Learning to index

General resources when considering a career in indexing
Many questions can be answered by reading the information on this website. In addition, the ASI website offers a wealth of information for prospective indexers on its About Indexing page.

What is an index, really?
An index is a systematic arrangement of entries designed to enable users to locate information in a document. Entries consist of important names, concepts, and terms. Entries are ordered and organized differently than in the text but an index is not an outline of the text. A good index reflects the text accurately and anticipates the reader’s viewpoint.

Why can’t a computer do it?
A computer can’t analyze “aboutness.” Computers are (somewhat) useful in creating concordances of words, but not in evaluating text and context. A computer cannot pick just the right term to describe a concept, when the term is never used in the text. For a more detailed discussion, search the Index-L archives.

Are indexers mostly freelance, or do they mostly work for publishing houses?

Do I need an advanced degree to be an indexer?
Simply, no. While many indexers do have college degrees, it is not a prerequisite for indexing. This question has been discussed on Index-L and can be found by searching the list archives.

What talents and skills do indexers need?
A good indexer needs to find the center of a discussion quickly, recognize a concept when it is discussed again, and has a decent talent for synonyms and organization. You need to be able to put yourself in the reader’s moccasins. You have to respect deadlines. Organization skills are required. Business management and marketing skills are imperative. Self-motivation is a MUST.

How do I learn to index?
By taking a local course/workshop or a distance education course (see also ASI website). There are other ways, but these two are the most common.

How much time will it take to learn how to index?
It may take 2-9 months (or longer) to complete a course in indexing (the USDA course will take 6-18 months and a local course can take 6-8 weeks of intensive work because of homework assignments) or by reading the literature on indexing. The ASI website provides a list of recommended titles. Reading is not enough, then you need to write practice indexes and find reviewers for them. This is often a feature at the chapter meetings, and there are informal, regional gatherings for Peer Reviews too (Seattle, Dry-siders, Portland, Eugene…). To see a few of the criteria that make up a good index, visit the peer review guidelines.

How long will it take to establish an indexing business?
It may take a year or more to get that first paid index after completing your course and starting to market your services. It may take another 3-5 years of good marketing to begin to turn away business because you have enough work. Experience varies; it really depends on how aggressively you market your services and whether editors like your work.

How long before I can make “good” money?
It may take some time (6-18 months) to begin to get business but also to get continuous business depends a lot on your repeat clients and their referrals — which in turn depends on how good your work is. Consider whether your finances, working style, and preferences allow for this. Many indexers moonlight at first until they can count on new and repeat business.

How many books can I do in a month?
The total process — reading, marking, entering, editing — depends upon your skill and the needs of the book. Those indexing philosophy might be able to do 100 pages a week, although other indexers and other topics can go more quickly — up to 300 or more pages a week depending on the book’s topic, its organization, and the indexer’s skill. The simpler the topics, the better organized the text, the better organized the indexer, then the quicker the indexing process.

Is there business out there?
Yes, there is business out there, and the field will not go away. In fact, indexing will probably grow in scope and importance as information-overload continues to explode.

What if I’m not sure indexing is for me?
I suggest that you try some of the exercises recommended by Martha Osgood and Dawn Spencer whose websites are mentioned at the beginning of this page. Basically, try indexing a book and see how it feels, read a few of the selected titles, attend a local chapter meeting, and then think about thinking about being an indexer.

How do I join INDEX-PNW (an email list)
Just follow the instructions located here.

What kinds of indexing are out there?
I’ve placed this question last because the list is long. Back-of-the-book indexes include, bibliographies, catalogs, CD-ROMs, computer manuals, cookbooks, encyclopedias, government documents, journals, legal documents, depositions, medical, multimedia, municipal and legal codes, reference books, scholarly books, software manuals, statistics, technical manuals, textbooks, and trade books. For information about the subjects and materials indexed by chapter members, see our Directory of Indexers in the Pacific Northwest Indexers.

Area Indexing Courses

If you’re looking for a formal education in indexing, there are a few live courses in the Pacific Northwest for you to look into. Those we know about are listed below by state in alphabetical order.

Attendance at regional PNW/ASI chapter meetings is another way to gain more skills and practice. There is often a speaker with methods and strategies that will help you directly or indirectly, and gathering with other indexers who attend can provide you with resources, and resources for more resources.The Peer Reviews that happen at the informal gatherings in your own area are almost as useful as personal tutoring, and this website itself can offer you much information on indexing as a business, as a profession. Don’t miss the Newsletter, the marketing pages, the publisher and other resource pages here on this site.

If you know of other indexing courses in the Pacific Northwest, please contact the PNW/ASI Webmaster. Remember, the national ASI web site lists other courses (including video and correspondence).


Emporia State University (Portland, OR)

The School of Library Information Management program occasionally offers this course (LI 842XI: Indexing and Abstracting) online. For information contact Candace Boardman at cboardma@emporia.edu

Sherry L. Smith Indexing Services (Bend and Eugene, OR)

Sherry L Smith, a professional indexer, offers indexing classes and workshops, as well as self-paced individual tutorials. In the classes, you will learn about the basics of back-of-the-book indexing with an emphasis on text analysis. The workshops are designed for advanced and intermediate indexers who want to improve their skills and learn from other indexers. The one-to-one tutorials are designed for the person who wants to learn about back-of-the-book indexing and prefers individual instruction.


Bellevue Community College (BCC) (Bellevue, WA)

BCC’s Continuing Education Department offers two indexing courses: a one-day seminar (“Creating Superior Indexes”) and a five-week class (“Becoming a Professional Indexer”). Visit their web site for more information.

Index West (Olympia, WA)

Index West, the freelance indexing business of Kari Kells, offers classes in the Olympia- or Seattle-area, as well as self-paced individual tutorials. For more information, stop by the Index West web site at http://www.indexw.com/.

Lake Washington Technical College (Kirkland, WA)

The Library Technology certificate program, offers a class that includes learning a bit about indexing is offered (“Indexing and Bibliographies”), which is taught by a faculty member. For more information contact LWTC at or (425) 739-8100.

University of Washington, Graduate School of Library Science (ISchool) (Seattle, WA)

Two indexing-related classes are offered here: “Indexing and Abstracting” (LIS 536) and “Construction of Index Languages” (LIS 537). Instructors are ISchool faculty. For more information contact them at (206) 543-1794.

University of Washington, Department of Technical Communication (through UW Extension) (Seattle, WA)

In the past, this class (TC N100) was taught by Kari Kells, a professional indexer. Because of low enrollment, this class hasn’t been offered since 2000. If you’re interested in taking a technical indexing class, please contact someone at one of the above UW departments and let them know that you’d like them to bring back TC N100.

Wasser Inc. (Seattle, WA)

Wasser sometimes offers a one-day workshop on indexing. Past classes have been taught by editors or writers. Contact them at (206) 441-0707 if you’d like to receive information on their workshop offerings.

There are other distance learning courses available as well – see the ASI website for those.

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