Becoming an indexer: what makes a good indexer?

Posted on: 10/11/2023

Office worker sat at a desk in front of a computerBookmark Content, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

This is the first of a series of posts discussing how to become an indexer. In this post, Tanya Izzard discusses the attributes of a good indexer.


Many indexers come from a library and information science background, but almost any previous career will give you knowledge and experience that will help you find your indexing niche. The level of subject knowledge you will need will depend on the type of indexing you want to do: indexing of scholarly books obviously needs a higher level of knowledge. Useful knowledge for an indexing career can come from hobbies and interests as well as work and study. I’ve never studied art history, but years of reading it and going to galleries have taught me enough to make this a subject area I can offer.

Indexing can be done alongside other work, or as part of a portfolio career – it’s especially compatible with copyediting and proofreading, and a number of our members combine two or more of these roles.

If you’re looking for a change of lifestyle or a career that can be continued into retirement, indexing can be an ideally flexible job. Indexing projects are normally fairly short, usually being completed over two or three weeks – although a short simple job may only take a few days, and there are some monster projects out there that would take much longer.

Skills and attributes

Indexers need to understand the texts they work on  – yes, we really do read it all – and analyse in-depth concepts so we can create an index that works as a map of the content of a book. For that reason, you’ll need to be an attentive, insightful reader with a strong grasp of the English language and a wide vocabulary.

You’ll also need excellent attention to detail, both to make sure you’ve identified and disambiguated similar concepts, places and people in an index, and ensure that your index is accurate in terms of transcription and page numbers. Different publishers have different requirements for index presentation, punctuation and style; while indexing software makes consistent index presentation easier, you still need to be able to check that everything is looking as it should.

Empathy is an important part of the indexing process: we consider the needs of our readers and how they might search for the topics and information contained in the book when we’re creating index headings. You’ll also need to be good at completing methodical, accurate work to deadlines. Indexing often happens towards the end of the publishing process, and a fast turnaround of work can sometimes be required. Even for a non-urgent project, the deadline is often non-negotiable. Publishing schedules can often slip, however, so you need to be flexible enough to manage this.

Indexers are usually self-employed, so you will need to be prepared to manage your own time, record-keeping and financial administration, including your tax return. You need to be able to stay motivated when working alone on a project, and be good at managing relationships with clients.

Equipment and workspace

Most of us work from home, so you’ll need a quiet space to work in, a reliable computer and a comfortable desk set-up. There are various forms of indexing software available to help with the process, and macros can take some of the grunt work out of transcription, as well as improving accuracy.  While online reference tools are invaluable for checking names and other details, reference books are still invaluable – I use my concise Oxford English Dictionary most days.

Finding work and getting paid

Many of our members get most of their work through their entry in our Professional Directory. Contacts and recommendations are also important, and you will need to undertake some marketing to maintain a steady rate of work, initially by researching and contacting editors, and – once you’ve built a client base – by reminding them you are available for work. Other indexers can be a useful source of work and recommendations. I got my first projects through a recommendation from another indexer, and now I try to do the same for those just starting out.

Fees vary depending on the client, the complexity of the book and the indexer’s experience, but our recommended rates can give you an idea of how much you might earn for a typical project.

To find out more, visit our Indexing as a Career page and try the pre-enrolment exercises to see if you’ve got the makings of an indexer.

About Tanya Izzard

Tanya Izzard indexes scholarly and trade books in the humanities, producing standard and embedded indexes for authors and publishers. She has been indexing full-time since 2017 and is an Advanced Professional Member of SI and the Marketing Director on the SI Executive Board.

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