Top Tips on Writing an Index for Your Paper

The prospect of creating an accurate index for a technical paper can be daunting, especially for someone who is new to technical writing.

In truth, these days it is commonplace not to include an index in an online help file. Instead, there is more reliance on search engine functionality. However, in some cases, for certain audiences and clearly in print-version documents, a well-compiled index is an invaluable – and often indispensable - feature.  

Take, for instance, someone who documents some type of enterprise or business application. This can include countless tables of code, including code for customization with the fields displayed on the computer screen; various invoice types, and a range of email-able and/or printable documents that are accessible to users through different parts of a particular system. When users need help on any given code table, it may be possible for them to look it up by its name, or if the precise name is not known, it may be possible to browse the system’s index while searching for, for example, every code table beginning with “F1.” If such an index did not exist, finding information would be a great deal more difficult.   

It is easy to be reminded of the extent to which people depend on search files and accurate indexes, especially when they buy an eBook or some type of technical guide. Say, for example, you want to learn CSS. It can be exciting to find a Kindle version of a book you are looking for since this is a quick way of obtaining information. Indeed, you may even think that eBooks are a great way of clearing bookshelf space or at least of clearing shelves that are currently packed with reference and fact-checking books. However, it can be disappointing to then find that the publisher’s program for PCs does not have a search and that the index for a particular book might just be a list of hundreds of words with no page numbers or links. This annoyance may even prompt you to email the publisher’s support team to express your disappointment. If you are lucky, the publisher might update their system to include a search feature, but they might not.

In an ideal world, one of the best and fastest ways for creating an index is to look for an indexer you could hire i.e. a person who earns their living creating indexes. Indeed, most good indexers are never happier than when they are given the puzzling job of creating a well-structured and comprehensive index. However, often people do not have enough time or money to hire an indexer, and you - the writer – will have to create your own index. If you have never created an index before, the following are a few useful tips to get you started: 

  1. Begin by marking out the main headings for your topic. Include one index entry or more for each heading. Remember to give some consideration to capitalization. As a rule of thumb, lower case letters should be used except in the case of proper nouns. This system is a good starting point for doing a first round through the document you want to index.
  2. Think about any additional words or word combinations that users are likely to search under to find particular topics. Go back over your topic’s main headings once again and think about what additional words a user might associate with this topic. If, for instance, a topic is about rebooting a computer, you may want to add a further entry under the term “restart” for people who may be familiar with this particular term.
  3. Try looking for keywords in every topic. Go through every topic trying to pick out keywords that users might use in their searches. This could include the title (or name) of menus, windows, dialog boxes, or less familiar terms, for any topic that has a definition of the applicable term included.
  4. See if you can develop synonyms for keywords. Look for synonyms for any keywords you selected in the last round. Think about your users and the terms that might be better known to them.
  5. Do a bit of brainstorming to find additional words that a user might use in their search. Consider the product you have been writing about and then do some brainstorming to see if you can come up with any additional words that users might search under.
  6. Read back over your index when you have completed it. As is the case with all types of writing, make sure you read back over your index once you have created it, checking carefully for typos and spelling mistakes.