Glossaries are used in many kinds of writing to help readers with tricky terminology. But when do you need one? How do they work? And how do you write a glossary? Check out our advice below to learn all the basics.
What Is a Glossary?
A glossary is an alphabetized list of words, accompanied by definitions. The aim is to help readers understand specialized terminology they might not understand.
Usually, this will be part of a larger work. For instance, an academic book might contain a glossary at the end to define technical terms. However, you can also prepare a glossary for terms in a specific industry or field of study.
This makes a glossary a bit like a dictionary that only contains terms or phrases related to a single topic. Texts that might require a glossary include:
Academic or technical works that contain a lot of technical language, abbreviations, neologisms, or other terms that might be unfamiliar.
Style guides for businesses that want to ensure consistent use of language and clear communication across their organization.
Educational materials about the language used in a specific field, or that give a list of relevant words and their translations (i.e., bilingual glossaries).
Works of fiction that contain invented words or languages (e.g., sci-fi and fantasy novels, which may feature unfamiliar words, names, and places).
By adding a glossary, then, you can make your work more accessible to readers.
Selecting Terms to Include
The first step in writing a glossary is choosing what to include in it. The aim here is to select words that your intended readers may not know otherwise.
If you are adding a glossary to a larger work like a book or dissertation, you will thus need to go back through your writing to note down potential inclusions.
Keep your readers in mind here: there’s no point adding entries if the people reading them will know the words already. For instance, you might want to include definitions of basic terms like “respiration,” “digestion,” and similar in a biology book aimed at schoolchildren. But it would be unusual to define these terms in a work aimed at academic biologists, who should know them already!
It can also help to get outside input at this point. Ask a friend or colleague (or your editor if you have one) to review your work and highlight unfamiliar terms. You can then add these to your own list before narrowing it down to the final entries.
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How to Write Glossary Entries
The basic format for a glossary is a list of words in alphabetical order, each with a definition that explains what it means. Each definition you write should:
Set out the meaning of the term using the simplest language possible. Keep your audience in mind here again so you can tailor the terminology used.
For instance, a glossary entry for “asterism” might look like this:
Asterism – In typography, an asterism is a symbol made up of three asterisks arranged in a triangle. Traditionally, publishers used the asterism to indicate minor breaks within a chapter or section in a book. However, this symbol is fairly rare in modern publishing.
You can also cross-reference terms in a glossary (e.g., if two words have the same meaning or refer to related concepts). To do this you can simply add a message saying “See X” (where “X” is the other word) at the end of the relevant entry.
In addition, for digital content (e.g., an online glossary), you can add links to other resources. This doesn’t replace the need to define terms. But it can be useful for pointing to further reading, allowing you to keep your glosses succinct.
Finally, if you are writing a glossary to include in a larger work such as a book, make sure to check your style guide for advice on how and where to present it.
Like any piece of writing, a good glossary needs to be error free and easy to read. Our proofreaders can help with this! You can even get your first 500 words checked for free. Submit a document for proofreading today to find out more.