Friday, August 23, 2019

Authors: the lowly Table of Contents is your friend. Don't ignore it.

Apparently most authors of nonfiction wait until their books are written before assembling the Table of Contents—or they rely on an editor or designer to produce it.

I think this is a big mistake. The lowly "TOC" is not mere drudge work to be delayed or shunted to others. It's a valuable writing tool that can help you make (and sell) a better book. Instead of ignoring it until your book is written, make it a tool (and friend) to be used from the very beginning.


While the page numbering in your book will constantly change as you write, a TOC can help you keep track of what you've written—and what still needs to be written.

Even though your chapter names will likely change, too, a list of those names can help you spot names that sound silly, make no sense, or are incompatible with others or with your book's title.

While it's fine to have chapters of varying length, an author must try to balance the lengths of the chapters. Even temporary page numbers can help you determine if you are paying too much attention to (i.e.: giving too much space to) a particular topic. Maybe one long chapter should be chopped into several shorter chapters.

Maybe your sequence of chapters should be changed.

Back in 2009, just minutes before I had planned to send a book to the printer, I decided to check my table of contents. I had a feeling that as I changed the lengths of some chapters, a page number might have changed. I actually found three wrong page numbers, and two chapters were missing from the table.

Since the sequence of chapters and the numbers of their starting pages will frequently change as the book evolves, make sure that the final version is accurate.

Another time I was trying to find a chapter in one of my books that has many chapters. I couldn't find it by flipping through the pages, and I couldn't find it by studiously scanning the table of contents. When I looked even more carefully, I realized that the last entry at the bottom of one page of the TOC was Chapter 51, but the first entry on the top of the next page was Chapter 53. There was no listing for Chapter 52.

I felt like a blind idiot.

The table of contents can be an important sales medium, so make it complete, clear, informative and well-written. The TOC is normally forward in the "front matter" and one of the first things seen by potential purchasers who are shopping at either online or terrestrial booksellers.

For nonfiction, if chapter titles don’t explain what the chapters are about, add some explanation. OTOH, a mysterious chapter name might captivate readers.

For a fiction book, you can skip the table of contents, unless the book is a collection of short stories. 

Note: most ebook formats are "flowable" and the books have no fixed page numbers, just a sequence of chapters that can be reached by tapping a finger or stylus, or by lots of finger swiping.


You can call the table simply “contents” and leave out “table of.” However, James Felici, author of The Complete Manual of Typography, one of the best-looking and most informative books about the publishing business, has a full-fledged “Table of Contents.” I would never criticize him, and if you put out a book as good as his, I won’t criticize your table of contents either, no matter what you decide to call it. 

James came up with a nice innovation that you may want to emulate. Ahead of his complete ten-page table of contents he has a one-page “contents at a glance” to make it easier to find the major sections. If you have a large, complex book, try it.


The TOC up at the top is from my useful and funny bestseller, Do As I Say, Not as I Did.  It's available as a paperback and ebook.

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