Get started with indexing

Indexing for beginners

Example of an index
Example of an index

Indexing is not a quick or simple process but it is very logical and can be very satisfying.

Advice from the Chicago Manual of Style
Manual indexing
Automatic indexing

The Chicago Manual Style

The complexity of the indexing enterprise is shown by the fact that the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual Style (CMS) has 64 pages about indexing (I have not seen the 17th edition). The list of entries in Chapter 16 on Indexes shows the many things that have to be considered. CMS very kindly allows free downloads of the 53-page Indexes chapter from the 15th edition.

However, MIT and the Wiley have simple documents that introduce the concepts a beginner needs to know about: how to handle names, abbreviations, compound terms and cross-references. (The documents refer to older versions of CMS and expect you to make manual lists. Don’t worry about the manual lists. They are not necessary because of the computer tools we have today.)


Some people think you can get Word to automatically mark your text for the index (automarking) but automarking does not happen without previous input from the author or editor. Here is an Indexing Example document.

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I suggest you download this one-page Indexing Example document to practice on. Create two versions, one for manual indexing and one for automatic indexing.

Things to think about

  1. Think about whether you will have capital letters for main entries. For example, in a book about composers, I might put PURCELL as the main entry so that composers stand out in the index.
  2. Think about whether you will have italics for other entries. For example, Dido and Aeneas is in italics to show it is a the title of a published work or collection.
  3. Think about saving space in the index. For example, I could have two separate entries for “University of Natal” and “University of KwaZulu-Natal”, but the repetition of “University of” could have made both names wrap onto two lines (4 lines). Instead, I made two main entries under “University” with sub-entries for “Natal” and “KwaZulu-Natal” (3 lines).

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A. Create index entries manually

  1. Go through the first Indexing Example document and see what words or terms you think should be in the index. Select them and manually mark them by pressing Alt+shift+x.
  2. The Mark Index Entry dialog box pops up. Experiment with its different options. Mark All is a very useful timesaver in a larger document.
  3. You can make more than one entry for one item. For example, in the Indexing Example, I entered Dido and Aeneas on its own and as a sub-entry under Purcell.
  4. You can create cross-references in the form of see and see also references. However, you still have to mark all the cross-referenced terms as though they were the main entry so that the index picks them up. For example, “Simon” in the second paragraph has a see reference to “Montiya, Simon”, plus an entry for “Montiya, Simon”.

Generate the index and check it

  1. Once you have marked all the important words,
  • put your cursor at the end of the document and generate the index (Reference tab > Index group > Insert Index. The Index dialog box pops up. Choose the Classic template. Select Indented or Run-in type. Specify the number of columns).
  • Go through the generated index looking for errors of sense and spacing.
  • Go to the error. (The index tells you the page number)
  • Make hidden text show. (Ctrl+* )
  • Correct the error. You can type between the curly brackets. For example, you can change the order of words or type in sub-entries after a colon (with no space on either side of it).
  • Regenerate the index.
  • Recheck.
  • Repeat until you have corrected all errors in the index.

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B. Create automatic index entries

On the second version of your practice document, use a word usage list and then a concordance. You need the concordance in order to use Word’s Automark option. I have attached instructions for creating a word usage list and then a concordance to help with indexing single words. Then you can generate an automarked index (Reference tab > Index group > Insert Index. The Index dialog box pops up. Select Indented or Run-in type. Click the Automark button). But you still have to go through the text to see what terms and connections (see and see also references) should be made.

Generate the index and go through looking for errors of sense and spacing, as in A.7 above.

Format the automatic index

After all that, when you are certain there will be no more changes to pagination, you will still probably have to convert the whole index field to non-field text (Ctr+shift+F9) because there will be corrections that you have to make manually in order to comply with institutional requirements.

Note: This post is written with apologies to professional indexers. It is taken from my personal experience and not from any formal training.

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