For aspiring indexers (5)

In the early 2000’s, indexer Martha Osgood posted a series of popular articles in the “Novice Notes” section of her website, Backwordsindexing.com. Here is an extract from one article, updated and edited for an international audience. Martha’s comments, which reflect her personal experience and observations, offer food for thought and not hard and fast rules.

When I was considering indexing as a business, I asked indexers I interviewed to “talk me out of this idea.” They responded with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Before you invest time, money, and energy in software, courses, and networking, let me show you now some of the issues that might discourage you later. Think about them well, and consider carefully: are you excited by this list—or oppressed by it?

The work

You don’t want to invest the time or money if indexing is not “for you.” Some people run screaming from the room when I mention indexing, and you just might be one of those once you see what it takes and the kind of detail you will be working with.

  • Are you good at finding the center of a discussion easily, and do you have a decent talent for synonyms? Can you divide your work into the number of days you have to meet the deadline then actually meet that deadline? Some folks are self-directed in their recreations, but less so in their work lives. Are you hyper organized? I expected to need a decent memory, but I did not expect to use (and improve) my organization skills so intensely.
  • Try indexing a book. Here are some ideas on how to do this.
  • Self-motivation is a MUST. (Note: self-motivation is sometimes defined as a fear of humiliation combined with an utter determination to have the freedom of being self-employed).
  • Is this a good match with your family? Some indexers have very young children, and it works for them. For others with the same family structure, it does not work well.

The income

If you need income NOW, don’t count on indexing. It can take up to three years or more to build a consistent client base to support yourself (if you market well and wisely and if you get repeat business due to the quality of your indexes) in the manner to which you plan to become accustomed.

It may take some time (18 months?) to both begin to get real business and to get continuous business (depending a lot on your repeat clients—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 business and repeat business coming in.

If you need a bank loan to purchase the furniture, computer, software, phone or Internet systems, and courses, you will have to consider seriously the interest costs and the payback schedule in relation to your income needs and your income potential—you’ll get faster but not without a LOT of focused, effective practice. I seldom met my hourly goal even at the five-year point.

Nevertheless, 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 and search engines only give thousands of unanalyzed, general hits instead of the specific few that can really help.

Your goals

If you cannot bring your skills up to a decent speed that will allow you to make enough to

  • pay taxes,
  • pay insurance for yourself (and family?),
  • allow for 35% or more of non-billable time: for invoicing, learning new software, following discussion groups, research online and at the library to verify standard indexing treatments for a confusing book, pre-reading and editing your index before submitting it…),
  • take vacations/sick time/down time/retirement (what are your goals?),
  • pay yourself (you MUST make more than a McJob would pay)

then you will need to have different goals than “making a living doing this work.” There are a number of people who ARE supporting themselves plus at least one other by indexing alone, but I can’t emphasize enough how efficient they are. Depending on the subjects they index, they can complete (read, mark, enter, edit, submit—and still market) 300 pages a week.

On the other hand, if this is intended to be part time work, a second income, a skill to offer non-profits, or intended for the pleasure of forced deep reading in a favorite field, go for it.

My favorite topics are generally in Philosophy or Theology, even though these topics take longer than many others because their threads of thought are tangled all through the book rather than in discrete pieces. My total process—reading, marking (note: not everyone pre-reads or marks—I feel that I have to in order to follow all the thangles through my texts), entering, editing—goes rather slowly, about 100 pages a week. The simpler the topics, the quicker the index goes. The better organized the text, the quicker the index goes. The better organized the INDEXER, the quicker the index goes. But… the simpler the topic the more boring it is and the sleepier I get…Sometimes the good money makes up for it, sometimes not.

Your time

Your time is priceless. Don’t waste it if this work is not going to be your passion.

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To work successfully as an indexer, you must make some initial investments. The biggest investment is your time for training and practice, which is critical because the more practice you have, the more efficient you will be.

This article, however, addresses specifically the cash outlay. Fortunately, the upfront technology and education costs are not particularly onerous and could be recovered with your first three or four or five indexing jobs.   


