Back Words Indexing 

  Back-of-the-Book Indexes
     for Publishers and Authors

      "You're going to love the way your book ends!"



about indexes
my background

authors as indexer
computers asindexer

quotations about indexes/indexing
indexer humor

order of the kohlrabi
wilson awards judge



Martha Osgood
Back Words Indexing

Since 1996

author of the index in
Inside Indexing:
the Decisionmaking Process

by Sherry Smith & Kari Kells




Judith Pascoe, "My Last Index"
"Jonathan Swift, in his 1704 A Tale of a Tub, describes two means of using books: "to serve them as men do lords—learn their titles exactly and then brag of their acquaintance," or "the choicer, the profounder and politer method, to get a thorough insight into the index, by which the whole book is governed and turned, like fishes by the tail." Swift goes on to say that entering the place of learning at the great gate requires an expense of time and forms, and so "men of much haste and little ceremony are content to get in by the back door."

Alec Clifton-Taylor, An Open Letter to a Publisher:
"Few authors, I suspect, are temperamentally capable of making their own index."

Peter Farrell, "How to Make Money from Home: "Indexing work is not recommended to those who lack an orderly mind and a capacity for taking pains. A good index is a minor work of art but it is also the product of clear thought and meticulous care."

Lorena Garloch: "Books with no indexes are all apparently written or published by egotists."

The London Times, 8 May 1957: "The inclusion of an index is, of course, not enough in itself. It must be a good index."

Chapter 55 of Cat's Cradle by Vonnegut:

...I showed this index entry to the Mintons, asking them if it didn't think it was an enchanting biography in itself, a biography of a reluctant goddess of love. I got an unexpectedly expert answer, as one does in life sometimes. It appeared that Claire Minton, in her time, had been a professional indexer. I had never heard of such a profession before... She said that indexing was a thing only the most amateurish author undertook to do for his own book. I asked her what she thought of Philip Castle's job.

"Flattering to the author, insulting to the reader," she said. "In a hyphenated word," she said with the shrewd amiability of an expert, "_self-indulgent_. I'm always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work. It's a revealing thing... a shameless exhibition ... "He's obviously in love with this Mona Aamons Monzano... He has mixed feelings about his father... He's insecure... He'll never marry her... I've said all I'm going to say," she said...


Of my seven books, I compiled the index to only one, the first, and swore a mighty oath, when I had finished the task, that I would rather die, and in a particularly unpleasant manner, than do it again.

~ "Easy as a, b, d" by Bernard Levin
in The Times (London) December 23, 1985

see also his charming
Letters to his Indexer

While it is true that authors are the experts on the topic of their own books, the index is meant for the reader, often a non-expert who may not be as familiar as the author with the concepts, thrust, or vocabulary of the topic. If an author can view the book from the perspective and needs of the reader, using reader-friendly synonyms to guide the reader efficiently back into the book, then the author might well be the best person to index his or her own book.

Other issues the author might want to consider include whether he or she:

  • wishes to learn the details of and then apply the publisher's style sheet for indexing

  • understands or wants to learn the established principles and standards of information retrieval (there are many, and they are detailed, often contradictory or unintuitive and thus many decisions have to be made to make the index truly useful to the reader, remembering the while that an index is not an outline)

  • can lead the reader into the book via the index rather than rewriting the book in the index

  • can express complex ideas concisely

  • owns and knows how to use to fullest advantage software adequate for the indexing project, remembering that both index cards and a word processor fail to offer the de-scattering and subentry alphabetizing benefits (among others) of the three professional software packages

  • can face yet another deadline - remembering that the index cannot be written when the book is in manuscript form; it requires final pagination to be completed first. By then the printer date is often set in stone so the index deadline can be tight

  • can separate her- or himself from the book in order to write the index instead of revising/rewriting the book yet again

  • has a spouse who can tolerate that book in the house for one more month, week—or even one more day.


