How to make an index for your book or dissertation

Dear Readers. Shaun Lehmann, Katherine Firth (of the Research Voodoo blog) and I are currently in the process of writing a new book for Open University Press called ‘Writing Trouble’. ‘Writing Trouble’ will help you diagnose and treat your thesis writing problems.

The proposed book evolved out of our work on the Thesis Bootcamp program, a writing intervention originally designed by Peta Freestone and Liam Connell. Over the years all of us have been running our own bootcamps we have met hundreds of students struggling to put their final thesis draft together. These students have supervisors who are clearly great researchers, but cannot give good feedback on writing. The book works backwards from the confusing feedback students have showed us.

Part of our process with this new book is to test out some of our text on our audience – you. Here is part of another chapter from our section “Where’s your discussion section?” where we deal with the purpose of the conventional ‘bits’ of a thesis and how to treat them. This piece of writing on indexing relates to a previous piece I wrote on the Whisperer about how to do a glossary. It’s the first draft, so your feedback is appreciated!

If you’d like to know more about the book before it’s published, you can sign up for our writing trouble mailing list.

The index is the elder sibling of the glossary, who has grown up, moved to the big city and started doing drugs. Anyone who has been asked to write one will tremble a little in their boots, at least the first time. Basically, an index is a quick look up list of terms that appear in your dissertation or book. In a similar way to the glossary, an index serves a rhetorical as well as a communicative role by throwing a spotlight on the parts of your book that will be most interesting and useful to the reader.

Indexing is an even more labourious process than making a glossary, but the return on investment is definitely worth it. Beyond the academic examination context, a good index is a vital tool in convincing a reader whether or not to read (or buy) your book. How often have you flipped to the index of the book to see if there’s enough on the topic you are interested in to warrant the effort? That’s right – almost every time.

Until this book, only Inger had experience of writing an index and she did a pretty horrible job of it. Here is what she learned.

Step one: Develop some useful themes

To begin, you need to think about why a reader might want to buy or read your book in the first place. You are not writing a novel, so being practical is not a bad place to start. As a thought exercise, try to think about the kind of problems that your readers are looking to solve. Think of words or phrases to represent these problems and you have a rough list of themes.

Inger’s previous book “How to be an academic” was a practical guide to surviving in academia, especially if you are a precariously employed academic. She started by generating a list of things like “making money”, “dealing with assholes”, “writing quickly” and so on. She then tried to think about the themes she thought were important, to give the index reader a sense of the broad range of topics in the book. This generated terms like “networking”. These themes guided the next step: identifying the areas of text where these themes were discussed.

Step Two: find the chunks of text that relate to the themes

The next step is the absolute worst part of the whole process, so prepare yourself. To get to a list-y looking thing, one must read a text that one is incredibly sick of reading by now with a forensic eye. The purpose of this step is to take note of the various manifestations of your themes in the book and make a note of their location. DO NOT DO THIS STEP UNTIL YOU HAVE PRINTER READY TEXT OR YOUR PAGE NUMBERS WILL BE WRONG.

Each time you find that theme in chunk of text, think about a short word or phrase that might relate to that theme and note the page number. Inger’s first pass looked something like this:


Acronyms, value of                                         124 – 125

Arrogance                                                       50 – 55

‘Backstage work’                                            226, 236

Bookshelves                                                    306

Cleverness                                                       46, 49, 250 – 251, 255 – 257

Cultural Capital                                               46 – 47, 89 – 90, 245

Dinner Parties                                                 56, 60, 64

Competition                                                    260

Fashion                                                            85 – 90, 306

Gift economies                                                253 – 254

Hiring practices                                               62, 229 – 236

Love of the work                                             18, 76, 264, 288 – 291

Migrants                                                         56 – 60

Salaries                                                           31, 222

‘service’                                                           101

The new normal                                              39, 229, 231

Academia as a Bad Boyfriend                                           16 – 19, 32 – 33, 36, 231

Academic journals, questionable practices of                  156 – 162

Academic hunger games                                                   13, 229

ADHD                                                                                67

Amabile, Tessa                                                                  46

Aaron, Rachael                                                                  198

Architecture as a profession                                             28, 218

Baby Boomers                                                                   283

Becker, Howard                                                                125, 153 – 154, 193, 195 – 196

Bullying                                                                             52, 54 – 55

Blogging and social media

The purpose of the Thesis Whisperer blog     9

Time implications of blogging                         12, 177

Starting blogging                                            22

Mark’s simple rules of blogging                     38

Safe Spaces?                                                   48, 267

Writing posts                                                  82, 263 – 264

Value of sharing for your career                    112, 220, 303 – 304

As open access publishing                               154, 159, 220 – 222

Enjoyment                                                       256, 263

Mainstream media shit storms                      268 – 269

Social media shit storm                                  284 – 285


At a certain point in making this list, Inger gave up trying to keep it tidy and started using Nvivo, a text analysis software. This worked well, but she doesn’t recommend using this software unless you have the skills; there’s a big learning curve and you have a book to deliver.

Step Three: throw out the themes

When Inger’s publisher got this index, carefully compiled over a couple of weekends, she smiled kindly, thanked Inger for the effort and gave it straight to a professional. When it came back, it looked completely different. In Inger’s version, dinner parties appeared under the theme of ‘academic’: a vague sort of category, in the final version it appeared under D, you know – for dinner party.

Index pages from “How to be an Academic”

The lesson? When you are generating an alphabetical list, it’s best to bear in mind the alphabet. Inger was close, she just needed to throw away the themes and arrange the list of key words in alphabetical order. The final touch would be to try to think of words that are related to each other and put “see also” under them.

Job done, no drugs necessary. Except, maybe – coffee.

This is how I did an index, but I’m sure there are more elegant and sophisticated techniques. Have you ever done one? Do you have tricks to share? Love to hear about them in the comments!

Related posts

Sign up for the ‘writing trouble’ book news mailing list.

Buy “How to be an academic”

Enter the Glossators

Other ‘first draft’ posts from the Writing Trouble Series

The vagueness problem in academic writing

Academia is a passive agressive, middle class dinner party

Your thesis is the map, not the journey

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18 thoughts on “How to make an index for your book or dissertation

  1. Michael Wulfsohn says:

    It really feels like a natural language AI (artificial intelligence) should be up to this task by now, since a large part of it is identifying themes. The output wouldn’t have to be perfect to be useful. Is there any software that does this?

  2. Ruth says:

    Thanks Inger – first guidelines I’ve read on writing an index, so clearly there’s a need. Although I must say my first reaction was to cross all my fingers and toes that I don’t need to do one soon.

    One base ration – your final index includes a number of people, but you don’t mention how to decide who to include in your text.

      • Mary Coe says:

        Thank you for the shout-out to professional indexers! I am an indexer and PhD student, and reading your post just made my day!

        I second Ying-Hsang’s comment that ANZSI is a good place to start if you are looking for an indexer.

  3. Martin Davies says:

    Doing a comprehensive Index is possible using good ol’ fashioned Microsoft Word under the References tab. This is what I did: 1. All chapters were sub-documents of a Master document (Google: ‘Understanding master and sub documents) — so I could work on content for all separately without opening the entire book. 2. When I was finished writing and editing the content and ready to do the Index I compiled all chapters as a single book , so that the Indexing function could roam across the entire manuscript. 3. I started with authors, e.g., Jones, A., Smith, H. etc. 4. I then worked on discipline-specific technical terminology. 5. The last thing I did was pick out themes. This was the hardest as all instances of a word need not refer to a theme necessarily; it might be merely mentioning a term in passing, with no thematic relevance at all. The use of “select” and “select all” in Index is to be used with caution. 6. Then I added sub-index entries to go under terms with a wider ambit. 7. The last thing I did was to add “see” and “see also” to terms which are indexed elsewhere, or indexed more thoroughly under another index term. Yes, it is a specialised skill and had I the funds I surely would have paid someone. But, on the other hand, I didn’t do a bad job of it and I taught myself something.

  4. larasayed01 says:

    Heartfelt thanks!

    Le mar. 10 avr. 2018 19:02, The Thesis Whisperer a écrit :

    > Thesis Whisperer posted: “Dear Readers. Shaun Lehmann, Katherine Firth (of > the Research Voodoo blog) and I are currently in the process of writing a > new book for Open University Press called ‘Writing Trouble’. ‘Writing > Trouble’ will help you diagnose and treat your thesis writing ” >

  5. John Hudswell says:

    Late to the party but I’ve just completed a first version of an index using Latex. Latex is not simple and I have to admit to getting very frustrated doing the coding of the main text; the indexing was actually quite a simple albeit manual process. Words to be indexed are marked with a Latex command like \index{Bread roll} which results in an entry in the index for “Bread roll”. A categorised or themed index can be created straight from the mark using an exclamation mark to set levels e.g. \index{Bread!Rolls} and somewhere else \index{Bread!Pittas} gives a category of “Bread” with page number entries for “Rolls” and “Pittas”.
    Because the index marker is separate from the word or sentence next to it you can use the same one for synonyms so \index{Bread roll} could be used for “bap”, “breadcake”, “barm” etc.
    You can also use multiple index markers in one place to cover different categories.
    The index itself is generated when the Latex typeset command is run so you can continue to edit and amend the text without mangling the index page numbers.
    Something else I like is that it’s possible to have multiple separate indices. For example, I’m working on a re-issue of a nineteenth century book – I have an index for the original content and another for my introduction and commentary.
    I’m not recommending that all writers master Latex but even if you engage someone else to do the main markup you can still do the index yourself.

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