What practices will help me with good index term selection?

Term selection is a key factor that determines the quality and usability of an index. Good index terms are clear, concise, intuitive, meaningful, and accurate. But what practices will help you achieve these qualities in your indexing work?

In his article for The Indexer, Zhang Qiyu (indexer consultant and information management professor, Nanjing Institute of Politics Shanghai) dives deep into term selection, exploring what term selection means, how to identify what is and what is not indexable, and matters such as structure and design of the index. In the article, he identifies several key practices that will help you select terms for a useful and effective index.

1. Always keep user needs top of mind

Consider what is relevant to the text’s audience and how they might search for what they need. For example, does the term reflect current usage? Would a synonym or variant form be more intuitive for index users?

2. Be familiar with the subject area

Understanding the text and its purpose helps you select terms that appropriately reflect the contents and are suitable for the audience.

3. Reflect topics from the text alone

Do not add information to the index that is not in the text. Where possible, index terms should be identical to the text’s terms. However, at times you may need to use variants or alternative terms if more useful to index users.

4. Include both explicit and implicit topics

Consider the text from different angles. Are there significant unspoken meanings and relationships within the text that would be useful or illuminating for index users?

5. Make connections within the index structure

Using double-postings and cross-references among the terms creates multiple access points to information. These elements can assist a wider variety of users and reveal meaningful interconnections.

6. Eliminate clutter

The greater the range of items in the index, the more useful it will be for different users. However, index terms must lead to information that is substantive and relevant to the text’s subject, purpose, and audience. Indexing topics that are irrelevant or only mentioned in passing will obstruct efficient searching.

Read Zhang Qiyu’s full article for free in The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing (Vol. 27, No. 3) at liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/10.3828/indexer.2009.32

What if I index my own book? How can I make it a success?

In an interview with publisher Sandra Uschtrin, indexer Jochen Fassbender reflected on authors indexing their own work. Here are his comments: 


  • Subject knowledge and understanding of the text are key to indexing. You know your text best and you can bring your in-depth knowledge of the field to the index. There are even some instances where authors have won awards for indexes they’ve created.


  • A useful index is an analytical tool, not a keyword list. As such, you will be taking on substantial labour to create your own—potentially requiring several weeks—under a strict deadline.
  • Indexing a book is a very different mental process than writing a book. You may be too close to your work to be able to see it from a user perspective.
  • Equally important as subject knowledge is proficiency in modern indexing methods, tools, and best practices. If you don’t have this foundation, it’s easy to commit what Fassbender calls the “deadly sins” of indexing and fail to meet usability standards.

As an author, how can I make my index a success?

  1. First, honestly assess whether you meet the requirements for effective indexing. Fassbender recommends reviewing the “Authors and index creation?” section on the Deutsches Netzwerk der Indexer website.
  2. Pursue indexing training. At the very least, seek out seminars. To gain proficiency, undertake more extensive training and practice.
  3. Hire a professional indexer who works in your subject area. That indexer will bring subject knowledge to the index, while using their training and experience to create an analytical index efficiently, effectively, and on time.

Read the complete interview, including Fassbender’s discussion of the “deadly sins” of indexing and what makes a good index–for free in The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing (Vol. 29, No. 1) at liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/10.3828/indexer.2011.4

Related questions

Editors and publishers want to know: What makes a good index?

In an interview with publisher Sandra Uschtrin, indexer Jochen Fassbender described some key qualities of a good index.

What does a good index look like?

The key qualities include:

  • Good term selection: The heart of quality indexing. Entries must be clear, meaningful, accurate to the text, and complete with locators. This is why indexing of a print book should take place only after the text pagination is final.
  • Comprehensive and consistent coverage of all important details and passages.
  • Entries for both implicit and explicit subjects (i.e., not simply a list of names and keywords).
  • All references to a topic consolidated under one “preferred” term, even if the text uses multiple terms to refer to that topic
  • Synonyms added to increase access points, either pointing to the preferred term via “see” cross-references or repeating the preferred term’s locators (double-posting).
  • Related index entries point to each other with “see also” cross-references.
  • Absence of passing mentions: This means the indexer did not index a word that is only in the text for illustrative purposes or otherwise does not provide significant information.
  • Accurate and explicit locators: Commas and dashes are used to distinguish between intermittent discussions of a topic on consecutive pages (e.g., 514, 515, 516) and continuous discussion of a topic on consecutive pages (e.g., 635-637). Furthermore, the start and end of page ranges are listed explicitly (e.g., 635-637 instead of 635 ff).
  • Ideally, main entries with more than 5 or 6 locators broken down into subheadings.
  • Appropriate length: Typically 4-5% of the length of the indexable material, and even 10% or more for reference works. Below 3.5% may be problematic.

Indexes with these traits add value to the text by ensuring users can efficiently find all substantive concepts, details, and facts.

What should editors and publishers look for in an indexer?

Read the complete interview—including Fassbender’s take on the “deadly sins” he wants indexers to avoid—for free in The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing (Vol. 29, No. 1) liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/10.3828/indexer.2011.4

Fassbender also talked about some of the things that an indexer needs to produce quality work:

  • Training and practice: Essential for producing good analytical indexes
  • Ability to anticipate users’ needs and questions
  • Some knowledge in the book’s subject area
  • Indexing software: Indispensable for increasing the speed of indexing by handling and automating technical components

Read the complete interview—including Fassbender’s take on the “deadly sins” he wants indexers to avoid—for free in The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing (Vol. 29, No. 1) liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/10.3828/indexer.2011.4