Updated November 2020

Let's be honest, not all glossaries are as helpful as we need them to be. Some leave us with raised eyebrows like the two gents in the photo above. Others frustrate us enough to abandon our quest for understanding. Writing a helpful glossary of terms requires keen focus on the readers' needs and a deft hand at plain language.

The 5 elements of an effective glossary

After looking over a lot of glossaries, I came up with this list of 5 tips for writing a glossary that's actual useful:

1. Meet your audiences' needs.

The entries in a glossary aren't for your, they're for the reader. It's vital to consider their need for understanding rather than your need to complete the task. Think about why readers reference glossaries. They come for clarification ("I think I know what this means"), validation ("Ha! I was right. I'm so smart.") or elucidation ("So that's what this means"). Keep the audience's needs in mind as you create your definitions.

2. Use plain language.

There's a feeling that plain language is boring or dumbed down. That's simply not true. Plain language is crystal clear. And that's why it's crucial for glossary writing. Don't describe anemia as "having a low hematocrit" because you probably need to explain hematocrit, too. Instead: Anemia: A condition in which the body doesn't have enough red blood cells. Often detected with a hematocrit, a blood test measuring the percentage whole blood that consists of red blood cells. When writing a glossary for a highly technical audience, it's OK to use jargon, but keep it to a minimum. Read more about the value of plain language.

3. Don't use the word in the definition.

If you've ever looked up a word and found that term in the definition, you know how frustrating this feels. So don't do it to your readers. For instance, Agile modeling session: A modeling session that follows the principles and applies the practices of agile modeling. (BTW, I didn't make that up). If I don't know much about agile modeling or what goes on in an agile modeling session, I sure as shootin' couldn't figure it out from this. 

4. Include synonyms, antonyms and examples.

Sometimes we can get all the information we need to understand a term by looking at its synonyms and antonyms. Include one or two of each in your glossary entry. Examples also increase understanding. Don't believe me? It's how Merriam-Webster does it.

A screengrab of the thesaurus entry for antonym

See the full entry https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/antonym

Get more insight into the importance of word choice.

5. Provide pronunciation tips.

It really helps to know how to say the word correctly,  especially for abbreviations that aren't spelled out. We refer to SPUG a lot -- it's our shorthand for spelling, punctuation, usage and grammar. But we don't spell it. Nobody here would call it S-P-U-G. We call it spug, like pug or spud.

Try these tips the next time you have to define a term in your content or write an entire glossary. It's a little more work, but the pay-off comes in the form of an educated and appreciative audience.

3 reasons to create a glossary

Glossaries are excellent "big rock" content marketing assets that are worth the effor for three reasons. They:

  1. Provide legit value to your audience by increasing understanding
  2. Drive loyalty and trust by meeting needs and providing useful insignt
  3. Encourage sharing with others, extending your marketing reach