Glossary or Index?

I’m in what might be close-to-final editing on Manage Your Project Portfolio. Not everyone understands all my references for things. For example, one of my reviewers did not know what a backlog is. Since I hope that managers of every level will read this book, it’s entirely possible they may not all know what a backlog is either. (Please don’t sneer at middle or senior managers who don’t know what a backlog is. They’ve used something like it, but if they are new to agile or new to project portfolio management, they may not have heard the word before.)

If you wanted to know the meaining of a word, would you prefer to see it as part of a glossary, or as part of an index? The index is easy. The glossary is not hard to include, either, it’s just a little more work. I want to do what my readers want to read. Please comment. Thank you.

About Johanna Rothman

I help managers and leaders do reasonable things that work.
This entry was posted in writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Glossary or Index?

  1. Tobias Fors says:

    Hi Johanna! I think I generally prefer when new terms are introduced when first used, then indexed so I can get back to them. Let met think about why… I think because glossaries tend to lack the context each word gets when explained in the running text.

  2. Dave Smith says:

    An index works if the page on which the term is defined is highlighted. That may take as much work as doing a separate glossary.

  3. Dale Emery says:

    If the words are defined in the text, an index satisfies me, especially if the entry says e.g. “backlog (defined) 13, …”

    If the words aren’t defined in the text, I prefer a glossary.

  4. I would prefer a footnote, like in The Pragmatic Programmer — it’s less of an interrupt in my reading flow.

  5. Jim Ward says:


    I strongly prefer both. A definition of a term is good in a glossary and an index can put it in context. Not all terms are defined in a text, such as a backlog, where you assume that most readers will know what it is. Footnotes have gone out of fashion.

  6. Index, although for key terms that might be new to some readers, a call-out definition in the margin is a nice alternative to a footnote.

  7. Beth Macknik says:

    I also prefer to have both a glossary and index entries. Indexes are great for using a unique word to find a passage, but a glossary is much better for definitions. And I find technical books that double as reference books to be much more valuable.

  8. Jim Ward says:

    I am currently performing a technical review of a book. The problem I see is that if I look up a term in the index I then have to scan a whole page of text to find the term. Then, the term may only be used in context and not clearly defined. Sometimes I’ve had to go to, but that only gives a general meaning, which may not be consistent with how it is used in a technical book.Hence, the need for a glossary of any terms that may be unfamiliar to any reader. Which is not to say that we don’t need an index, too.

  9. Scott King says:

    I prefer a footnote, if it’s cumbersome to define within the text, and then an index of significant terms.

    I rarely, if ever, consult a glossary.

  10. A book will have an index, so that is there.

    I would add a glossary. At times it is easy for a writer to forget that we are writing for the reader’s convenience, not ours. If the reader knows the word, they won’t turn to the glossary. If the reader doesn’t know the word, the glossary is wonderful.

  11. Liz says:

    I prefer an index.

  12. Chet Frame says:

    The glossary gives a definition; what the word represents. The index gives the context the author presents. Both are important to true understanding.

  13. I agree with Tobias, that the most important thing is to define it the first time you use it. And then, if you did that – even if people jump around, an index which pointed people to that usage they could find it from there.

    Glossaries are nice too, but I think the index is more useful.

  14. Naomi Karten says:

    I’d favor a glossary. An index is full of all sorts of things people might look up, most of which don’t concern defintions. Plus, looking up a specific word (such as backlog) in the index might show me numerous instances of that word, and it might be that none of them provide a definition because you didn’t think the word needed one. The glossary, on the other hand, is specifically for the purpose of definitions. So if there’s a word I don’t understand and there’s a glossary, I’d look there first. If I still don’t understand or if the word’s not in the glossary, I’d try to make sense of it in context and/or look it up on or or elsewhere.

  15. Chris Waigl says:

    The absence of a (sufficiently extensive) index reduces the usefulness of any technical book significantly, at least to me. It is particularly helpful if the terms that are referenced in the index are typographically marked in the page.

    A glossary can be a very welcome addition, depending on the subject matter. If one of the goals of the book is to established a common vocabulary (often the case in books about methodologies), yes, add a glossary, but not to supplant the index.

    My £ 0.02.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>