Curating; or, building the manuscript index

Back in early 2018, I composed a series of blog posts about getting started with turning a dissertation into a book, including researching the publishing process, targeting series, oft-circulated myths, and, in five parts, how to fund it. Then, at the end of the revision process and on the cusp of drafting new content, I wrote on the strategies for revision I had found most useful, seeming an appropriate moment to reflect on what exactly the revision process looks like. Such nuts-and-bolts queries I have found difficult to pin down from those who do have books, as well as in all the metaliterature, so I decided to document them here while I take time off from my normal reviewing.

I am happy to say the draft manuscript is in for final review! In that grey time of the holidays where all one can do is wait and hope, I have a pair of posts reflecting on the process driven by data I collected each step of the way. In this post, I offer a process to tackle the dreaded index, whose compiling has greatly changed in the wake of new Style tools in MS Word and Google Docs. This is something I realized you can totally do for yourself without a tremendous amount of labor or farming the task out to an inexperienced (grad) student.

It’s alive! The manuscript lives together in print for the first time. October 1, 2019.

Of course everyone’s processes are different, and different kinds of projects also necessitate unique approaches. Different presses will also give you different options as to how to handle the index (which I discuss at the end of this post). One thing I have realized in conversations with mentors is that there is a certain cachet given to the “boutique” index, a highly refined and curated reference organization that goes beyond just where to find proper nouns. In a publishing sector where so many books will be made available in e-formats and as individual chapters, to build a basic index of nouns is somewhat redundant in such a context where the Find function (⌘+F, &c.) does the job just as well. To create a basic index sans page numbers with efficiency and metacognitive pay-offs for your writing, you might consider the following techniques.

Print a hard copy

I found it productive to create an index of just terms (not page numbers) for each chapter at the same time as I made a bibliography and abstract for each. As I mentioned in a previous post, doing it all at the end when you’re slammed up against a deadline makes for unpleasant work. Instead, print off a hard copy of the chapter you’ve just finished revising. Select two highlighters with which to work: one for marking indexical terms, and the other for missing images and figures. This process is great for double-duty if you plan to incorporate images. This process is terrible for proofreading. Rather, skim for proper nouns, keywords, and major concepts to which you routinely return. This also offers a handy snapshot of what gets capitalized, how you plan to deal with dates and numbers, among other conventions you’ll need to normalize.

Collate by chapter

Now that you’ve got a working set of terms, I recommend using Google Docs to house this “By Chapter” list. I also recommend using their version of a Styles pane, which will auto-generate a clickable Outline in the left-hand column. (Example here.)

  1. Organize the doc by chapter title headings.
  2. With your cursor, highlight the whole of the heading for your first chapter.
  3. From the menu, find the drop-down menu for Styles. Wedged between your percentage view and font type, its default is typically “Normal Text.” Select “Heading 1” > “Apply Heading 1.”
  4. Repeat for all of your chapter headers.

This should auto-populate a clickable outline. If it does not appear immediately, from the “View” drop-down menu select “Show Document Outline.” MS Word has all of these tools available as well, but doesn’t populate an outline that is as intuitive as the Google online version, at least that I find. This becomes particularly useful as you add content from individual chapters along the way, as well as when you make your complete index.

Partial image of the index view from Google Docs, organized by chapter.

Combine in toto

Once you have generated all of your terms for individual chapters, duplicate this Google Docs file (“File” > “Make a copy”). This new working document should be where you combine all of the terms, alphabetizing, creating tailored sub-groups, and indicating cross-references. Don’t delete what you think might be duplicates until you have completed alphabetizing. Not only might you lose a term, but seeing duplicates can help you decide on which convention to use.

  1. Remove all of the section headers.
  2. List the alphabet from A to Z, and use the same Style strategy as listed above to tag them each as a section header. (Example here.)
  3. Start alphabetizing your terms using copy-and-paste, moving easily around the alphabet using the left-hand clickable outline you generated.
Partial image of the index view from Google Docs, organized all together.

Tailor meaningful sub-categories

As you’ve worked to combine your terms, you probably started to realize that you had sub-species within your list of terms that might more productively live together rather than be distributed across the alphabet. It is at this stage I recommend considering the indexes of those books which are your immediate interlocutors to see if there are conventional subgrouping as well as cross-references.

