What processes does book indexing include?

Indexing aims to create a well-crafted, easy-to-navigate and helpful tool for readers, leading them to the information they need to retrieve using the shortest, quickest route. There is no one straightforward step-by-step recipe for creating an index. Still, book indexing usually consist of six processes depending on the manuscript, tools (software) used and publisher’s requirements. These processes include first reading, terms and locators selection, arrangement of the entries, creating cross-references, editing and reviewing and lastly, writing an introductory note.

After reading this post, you will understand the basics of each indexing process and how they contribute to the overall creation of an index.

First reading

Before an indexer can start creating the index, they must read the entire manuscript to gain a comprehensive understanding of its contents, including the chapters’ structure, key themes, figures, tables and images. This step helps the indexer to prepare for the next stage: term selection.

Terms and locators selection

After the preliminary reading, the indexer is ready to work systematically through the text, covering the entire document from beginning to end, selecting words, phrases and passages that need to be reflected in the index. Not all concepts selected in this stage will be named implicitly in the text, but they should still be identified. At this stage, some indexers include as many terms as possible to ensure everything relevant is included. Later, during the editing, they cull those terms that may not be essential. Alongside recording the indexable terms, the indexer takes note of the pages on which the terms are found. In indexing, they are referred to as locators. Locators may also be paragraph numbers, columns or other elements that help locate the terms within the manuscript.

Entries arrangement

At this point, the indexer organises the index entries into logical groupings, with a key term at the top (called a heading) and relevant terms listed alphabetically underneath (known as subheadings). This process makes the index easy for users to navigate.

Subheadings may be set out in a list or run on within the same line, separated by semicolons.

Set-out indexRun-on index
breeding season 26–38
feeding habits 39–43
animals: breeding season 26–38; feeding habits 39–43
Examples of a set-out and run-on index.

The choice between the two styles may depend on the space within the book dedicated to the index (a set-out index may be easier to read, but a run-on index will take less space), the publisher’s house style or other criteria.

Cross-references creation

Next, the indexer creates cross-references; they may include two types of cross-references: see also and see.

See also references will lead the reader to the related topics within the index, for instance: musical instruments see also orchestras.

In this example, while indexing a general book on musical entertainment, the indexer helped the reader by connecting topics from different parts of the text.

See references are used most often in two instances:

  1. when the text uses a term (called a preferred term), the indexer may help the reader by incorporating synonyms to the preferred term into the index. For instance, a book on aquatic plants may prefer to use their Latin names, but the common names are also mentioned. Some readers may choose to use the common names to search for the terms in the index. In this case, the indexer may opt for the see reference: duckweed see Lemna minuta.
  2. when the indexer chooses not to use a double-entry method (a double entry includes both variations of the terms in the index).
Double-entry methodSee cross-reference
training, vocational 33, 42–48
university courses 25, 49
vocational training 33, 42–48
training, vocational see vocational training
university courses 25, 49
vocational training 33, 42–48
A comparison of double-entry and cross-reference indexing methods.

Editing and reviewing

At this stage, the indexer must review the index to ensure it is structured consistently and clearly and is complete and accurately reflects the book’s contents. It may include spelling, locators, spacing and punctuation checks, as well as the checks of the alphabetical order.

Writing intro note

Some indexes may consist of a short introductory note, serving as a guide on how to use the index. It may include such elements helping the reader as:

  • scope
  • arrangement
  • conventions followed
  • distinguishing types of references (e.g. minor vs major, illustrations and tables vs text).


In sum, creating an index to a book most commonly comprises six steps: first reading, terms and locators selection, arrangement of the entries, creating cross-references, editing and reviewing and lastly, writing an introductory note. However, since there is no strict procedure or protocol, individual indexers’ methods may vary. What is most important is that the result — the index — is easy to navigate and helpful to the reader. Contact me to ensure your index does precisely that; you can also ask me for a free sample index (and remember to use my early bird discount). If you want to hear more from me, including self-editing and writing tips, follow me on MastodonTwitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or join my newsletter.

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors.