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Adding an Index to Business Documents with Microsoft Word

For technical writers, a well-crafted index helps organize your material, in particular when you get to the production stage.

By creating an index, you can manage the overall document more easily, retrieve topics faster, and update sections more accurately.

What is an Index?

Think about it: If you did not create an index, you would have to trawl through the entire document, line-by-line and page-by-page, to find each topic that you wished to change. An index is a terrific time-saver; it lists the topics with their corresponding page numbers so you can find things faster.

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For example, the index of a document on Java will list topics such as Packages, Classes, J2EE and other such items. The index helps the reader jump backwards and forwards through the document, retrieving the topic that interests them.

As you have probably noticed, we have used the word topic when referring to indexes. In general, topics get indexed in a document, although you can also index other entries.

Most indexes will include the following entries:

  • Terms e.g. J2EE
  • Phrases
  • Symbols
  • Subjects that spans a range of pages

Compiling topics for an Index

There are several approaches to creating an index. However, based on our experience, the following approach works quite well:

  1. While writing, keep a list of all the topics, terms, commands, screen names, and functions in the document. Each of these is a potential index item.
  2. After completing the document, check your list for omissions and enter any missing topics.

    What you are doing here is gathering all the topics that users will look for in the index section and then building the index accordingly.
  3. For each topic, use singular nouns or plural nouns.

    Choose the noun form that best fits your information.

    For example, use verbs for tasks, such as how to type of information.

    Use the same form for the verbs; for example, use the -ing form.

    You may also need to list the same topic several times: for example, "deleting files," "how to delete ­" and 'deletions' all refer to the same action; all of these are candidates for indexing.
  4. Use synonyms for words and phrases on your topic list.

    You can also cross-reference topics in the document. For example, you can cross-reference "removing files" and "erasing files" in the index by saying, "See deleting files."

How to mark words as index entries


Creating the index is typically the last task in the production process. In Microsoft Word, the steps involved are quite straightforward:

1.      Highlight the word you want to add to the index.

2.      Select Insert | Index and Tables to open the dialog box.

3.      Click Mark Entry from the buttons at the right of the screen,

4.      When you have added all the entries, click Close.

To create the index

After you have marked all the entries, you can then create the index.

1.      Go to the last page of the document.

2.      Click in the page, as this is where your index will appear.

3.      Select Insert | Index and Tables to open the dialog box that you see below.

4.      Select a format. The Preview Pane displays the different formats.

5.      Click OK to create the index.

Tip: The generated index appears as text with a grey background. However, the printed document doesn't display this background.

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To edit an index entry

When producing large documents, errors will no doubt occur for different reasons. In this situation, you need to edit the entries, and then regenerate the index.

To edit the entries, you activate the "show hidden text" feature in MS Word. The shortcut to display this is: CRTL+SHIFT 8.

In Word, when you mark an index entry, it inserts an XE (Index Entry) field. To change an index entry, you modify the text in the index entry field.

  1. If you don't see the XE fields, click Show/Hide on the Standard toolbar.
  2. You can do one of the following:
  • To edit an index entry, change the text inside the quotation marks or.
  • To delete an index entry, select the entire index entry field, including the braces {}, and then press DELETE.

Note: Don't edit the index directly. Avoid typing in index entries, as after you regenerate the index, all changes will be lost.

To update an index after editing the entries, move the cursor anywhere into the index and press F9.

To locate an index field

You can locate index fields, by opening Edit | Find | Special and selecting the field option.

Remember to make the fields visible first, as otherwise nothing will be displayed.

MS Word offers many useful features for technical writers and editors alike, such as the ability to create indexes as discussed above.

Nonetheless, there is no substitute for real experience when it comes to producing technical documentation.

Always double-check the final index before you print the document. Though indexing tools offer considerable benefits, there are prone to idiosyncrasies and can trip up the best of us.

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