Why Do I Need an Index?
You need an index for one primary reason. Accessibility. What do I mean by accessibility? I mean the ability to find information in your manual. If you cant find the information, then the manual is not very useful. An index is one of the main tools readers use to find information in any type of written material. I always turn to a manuals index when I want to find information. I bet you do too. I also get frustrated when the index is not complete and I have trouble finding what I need.
Indexing a document is an art and profession unto itself. You can hire a professional indexer to create your index. If you plan to sell your product commercially and want to compete with the major players in your field, hiring an indexer may be the way to go.
You can, however, create a good index yourself if you follow a few indexing tips.
Tip #1. As you plan and write your manual, make a list of the topics, terms, commands, screen names, and functions you are writing about. Each of those is potentially an entry in your index.
Tip #2. After you finish the text of the manual, go back over your list and fill in any topics you left out. Be sure to include as many of the words and phrases you think someone will look for.
Tip #3. If the system or process you are documenting is already in use, you can ask current users for insights into functions and words they would use to look up information.
Tip #4. Go back over your list and make the words consistent. That is, use mostly singular nouns or plural nouns. Choose the noun form that best fits your information. You may also need to use verbs to cover such areas as how to delete or print information. Put all your verbs in the same form. Generally you use the -ing form of a verb in the index.
Tip #5. Decide if you need to use one, two, or three levels of entries in your index. Using two levels is probably most common. The number of levels you need relates to the complexity of information you are indexing. A two-level index might look something like this:
A three-level index entry might look like this:
Tip #6. Think of synonyms for the words and phrases on your list. Not everyone uses the same words to describe a concept. For example, if you need to index "deleting files," your index should also include "removing files" and "erasing files." This is another place where current users can be helpful.
Tip # 6. Use cross references to send users to the term you use in the manual. In the examples above, the index entries for "removing files" and "erasing files" should say "See deleting files." This serves two purposes. First, it helps users learn the term you use for the concept of removing files. Second, it lets users know what to look for when they turn to the page of the manual. They wont find a reference to removing files, but they will see information about deleting files.
Tip #7. Use your word processing software to create the index based on your list. Most word processors will create an index for you. Now that you have your list of terms and phrases, your software can help you create an accurate and complete index. Using it also helps if you revise the text. The software should automatically update the page numbers. You may need to tell the system to update the index, but it will be faster than trying to update an index you created manually.
Tip #8. Proofread your index carefully. You may find typos or other errors. You may also decide to rearrange the index after you see the whole thing. Check all the page references if time permits. You may find that the software did some strange things that you need to correct.
If you use these tips along with your knowledge of the manual you are indexing, you can create a useful index yourself. Happy indexing!
Last update: October 15, 1998