Desktop or laptop computer

You’ll need a 64-bit PC or Mac with adequate memory to run one of the indexing software programs while the browser and your book in Acrobat Reader are open at the same time.


You’ll be spending hours in front of the computer, so invest in a large monitor. It should be at least 27 inches so that you can have your indexing software and the page proofs open side by side on the screen.

Software and services

  • Microsoft Word, the standard word processor used by the industry. Book designers expect to receive your index in a Word document (.docx file) to import into their book designer software.
  • Indexing software ($500–$600)
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader (free)
  • Web browser (free)
  • Email client (most are free)
  • Anti-virus software (might come free with your computer’s operating system)
  • Backup software and external hard drive
  • Internet, should be broadband and must be reliable, as all your communications with your client depend on it.

Laser printer (recommended)

As a beginning indexer, you’ll want to print out the pdf of your book so that you can mark up the pages. (Many indexers, once they become more experienced, move to indexing straight off the PDF on the screen.)

You could delay this purchase and use the copying services at your local office supply company. But once the work is arriving steadily, you will appreciate having your own laser printer.

Inkjet printers are not recommended because they take too long to print out 350-600 pages, and will cost a fortune in ink cartridges. A laser printer—especially one that prints double-sided—is ideal.


Visit the Education and Training page for a list of indexing training programs offered as distance learning and in person in Canada.

Reference books

Expect to gradually build a library of books to help you deal with indexing issues and hone your skills. At the start, however, you need these books on your shelf:

  • Nancy Mulvany, Indexing Books, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) – $53 US
  • Chicago Manual of Style – $70 US (or buy an annual online subscription for $41 US)
  • Reference books in your field, if any


Membership with the Indexing Society of Canada / Société canadienne d’indexation (ISC/SCI) ($110/year for Canadians, $120/year international) includes access to indexing resources and education, networking opportunities, discounts to conferences and workshops, and a subscription to The Indexer, the quarterly international journal of indexing.

For an additional $55/year, members can advertise their services to the public by listing their profile on the Registry of Indexers Available (indexers.ca/find-an-indexer).


Many new indexers complement their training by engaging with a mentor in the Mary Newberry Mentorship Program. The fee is $100, most of which is an honorarium for the mentor.

Continuing education

Attendance at the ISC/SCI annual conferences is one of the best ways to deal with isolation and find your bearings as a new indexer. The conferences alternate between virtual and in-person (always at a place that you could turn into a holiday trip).

The American Society of Indexing offers a number of webinars on topics each year.

Consider setting aside $200–$500 (not including travel costs to in-person conferences) in your first year.

Related questions

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In the early 2000s, indexer Martha Osgood posted a series of popular articles in the “Novice Notes” section of her website, Backwordsindexing.com. Here is an extract from one of her articles.

It is said that successful indexers:

  • Have good pattern recognition skills
  • Read carefully and quickly
  • Are good “listeners” who can hear what the author intends to say
  • Have good concentration skills
  • Are self-motivated
  • Have common sense and perseverance
  • Are imaginative enough to identify what other readers will want to find
  • Are general information addicts
  • Enjoy working crossword puzzles (optional)
  • Enjoy thinking of one-word synonyms (not optional)
  • Dislike marketing their skills, but do it anyway
  • Can type quickly and accurately
  • Have good spelling and grammar
  • Are self-motivated and work well alone
  • Are computer-literate, email-literate
  • Are detail-oriented, and can make accurate use of indexing conventions
  • Are confident enough to make decisions and defend them
  • Are respectful of deadlines
  • Are good at networking
  • Have good language synthesis and/or writing skills
  • Are self-motivated and disciplined
  • Read mystery books (optional)
  • Do detailed needlework (optional)
  • Alphabetize things (CDs, books, spices)
  • Are self-motivated and like their own company
  • Have a tendency toward neatness
  • Like to organize things by category (contents of drawers, refrigerators, cupboards, closets, bookcases, spices, life)

In addition, subject expertise is helpful. Indexing coursework with a LOT of feedback is helpful, and Peer Reviews are VERY helpful.

