Should all nouns in a book appear in a book’s index?

There are some publishers or authors that would immediately say “Yes!” to this question. They feel that any person, place, thing or idea that is mentioned in a book belongs in the index.

If you are an author, editor or publisher, here are a few examples of paragraphs from a few books that will help you see that including each and every noun in a book’s index is a mistake that will compromise the usability of the book’s index.

Example #1, from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, page 74:

“The writer is an infantryman. He knows that progress is measured in yards of dirt extracted from the enemy one day, one hour, one minute at a time and paid for in blood. The artist wears combat boots. He looks in the mirror and sees G.I. Joe.”

Here are the nouns in that paragraph: writer, infantryman, progress, yards, dirt, enemy, day, hour, minute, time, blood, artist, combat boots, mirror, G.I. Joe.

Do you see the problem with including every noun and noun phrase in the book’s index? Not only would it bloat the index (in fact you would actually have a concordance, which is not quite the same as an index), but if you were reading the book and looked up the term “yards” in the index and were led to this paragraph, would it contain what you expected? In fact in a book about being an artist, you would probably not look up that term at all. So why put it in the index? How about “dirt”, “day”, “hour”, “enemy”? Get the point? Unless the index directs the reader to truly relevant information about a subject, it will just disappoint the reader. A few entries like that and the reader will lose trust in the index and not bother using it at all. (By the way, The War of Art doesn’t contain an index, so we wrote one and posted it online here.)

But how about technical books? Wouldn’t every noun in such books be concrete, important items that need indexing? Well, take a look at the following example.

Example #2, from William Horton’s *Designing Web-Based Training*, page 311:

“…notice that the first and forth questions can be answered by looking at the picture. The second compares the mineral to the one other mineral whose hardness most people are familiar with. Most people could answer the third question by recalling that June is the month when many people get married and diamonds are used for engagement rings.”

Since the book is about how to design online training, the words “mineral”, “June”, “month”, “diamonds” and “engagement rings” are not pertinent to the theme of the book. They are just here as examples.

So next time you get ready to index a book, or to evaluate an index prepared by a professional indexer, remember that indexing every noun is not the way to create a quality index. Instead, evaluate whether each noun and noun phrase relates to the theme of the book and whether there is pertinent information about the topic on the page that you are referencing.

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