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Should indexes have letter heads?
A survey by Seth A. Maislin

This question (paraphrased here) was asked to several indexers: "Do you think that indexes should have letter heads?" Some of their responses are included below.

Indexers were asked to consider three different styles of indexing:

  • Option A: Letter heads.
              abacus, 000
              alabaster, 000
              axis, 000
    	  bombastic noises, 000
    	  Charles River, 000
  • Option B: No letter heads, just space.
              abacus, 000
              alabaster, 000
              axis, 000
    	  bombastic noises, 000
    	  Charles River, 000
  • Option C: Not even space.
              abacus, 000
              alabaster, 000
              axis, 000
    	  bombastic noises, 000
    	  Charles River, 000

From Indexers Who Prefer Option A.

"The letters prevent the reader from being hit with nothing but teeny (in many indexes) and monotonous walls of type."

"I would keep them in an index containing numbers and/or symbols at the beginning (with an appropriate heading for that group) as it may be a bit disconcerting without them."

"I just think it's a lot easier to read."

"For those of us who need to run through the alphabet mentally before remembering if J comes before K..., letter heads help a lot.

"[In a discussion on indexes,] one otherwise fine index was set aside because it did NOT have letter heads. Some people perceived that as a flaw."

From Indexers Who Prefer Option B.

"I normally double-space my indexes, and I quadruple-space between alphabetic groups, whether or not I add the header letters."

"My own preference is for no letter headings -- so often with letters Q, X etc. there's only one entry."

"I don't think that letter headings are really necessary and jettisoning them would certainly save space. After all, it's pretty obvious by the main headings what the letter groupings are."

"If space is limited I think it would be acceptable to eliminate the alpha heads and leave a line space before a new letter group begins."

"I think a space before the first entry for each letter is quite sufficient. The letters themselves seem to me to be overkill; they just take up space...."

"If I had my druthers, I'd remove the letter.... I think it is a frill to use the letters."

"[A]re publishers worried about insulting the intelligence of their readers, I wonder?"

Unanimous Opinions on Option C.


"I think this choice makes it well-nigh impossible for readers to find material in the index."

"...The spaces between the letter groupings ... is a user-friendly visual cue made even more necessary by the absence of letter headings."

"I would go to lengths to avoid [Option C]. I think that it would make the index slower to use."

"I think readability is an issue for any index user. ... The more white space ... we can add to an index, the easier it will be to scan and pick out just the information sought."

"Only a designer who isn't trying to read anything in the index could think this is a good idea..."

Other General Comments

"A lot of this style question depends on what the publisher wants."

"...[I] find this to be one area where my publishers almost always have a style they want followed. Naturally I follow their guidelines."

"This was done to one of my indexes (after it left my hands), and the publisher responsible was advised in plain terms not to do it again."

Copyright 1999 Seth A. Maislin


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