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Editing an index

This page is a checklist of things to check when editing an index.

  • The first word of an index entry (especially a level 1 entry) should be meaningful, something the reader is likely to be looking for.
  • In most cases, do not start an entry with a verb such as “using” or “displaying.” The reader is more likely to be looking for the thing being used or displayed. (In some cases, for example “printing,” such words might be appropriate; in most cases, they are not. You will need to use your judgement.)
  • Do not make a main entry (level 1) for the name of the product (the topic of the book) and then put numerous level 2 entries under it. Turn all those level 2 entries into level 1 entries. (Some topics do appropriately go under the name of the product, but they are the exceptions.)
  • If two or more topics start with the same word or phrase, in most cases they can be turned into level 2 entries under the common word.
  • Check for non-significant differences in capitalisation or plurals that cause separate index entries to appear, rather than one entry with more than one page number. Either make the entries identical, or make the difference explicit in level 2 entries.
  • Check for not enough detail. In most cases, any one index entry should not have more than two page numbers listed for it. If it has three or more page numbers listed, the entry probably should be split into subentries, to help readers find exactly what they are looking for. Sometimes two or more of the pages contain exactly or essentially the same information; in this case, simply remove the entry for one of the pages (usually you would leave the first one in).
  • Check for too much detail. The most common error here is to have a level 1 entry with several level 2 entries, where all the level 2s are on the same page (or on a series of pages, all identical). Usually the solution is to make the level 2s into level 1s and have the original level 1 entry as a main entry as well, but removing the subentries beneath it.
  • Make sure all important topics have a main entry (level 1), not just appearing as level 2 entries. A common problem is for parameter names to be listed as subentries under the command name, or for field names to be listed as subentries under the window or dialog name. Readers must then know what command to look up before they can find the parameter entry. This also often leads to long lists of subentries, all on the same page.
  • Don’t start entries with “how,” “what,” “why,” “where,” or similar words.
  • Don’t have a “see” reference to another entry that does not have subentries; repeat the page numbers on both entries.
  • Try to think of concepts and synonyms that readers might be likely to be looking for, and put them in the index as well.
  • Remove any irrelevant entries.
  • Do some random lookups in the book, to see whether the term or topic is in the index. If several random selections are not in the index, this suggests that a lot more work needs to be done.
  • Check that every chapter has at least one index entry. (Sometimes a chapter doesn’t get indexed, for example because it was reused from another source.)
  • In most cases, if a glossary term is indexed, the index should give at least one page number where the term is used in the text, not just a page in the glossary. (It is not necessary to put glossary page numbers in the index at all, but you can put them in if it seems useful for the audience of the book.)
  • If a main entry has subentries under it, change the main entry so that no page numbers print on the higher level.
  • If a main entry has only 1 subentry under it, combine the subentry into the main entry.
  • Avoid third level entries, unless there is a very good reason for them.

Last updated 30 January 1999