The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Index of an author's skills
What readers want

It is true, as many professional indexers will tell you, that the best person to compile an index, is the author. And this for two reasons: first, there are very few professional indexers in India (usually librarians double up for the job); second, it is only the author who knows the work, sentence by sentence, and who can therefore wrinkle out all the references that might be of value to readers. What is a worthy index and how does the author go about doing it' Here is a classic definition given by one of the oldest hands in the game.

“The function of an index is not to be a precis or abstract of a book, but to signpost particulars within the text, concisely, comprehensively and accurately. It points out where to look for names, terms and topics of relevance by listing them, usually alphabetically, wherever they occur within the book, and then by referring to a page or column number, though sometimes even more precisely to a defined portion on the page, or to a paragraph number.”

Going by this definition, it is a long and hard task and it takes a really dedicated author to go over his own work that, in most cases, he would like to put aside. But if the author has a clear idea about who might use the book, the job becomes somewhat simpler. For the general reader, a single entry going directly to the page, is enough. For the researcher, the entries would have to be more rigorous — several entries followed up by some cross-references. An understanding of the reader’s needs will help determine what to put in and what to leave out; and for the items that are included, what words to use and what cross-references to add. Very simply, the way the book and its index are to be used must influence the choice of entries.

But how does the author-cum-indexer go about doing the job' An author who is new to the craft should begin by looking through the indexes of several comparable books. Most books have only one index; a few though have one or more small specialist indexes dealing exclusively with some principal aspect of the book. The final decision of what it is to be is the author’s and no one else’s.

Having decided on the format, the author should go through the final page proofs and underline all the entries (preferably in pencil so that mistakes can be erased) that need to be put in. The basis of inclusion or omission of possible entries must be common sense and a close understanding of the needs of readers. Besides, a good index includes not just the terms, events and people but concepts, ideas and relationships. Only the author can do this detailing.

After the entries have been pencilled, the author should give the marked copy to the computer operator who punches the entries in and arranges them alphabetically. Earlier, the entries were recorded in separate card indexes, but an efficient computer operator can now take care of the clerical work.

Some authors, who do not want to be burdened with preparing the index copy, believe that the index and the contents list are much the same and therefore the index could be dropped all together. This is not true because the levels of detail of the two are different; the index carries much more specific information than a bland contents list. Not to include an index is to short-change the reader who sometimes wants specific information provided by the index entries and not plough through the whole book. In fact, very few read from cover to cover.

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