   Indexing software is a tremendous aid to the professional indexer, but it by no means creates indexes "automatically," any more than a spelling or grammar checker can edit a text on its own. Beware of vendors who claim that the services of a professional indexer can be replaced by running a software program on the text of a book. The intellectual and analytical work of indexing is the task of the human brain, and no software program can duplicate it.

   Indexing programs available to professional indexers can help the indexer to produce, sort, and manipulate entries; establish subheading sequences; restyle and amend entries; and keep track of what has been indexed where. On the other hand, the indexing add-ons included with word processors and DTP programs are usually far less efficient as aids to creating a high-quality index.

Furthermore, an index by a professional indexer can give the author a new perspective on the effectiveness of her or his presentation. From the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Harold Macmillan: "I know, too, how often an author, whether he knows it or not, was indebted to an indexer for pointing out errors, discrepancies, or repititions that had otherwise escaped detection in the proofs."
(For other uses of an index, see purposes of indexes on this website)

From the STC's monthly magazine, Intercom (Dec 2003) "Practical Tips for Improving Web Site and Intranet Usability" by Geoffrey Hart:
"understand" context. For example, they cannot distinguish between different uses of the word "printing": procedures for producing paper output, distilling a Word file into a PDF document, learning whom to ask for permission to print 500 copies of a user manual, and finding troubleshooting instructions for network printers. Moreover, users must know the precise wording used in the document to find it with a search; for example, instructions for typing the letter é might be found under "foreign characters," "accented letters," "HTML entities for European fonts," or the letter itself. An indexer will examine each chunk of information to identify its role, then create synonyms so that readers with different mental models of the information can more easily find what they seek.

Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School
Carl Selinger

Stuff You Don't Learn In Engineering School covers a lot of ground for a 178-page book, and is designed to help the new graduate prepare for life in the corporate engineering world.

"From the time you know enough to talk about a product ... you know too much to be able to tell if the product would be usable for [someone] who doesn't know what you know."

~ Carol Barnum
Usability Testing and Research
New York: Longman, 2002

Its purpose is to help new engineers learn the important "soft skills" they will need to succeed and grow in the workplace and beyond. Topics covered include writing, speaking and listening, making decisions, getting feedback, setting priorities, being effective in meetings, understanding yourself and others, working in teams, learning to negotiate, being creative, workplace ethics, developing leadership skills, adapting to the workplace, coping with stress, and having fun.

What's missing, of course, is research and information gathering skills. Are such skills not critical to the success of the new engineer, or simply not considered "soft skills"? Words like "library", "database, and "research" do not appear in the index. Mr. Selinger holds two engineering degrees, and has extensive college teaching experience, and as such, must be aware of the major research tools of the engineering profession.

In theory, the purpose of an index is simple enough: to guide the reader to key concepts contained in the volume. In practice, however, indexing is a lot trickier than it looks, especially when scholar-speak has to be translated into everyday English. Professional indexers -- they actually compete for Pulitzer-type prizes -- contend a good index is as enjoyable as a good book.

~ Beverly Kelley,
Ventura County Star
November 17, 2003

I wonder why he chose to exclude this important component of the engineer's professional career from his book? Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School is peppered throughout with quotations from engineers Mr. Selinger has met through his seminar series.

The Planets
by Dava Sobel
270pp, Fourth Estate, £15
Following the success of her best-selling book Longitude, Dava Sobel, a former New York Times science reporter, has turned her attention to the planets, and has produced an account of the main members of the solar system. . . but there should be a special corner of the Inferno reserved for a publisher who puts out a scientific book minus an index. Despite these criticisms, The Planets is a very agreeable read... http://tinyurl.com/9o9e2


     Generally, in my experience, the worst indices are those prepared by authors. Indexing is a specialized skill, and deserves respect... don't do it yourself - a professional will do a better job and make your book more successful.

Doug Holzgang, in MacNews Tidbits

Back Words Indexing
Martha Osgood, Indexer since 1996