should not be used willy-nilly,” said Towery, “but to clarify the main–subheading relationship.” Towery also cautioned that a phrase like “influence of” can be ambiguous. Be clear by specifying “influence on” or “influence by.”

Keep in mind that “words reverberate neurolinguistically differently in different people,” said Towery. Choose between terms like terrorists and revolutionaries carefully, keeping in mind that the headings should reflect the text but also help readers find what they need.

Names may benefit from glosses to clarify who they are or what their relationship is to key players in the text.

Towery also challenges us to “love the alphabet: use the alphabet not only to keep the most important word in front but also to keep logic in the subheadings whenever possible.” Fortunately, birth comes before death in the alphabet, but illness comes after death. You might need to get creative with your wording or force sort for chronology.

8. Aim for readability

Check out Susan Olason’s “Let’s get usable! Usability studies for indexes” article in The Indexer. The article notes that commas can be confusing, especially for reversals, and that table of contents–styled entries and indented formatting is more user friendly. Interestingly, Caroline Diepeveen mentioned research in the Netherlands that showed run-in subheadings are easier to read. Towery suspects that may be because run-in subheadings force indexers to be clearer and more succinct. Indented styles work better with technical texts; run-in may work better for narratives.

Towery noted the need to chunk information to accommodate the fact that we can keep only a few bits of information in short-term memory at a time.

Don’t use old indexing devices like ff. and passim., which most readers don’t understand.

Tips for readability overlap considerably with the other principles for creating better indexes:

  • Use a visible metatopic structure.
  • Include parallel structure where appropriate.
  • Be consistent in the treatment of topics.
  • Be sure the relationships between main and subheadings are unambiguous.
  • Place the most important word first in the subheadings whenever possible.
  • Avoid jargon, especially in subheadings.
  • Use the alphabet for logical progressions.
  • Clarify subheading meanings with function words.
  • Consider clumping and gathering similar subheadings.
  • Sort out long entries into more approachable chunks.
  • Avoid inversions whenever possible.

Although Olason found that indented styles were more readable, they also have their own problems. If a series of subheadings start with the same function word (e.g., on), they can create what Towery calls “gridlock” or eyeball barriers. Reword the subheading if needed to prevent this problem.

Towery also cautions that our training and work have biased our thought process. We may not be objective about what makes an index usable. If you can, show your index to someone else, a reader who can provide more unbiased feedback.

9. Aim for reflexivity

“An index should reflect the text from which it comes,” said Towery. “The index internalizes the text. But it’s not simply a regurgitation of the text in alphabetical order.” Indexers digest books to create an approachable alphabetical and structured index from the text.

Reflexivity also applies to the tone that characterizes the text. However, Towery says that an index doesn’t need to carry forward the author’s biases. Use neutral headings and subheadings to point to the text, where the author’s voice and opinions can take over.

10. Use common sense

Use natural, everyday language whenever possible. Make sure that the index makes sense to all of its possible audiences and that it’s usable by a variety of people. Again, sometimes you need to break the “rules”—with experience, you’ll get a better sense of when and how you should overrule standard practices to make a better index.

Read other indexes and critically evaluate how well they work, why, and what could be done differently. To evaluate what makes a good index, use the American Society for Indexing’s checklist for its excellence in indexing award.


Beyond these ten principles, Towery emphasizes the need for

  • cross-training: “Keep indexing skills fresh by learning other related skills,” she said. She finds that trying to summarize a book in a haiku helps her distill the text into its essence and achieve the precision and conciseness that an index needs.
  • napping: It’s scientifically proven to increase alertness, boost creativity and the ability to see connections, strengthen memory, clarify decision making, and improve productivity. Towery suggests reading Sara Mednick’s Take a Nap!

For an eye opener, Towery recommends reading What Is an Index?, a book Henry Wheatley wrote back in 1878 that discussed a lot of the same issues we are dealing with today.

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