What Makes a Good Indexer?

by Robert A. Saigh, President of Razorsharp Communications, Inc.

The more appropriate question is to ask “What makes a good index?” The answer depends partly on the author(ess) and partly on the indexer. Let’s take them in turn.

The writer must construct his/her book with plenty of heads and subheads to guide the reader through the text. Cute titles for chapters, heads, and subheads confuse all those who must slog through them. Clarity (brevity) is the soul of wit. Keep that in mind as you write your nonfiction work. Sadly, consistency is increasingly disappearing these days. At Razorsharp Communications, Inc., I find inconsistencies of spelling, acronyms, hyphenated phrases, and more, in every work I encounter. Often, I find the inconsistency on the same page, worse yet in the same paragraph.

Finally, I have met writers who confuse the function of the Table of the Contents (TOC) with the Index. (They scream at me one day and apologize the next. Needless to say, I never work for them again.) The TOC guides the reader through the text and is a map, highlighting the starting and ending points. The TOC connects the dots. The index should get the reader to his/her desired term as quickly as possible with little effort.

For instance, suppose you have a veterinary book and you want to find the page on which the diseases of Doberman pinschers appears. I would not list the entry under dog. I might, however, put a cross-reference there, such as this:

diseases. See Doberman pinschers

I might also put a cross-reference under here:

Pinschers. See Doberman pinschers

This ensure the reader only goes to one place for each entry. Duplication shows laziness on the indexer’s part.

And this leads to good (great) indexers. No software can do what an indexer can do unless it knows how to read, how to discriminate when a term is important enough to use, and how to order the information to make it as accessible as possible.

When you hire the indexer, do not be a Scrooge. People ask me how I do my job. After 15 years of indexing, I can do it in my sleep on any subject (and I mean any subject): I have indexed books about religion, art, history, science, medicine, law, finance, economics, computers, engineering, crime, biography, space travel, Shakespeare, cooking.... You get the idea. (Don’t get me wrong: I still love a good challenge.)

I examine the book and determine its flow, the writer’s intent, the audience. I guarantee on-time delivery with an index that never exceeds the publisher’s limits. Since I am the last link in the publishing chain, my index must be ready to drop in with no headaches and no delays. Most often, I submit my indices early; my clients love me for it.

In a nutshell, the indexer needs to be organized, disciplined, detail-oriented, and flexible. The problem arises if the indexer meets an unorganized manuscript that suffers from the problems listed above. In other words, the index is only as good as the writer allows it to be.

I hope this helps and look forward to indexing your nonfiction work. Feel free to contact me at or call 314–781–4731.