Do I Need an Index?

Many non-fiction writers ask whether they need an index. Nobody uses an index, do they?

First of all, a refresher. Many of us, especially tech writers, seem to send out long documents that are in less than “finished” condition because no one wants to give us enough time to do them right.

That “no one” is often sales and marketing who have already “sold” the product before development has even begun. And unless you work for a forward-thinking employer, no one bothered to tell the Documentation department that the new product was even being considered, let alone bring you, or even your manager, in at Stage 1. You were very much an afterthought, until a potential business customer balked and said they want to see the documentation first. All of a sudden, marketing’s failure to plan ahead now constitutes your emergency. Or so they say. There are signs readily available to squelch that!

So, given that scenario, who has time to create an index? The fact is: long documentation without an index is useless. And sloppy, rushed documentation can be worse than no documentation. Until companies face those realities, customers will continue to inundate tech support with questions and receive unintelligible answers from persons with a heavy, non-native English accent. These questions should have been answered in the Getting Started Guide, Installation Guide, User Manual or Command Reference Manual, or whatever combination your employer provides!

Getting a product to market ahead of the competition isn’t smart marketing when it isn’t ready to be out there. Customers are becoming increasingly fed up with being manufacturers’ Beta testers.

That being said, there’s still the time problem with writing an index. And a real index is writing. It needs a lot of time allocated to do it properly. Some word processing programs and/or online help applications do a slick job of generating an index! And by itself, such an index is far, far better for the customer than nothing. But the results really still need an intelligent, thinking human being to fine tune it:

  • to add very much needed cross references that a computer can’t think of
  • to group topics efficiently
  • to combine sub-entries under main headings to avoid clutter and confusion, and so forth.

Indexing has very strict and tedious rules that can drive a person crazy. It’s much like picking lint off a carpet.

These rules don’t necessarily have to be followed exactly in the real world, but if you’re indexing textbooks, serious reference books, or other arcane material, they do have to be followed.

A good place to start is The Chicago Manual of Style, though it is less useful for technical material. I didn’t bother to purchase the latest edition but Indexing is probably still section 17 or you can always ask a friend to look in the Table of Contents. Otherwise, The Microsoft Manual of Style covers just about every scenario a technical writer would ever need.

Indexing Books by Nancy C. Mulvany is a good investment for indexers, no matter the field they’re working in.

Some universities offer occasional courses. There is also professional indexing software called Cindex.

Go to, which is the web site for the American Society for Indexing. They list many very helpful publications and resources. You may want to consider becoming a member if you’ll be doing a lot of indexing.

Disclaimer: My blog posts are statements of opinion only. I am not in the business of giving financial, legal, medical or any other type of advice. See Terms of Use and Disclaimer for further disclaimers.

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