The Index: A Nonfiction Tool

I’m not sure when I first learned what an index was, but I suspect it was when my tenth grade English teacher required each member of the class to write a small research paper. My subject was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg. Once I realized there were no books on Dr. Mudd in the local library, I felt great dismay, thinking I would have to read many, many books on the Civil War and Lincoln in the hope of finding a mention of Mudd in some of them.

But then, sitting in the library, thumbing through one of the Lincoln books, I noticed something called an Index at the back of the book. In a single glance I inferred what the index provided: an alphabetical list of names, places, and subject matter within the book, with a page number detailing where each mention occurred.

Eureka! I wouldn’t have to read countless books after all, tediously combing through each for a crumb of information. All I really had to do was check the indexes of countless books and read only the chapters (I never read only the pages) in which Dr. Mudd appeared.

Future experiences, especially once I was in college, elevated my appreciation of the index as a nonfiction tool — one that allowed a peruser or a researcher to understand the topics (and the depth of the topics) within each book. Yes, a table of contents should give the reader a general idea of the topics covered, but only an index shows the details of those topics.

sc004dc527Take my best-known nonfiction title, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. The table of contents tells the reader that in the section titled “The League Years” I have a chapter titled “Rose Gacioch,” which starts on page 114 and ends on page 120.

But the index references Rose Gacioch in the following manner (with italicized numbers refering to photos):

Gacioch, Rose, 114-20
    All Star Ranger Girls and, 35, 73, 74-75, 115
    retirement, 120
    Rockford Peaches and, 115, 116, 118-19, 135, 138
    South Bend Blue Sox and, 116

Simply by skimming this index information, the reader might infer that Rose Gacioch played for the All Star Ranger Girls, the Rockford Peaches and (perhaps) the South Bend Blue Sox. She did in fact play for all three teams. If somebody researching Rose Gacioch used only the table of contents, they would read pages 114-120 — and would miss the fact that significant information on Gacioch appears in two other chapters, neither of them in “The League Years” and neither of them titled “Rose Gacioch.” Not consulting an index can lead researchers to false assumptions and less information than if they had used the index.

When I teach nonfiction writing, I find that some people in the class don’t know what an index is. They think it’s a table of contents. When shown an index, they appear perplexed, as if they’ve never seen one in their lives. I don’t know how or why this happens: perhaps they have never searched a nonfiction book for information of any kind. This ignorance of indexes extends to search engines such as Google Images: type in “book index” and you’ll see photos of both indexes and tables of content, as if they were one and the same.

In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, a reader can look at the table of contents and see that I divide the topic into 25 chapters. Dialogue is one of those chapters, and the table of contents shows that Dialogue begins on page 163 and ends on page 172.

But wait. Look at the index. Under “Dialogue” the indexer provided the following information:

Dialogue
    avoiding exposition in, 150-151
    character development and, 163-168
    oblique revelations through, 168-171
    plot advancement through, 171-172
    without conflict, 90-92

This breakdown of the dialogue topics I wrote about gives a reader so much more information than does a chapter title. For one thing, the five subheads tell the reader some of the suggestions I make in regard to writing dialogue. They also indicate that I discuss dialogue outside the chapter entitled “Dialogue.” Specifically, I write about it on pages 150-151 and also on pages 90-92.

An index that works the way it’s supposed to work is somewhat forgettable. That is, the reader uses the index, is pleased with it, and continues with his or her research, giving the index not a second thought . . . until she needs to find something again and can’t remember where it was in the book. But when an index doesn’t work well — when it’s too shallow (not enough subheads), too ludicrously machine-made (words, not concepts) — the reader definitely notices. I have refused to buy books whose indexes look shallow and lack levels of indexing. In this, I’m not alone: many nonfiction readers refuse to buy books that have no indexes or poor indexes.

If you aren’t already a fan of indexes, learn to be one — you’ll soon find that the index is an indispensable tool for nonfiction books.

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Sharon Sliter Johnson created the index for two of Barbara Gregorich’s books: Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball and Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.