Such tailored sub-groups can speak powerfully to the methodological commitments of your project. For example, my manuscript uses as its archive not only extant plays, but lost plays as well. I created a subcategory for “Playtexts” under “P” so that both extant and non-extant plays could live side-by-side. It is conventional in the field of theatre history, however, to italicize the extant work while putting the titles of lost plays in double quotation marks. Likewise, I grouped all theatre-makers, playwrights and players, early modern and contemporary, under that “T” heading to demonstrate both the fact that folx in the theatre industry played multiple roles as well as reinforce the fact that repertory (my subject area) is being employed by contemporary filmmakers. The delight of seeing Jordan Peele next to George Peele has yet to wear off.

Another investment of the project has been to put the playing companies with which Shakespeare was affiliated in the context of the fifty and more operating in this period that go unconsidered. Therefore, all the companies have been put alongside one another in a “C” subcategory. While all the companies are placed alphabetically throughout the index, each entry lists a cross-reference (i.e., “see Companies”). That way, any readers looking for the page runs related to “Chamberlain’s players” will also see Hunsdon’s, Morley’s, and even a trumpet troupe patroned by the Vice-Admiral. A similar grouping was used under “V” for venues, putting inn-yards and court spaces in conversation with the outdoor theatres, as well as generating further Peele-like delights such as listing the “Royal Shakespeare Company” after “Rose, The.”

Conceptual categories are trickier, depending largely on the specific claims of your project and whether that is something that can in fact be reflected in searchable terms. Drama has specific affordances, like the fact that I may reference a character in a play who also was a living person. In order to make sure they don’t get conflated, I listed the historical person where they should be alphabetically, and then the dramatic part that happens to share their name under a sub-list of “Parts” under “P.” To see a few different examples of the ways my draft index reflects other ideological kinds of organizations, see the subcategories “Collaboration,” “Habits of spatial arrangement,” and “Material affordances” in the previously linked example.

Export to MS Word

Once completed, use the export function (“File” > “Download” > “Microsoft Word [.docx]”) to create a final version that you can polish and submit with your final manuscript to the press for review. While presses will give you a range of options on how to submit an index (and for some you can negotiate them having to take care of it entirely), the industry standard remains that whatever is received, it is still done so as a Word document in Times New Roman. This is one reason, aside from the clickable outline, that this method is preferable over say a sortable list of terms in MS Excel or Google Sheets, which can’t be easily exported or used to curate meaningful sub-categories. If alphabetizing sounds dreadful to you (as the daughter of a librarian, it happens to be a soothing form of meditation for me), using Sheets to alphabetize and then copying over that order can be a useful step to add to the process offered above.


Presses will give you different options on how to submit the index. In my experience for this first book, I have come across the following:

  • Index prepared from the manuscript, structured with main headings, subheadings, cross references and concepts using the manuscript page numbers. This can be done yourself or by hiring a freelance indexer. Production will update the index with proof page numbers and an index proof will be provided to you at the text proof stage of the production process.
  • Provide a list of key index terms. The index, with proof page numbers, will then be generated by our production partner and provided to you at text proof stage.
  • Highlight terms to be indexed in the manuscript word file. The index will be generated as above.
  • Index embedded in MS Word manuscript; i.e., index terms and page ranges are embedded in the manuscript using the MS Word indexing tool or other indexing software.

This, of course, will vary greatly from press to press. The list above is intended to provide a range of the kinds of things you might encounter. Depending on what they require, there are further steps. If you have to give them page numbers and can’t use the MS Word feature to auto-populate the index (and there are so many tutorials on how to do this, e.g., WikiHow), then using literal index cards has been reported to me as the best method. Write each of your key terms at the top of a single card. Then, use your highlighted pages to identify the page number of each term, writing it down on its matching index card.

Combining the individual indices all together was a powerfully metacognitive task for me, personally. Seeing the project in this snapshot of terms helped me revise the new introduction, as I could now see in a new way where the points of emphasis and innovations of the project lay in its bones—the wood for the trees, as it were. At least, I think having been putting those pieces together slowly over the course of revising allowed the curation process to be one of reflection rather than drudgery.

Puck, as ever, remains skeptical in this regard.

Puck, impatient for me to return to work. December 1, 2019, Portland, Oregon.

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