Indexing in Paperback Books

indexing your paperback

An Index is one facet that makes a paperback complete. This is because it’s a system that allows us to search for and locate the information we need in a quick and easy manner.

When we are searching for information in a book, the Table of Contents also comes to mind, right? It’s also helpful, but not as much as an index which is more specific. In a nutshell, an index makes a book more useful to the reader.

In this article, I’ll share actionable information about what makes up a good index. And how to create one for your paperback book.

What does an index include?

An index is an accessibility guide. It’s designed to help the reader locate information easier and faster. It’s always structured in alphabetical order. It’s an ordered arrangement of the most substantive terms in a book.

To craft an exceptional index for your paperback, pick two or three bestselling paperbacks. Study the index in each book. Note the structure and the ease with which you found the terms you were looking for.

The following are the key components of an index:

  • Terms
  • Heading
  • Subheading
  • Subsubheadings
  • Indents
  • Locators
  • Cross-references
  • Entry blocks

Now, let’s look at what each entails.


The most fundamental parts of an index are terms. These are words, phrases, or symbols that represent a concept. The terms are the information that readers are trying to locate. Apart from the locators, every other thing we see on a page showing an index are terms.


A heading is a single top-level topic appearing in the index. They’re also described as main entries or main headings.


A subheading is a single entry under a main heading. It’s also known as subdivisions or subentries. It’s indented. That’s to say, it’s justified to the right underneath the main heading.


A subsubheading is a heading at the third level. Indexing software provides six levels. But in practice, indexers hardly ever go beyond this third level. It’s also indented. It’s justified to the right of the subheading.


As mentioned earlier, indents show the position/level of sub and sub-sub headings. They’re also used for turnover (that’s when some words are too long to fit the column width). It’s vital to use two different sizes for these two different indent types. So that readers can differentiate them with ease.


A locator shows the reader where to find the information they seek. Page numbers, figure numbers, and URLs are locators. When the content being sought extends over more than a page, use a locator range.

As an example, let’s say, Goal-setting is the theme of your book, from pages 67-70. In your index, 67-70 is a locator range. It’s a range because it’s not a single page reference. A locator string is when you attach several locators to the heading. Example: Goal setting 67, 68, 69. The page numbers are locator strings.


A cross-reference directs the user to another heading in the index. The most common types are, see cross-references and also cross-references. Use see also cross-references when there are some locators. While you should use see cross-references when there are no locators.

Entry blocks

An entry block is a “unit” of an index. It refers to all the text under a single heading. In other words, a unit refers to the subheadings, susbsubheading, locators, and references that make up an entry.

We’ve explored the key parts of an index. Now, let’s look at what to include and what to exclude from an index.

What to index and what not to index?

Before you can craft a helpful index, you ought to think like a reader. An index must guide your reader to the most vital parts of your book. Ensure that the index is user-friendly.

So, you could start with your TOC, and then check each page where you’ve written about a theme.  You must comb through each page, identifying the most vital concepts and noting them down. The indexing covers only the body of the text.

What to exclude from your index?

The following is a handy list of the specifics not to include:

  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Table of contents
  • Epigraphs
  • Acknowledgments
  • Appendix
  • Notes
  • Source citations
  • Non-essential terms

You use indexes, right? Think of the best ones and model them. The best ones have a general heading and underneath are key concepts. The key concepts act like keys (pun intended) which readers can use to access more content. So, what to include in an index is a process of prioritization and elimination.

Say you’ve written a  book titled Mastering Martial Arts. In it, you profiled 1o different arts. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of the arts covered. One area your index must cover is Locks. So, you’ll have a block entry covering locks. Cross-reference it to relevant parts of the book where you mentioned also locks. Even if they are under a different art, say as used in Judo, and even what they’re called in Japanese.

You should include entries that reflect the way you would access the book if you were a reader (and not the writer).

The indexing ought to be the last thing to do in the book. You can’t get started on the index and still be making adjustments to the text.

Study each chapter, as you’d need to decide which are the most vital terms. The terms that a potential user would look for when trying to learn about specific concepts.

In the preceding paragraph, we looked at what to include and what to exclude from an index. Now, let’s proceed to what’s involved in creating an index for your paperback.

How to create an index for your paperback?

You’re curious about how long the index should be, right? There’s no one size fits all tip. The index should be as long as it can serve the reader, but no longer. The rule of thumb is that it shouldn’t be over 5% of the number of pages in the book. You do not capitalize index entries. The exception is if they refer to proper nouns. And references to images are in bold or italics.

I’ll suggest you leverage MS Word’s index function. It’s a simple process. But don’t use Word unless you’re also going to publish your book in that format. If you’re using another publishing format, MS Word’s pagination may not transfer.

You’ll start by painstakingly going through the text and noting down all the important terms. As you’re doing this, focus on the words the reader is likely to use when searching for information about the topic.

You’ll also need to distinguish between the key terms (main entries) and the subordinate terms (subentries). Remember that the index should be the last thing you do. That means you have paginated the book. Then, use the following simple steps in Word:

Mark Basic Entries

Mark Special Entries

Insert Index

Review and change

While going through the text again, go to References, under Index, click on Mark Entry. You’ll see a dialog box. If there’s a need you can edit the text shown to the exact word you want, which reflects how the reader would search. To capture a repeated main entry term, select Mark All. To mark a single occurrence of a term, select Mark.

After the selection, it will show a bracketed XE notation in the text. To make it invisible, click on the Paragraph tab in the Home tab.

Choose the appropriate entry from the Mark Entry dialog box to create different entries. You can use that to create subentries. , there shouldn’t be more than a subentry to a subentry. That’s the main entry and two subentries. And, to create a cross-reference, choose it from the dialog. To create a figure, table, or image reference, highlight it and click Mark Entry. Fill in the right entry and select italic or bold.

Repeat the process as needed and when you’re satisfied, go through the index to be sure it’s exactly what you have in mind. Then click the section of the book where you’d like to have it. Then click Insert Index, in the References tab of the Index section. Then select the style, the number of columns, and page number alignment. Click Ok and you’re done!

In the preceding paragraphs, we explored what’s an index, what to include, and what not to include in your paperback index, and we also looked at tips for crafting an awesome index.

Finally, we wrapped things up by looking at how to use MS Word to craft your Index. As you can see, crafting an index is a vital part of an outstanding paperback. It’s also not a difficult process.

One simple takeaway tip is: find two or three awesome paperbacks and model your index on them.

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