Freelance Indexing

Note: This article first appeared in the SeattleWritergrrls Zine in June 2001. It is based on a presentation to the group in March 2001 and is published here with the permission of SeattleWritergrrls. Web links have been updated.

What is an index?

An index is a roadmap to the information in a document, which can be a book, journal article, Web site, database, technical manual, catalog, or a graphic image –anything from which people to retrieve specific information.  An index is not a glossary or concordance of all the terms in the document.  It is instead a guide to the concepts in the document, written from the user’s viewpoint – not the author’s.  So while all the terms the author uses will be included in the index, a good indexer also includes the terms the user will be seeking, even if the words don’t appear in the text.

What makes a good index?

The American Society of Indexers’ “Indexing Evaluation Checklist” provides guidelines for index evaluation. A good index

  • is appropriate for the intended audience and written from the user’s viewpoint;
  • has no more than 5-7 undifferentiated locators (page references) for any main heading or subheading;
  • uses see and see also cross references appropriately;
  • uses subheadings appropriately;
  • avoids unnecessary words and phrases (“concerning”, “related to”);
  • uses a consistent and clear format;
  • is well edited, with accurate locators and no typos.

Indexing skills

Many indexes are written by people who have never been trained in indexing.  Indexing may be tacked onto the job description of a technical writer or an editor, or an author (especially for a scholarly press) may be told by his publisher that he’s responsible for writing the index for his book, or for paying for the index out of his royalties. The ASI pamphlet, “Authors and Indexes: Do It Yourself or Hire a Pro?” can help these individuals decide whether or not to hire a professional – and how to locate one.  ASI’s Indexer Locator  lists freelance indexers seeking assignments.

Indexer training

Most US indexers regard the USDA correspondence course as the ‘official’ training program. The USDA Introductory course takes about a year to complete. Locally, the University of Washington Graduate School of Library and Information Science offers some indexing classes, and indexing is also included in the technical writing certificate program at Bellevue Community College. Information about educational opportunities, as well as indexing as a career, is available on the ASI web site.  Self-instruction is also an avenue. Nancy Mulvaney’s Indexing Books (University of Chicago Press, 1994) is the textbook used by the USDA course.  Also, ASI has a number of publications on indexing and indexing specialties that can be extremely helpful.

Personality traits common to most indexers include:

  • curiosity; a wide range of personal interests
  • good editorial skills; get heartburn from typos.
  • analytical mindset; can recognize the meaning behind the words
  • crossword and jigsaw puzzle addicts
  • organized; bookshelves and spice cabinets are arranged systematically
  • comfortable with computers; index cards and shoeboxes just don’t cut it any more.
  • fanatical about deadlines; a late index is a bad one.

Indexing opportunities

Indexing is increasingly becoming a Web-based enterprise. In addition to back of the book and journal indexes, indexers are now being hired to index technical documentation, Websites, legal materials, databases, government documents—in short, anything that needs an organized approach to the content.  Most use dedicated indexing software to write the indexes and then output the files in whatever electronic format the client wants – RTF, word processor, HTML, Quark, Framemaker, etc.  See the ASI web site for information about indexing software.

Online resources

In the pre-PC days, an indexer could set up shop with a stack of index cards, alphabetic dividers, and a typewriter.  Now most of us spend our days at a keyboard.  Most communication with clients is online, both for getting jobs and for delivering finished indexes, and marketing and communication with colleagues also takes place online..  Subscriptions to a number of indexing-related discussion lists are available. The best-known list is Index-L <>, which is like a continuing education class for picking up indexing tips, job leads, and building relations with colleagues.  Index-NW <> serves the same function for those of us in the Pacific Northwest.


Further information about indexing resources and indexing as a career is available on the ASI web site and on the Pacific Northwest Chapter/ASI web site. Meetings of the Pacific Northwest chapter are always announced on the chapter web page; nonmembers are welcome.

Carolyn Weaver
Weaver Indexing Service