How To Build An Index

A nonfiction book needs a good index. I can’t imagine how folks did it before word processors; it must have been tedious work. It still is, but a word processor is invaluable. I’m sure there are other ways to do this, but here’s how I’m building my index. In the example here, I’m using LibreOffice 3.5.

I did the first step by hand. I took a set of large index cards, enough for each letter of the alphabet. I read through each chapter, and jotted down potential words for my index on the cards, each word according to the letter with which it began. I put an asterisk by words that might have subcategories, such as “goat*”.

The next step was to alphabetize. I did this with a spreadsheet, here LibreOffice Calc.


  • I typed in the words from my index card, one column, one word per cell.
  • Click the A -> Z button (top right)

This was copied and pasted into my book template. But first, to remove the spreadsheet formatting, I pasted the alphabetized list into my favorite handy little tool, Leafpad.


Leafpad is a simple, open source text editor, similar to Notepad for Windows. It removes all formatting from not only the spreadsheet, but also any word processor. It was especially helpful for copying and pasting proofread pages, especially since my editor uses a different word processor.

I copied and pasted from Leafpad into my index template.

before page numbers

As you can see, I used two columns. Italics for titles had to be added, because it was removed by Leafpad. I indented subcategories under my index words.

To find the page numbers, I first needed my entire book as one document. This was quicker than going through each chapter as separate documents. I created a combined chapter file, including appendices, for the purpose of creating my index.

Something that is key here, I think, is to only do this after all editing and changes have been made. There is nothing worse than trying to find a word from an index, only to discover that the page number of the word has changed. This is due to last minute editing. To make sure my index matched my text, I had to have the entire book edited and formatted with photos and diagrams, and have page numbers added.

I use the “find” feature of my word processor to find the words and their page numbers.


I wrote these in my index, and arrowed through the text, to find the next page on which the word occurred. Because the spreadsheet is neither embedded nor linked to, I can easily make changes on the index pages themselves – indenting and adding new subcategories for example.


Neither do I have to start at the beginning of the text for each new word.


LibreOffice will offer to continue searching from the beginning of the document once it reaches the last page.

One tip that makes the process go a little faster, is to use singular forms of words or partial words in one’s searches. “Butter” for example.

butter search

This way I find not only butter, but butterfat, buttermilk, and other words I want such as butter crock, butter making, freezing butter, clarified butter, and butternut squash.

Once I finish adding all the page numbers to the index, I will finish formatting them, and add page numbers to the index itself. Then I’ll be ready for the next step.