A 2000 survey of ASI members shows that 12% hold doctorates, 50% have earned Masters Degrees, 14% have some postgraduate study, and 20% have a Bachelor’s degree. Only 29% hold library degrees. 90% are freelance, back of the book indexers, and 60% of those work part-time. But if you don’t have a degree, don’t let that limit you. A degree means you have had the time/$ to make yourself noticed to a certain part of the world; the lack thereof does NOT mean you can’t do the work.


Related Question

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To become an indexer, start with these three actions:

Take formal training

Formal coursework is highly recommended. The Education and Training page lists several distance-learning programs as well as in-person courses offered in Canada.

In choosing a course, indexer Martha Osgood says, “What you want to look for in a course should be: a LOT of practice indexes with heavy feedback and as much discussion with others as possible.”

We also suggest asking other indexers for their recommendations.

Join a society of indexers

While membership in a society is not a professional requirement, joining one will give your career a huge boost, even before you start your training. For it is here that you will

  • Meet other indexers who can help you get started
  • Access more resources to build your skills and your business
  • List your services on the find-an-indexer page of your society’s website when you are ready to take on clients.

Use professional indexing software

In most of the training programs, you will be creating your indexes using the demo versions of the specialized software programs. However, you can download these demo versions at any time.

Functionally, they all do the same thing: take your entries, sort them alphabetically or by page number, manipulate them with a click or a keystroke, filter them for ease of editing, and produce an index to the publisher’s specifications in the format demanded by the book designer.

Each interface, however, is different. Try creating small indexes in each program to find the interface that best suits you.


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In the early 2000s, indexer Martha Osgood posted a series of popular articles in the “Novice Notes” section of her website, Backwordsindexing.com. Here is an extract from one of her articles.

The first thing to recognize is that YOU are in charge.

Freelance income is dependent upon the number of books contracted, hours worked per week, speed and experience levels. It takes marketing (it’s a numbers game), experience (speed, accuracy), repeat business (quality work), and time (2-5 years) to build up to the good income levels .

This is honest, skilled work, not a scheme to get rich quick.

The second thing is that there is a lot more to indexing than meets the eye. Following all the rules is easy (with a lot of practice and feedback); it is the art of indexing that is hard. Don’t forget this as you read on.

And the third thing is to re-read the second thing and think about it. I had to learn, through 6-8 in depth indexes and peer reviews, how to pay attention at that level, and I STILL find in reviews the IndexPeers do for me that I can improve. The level of detail was a real surprise to me.

Now consider your own personality and your ideal work-day:

  • Does working in isolation mean solitude, or loneliness?
  • Do you like to work without much guidance?
  • Would it frustrate you that the reader (and your editor!) is eternally invisible?
  • How would you feel about the repetition (double postings and cross references)?
  • Can you tolerate the minutiae of editing your index?
  • Can you cope with the concentration and human memory requirements?
  • Will the agony of deciding on the exactly right word or phrase with the proper keyword—over and over again—wear you down, or satisfy your obsessions?
  • Can you happily balance the user-friendly aspects of the index against the deadline and space limitation an editor may place on you?
  • Do you prefer working 8 to 5, or would life be easier with mid-day naps and taking your elderly aunt to a two-hour lunch?
  • Do you love the idea of baking a cake and doing laundry while you work?
  • Do office politics drive you nuts or is it fun?
  • Can your budget tolerate an irregular income?
  • Can you take vacations when the opportunity arises, or do you prefer to plan ahead?
  • When you can’t sleep at night, do you like to be productive or do you prefer to watch TV?

Will this work drive you batty-bonkers sooner rather than later—or do you dream of putting everything in its proper slot in a big roll-top desk?

As Do Mi Stauber has said on Index-L, “Are you confused-frustrated or confused-excited? The difference matters.”

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