Hints for developing a table of contents

by Jean Hollis Weber

Keyword 3 (3), August 1992, p. 23. (Journal of the Australian Society for Technical Communication (NSW) Inc.)

Planning a project before beginning the detailed work is one of the vital steps to success in technical communication.

Developing a table of contents is one of the steps in the planning process of a document. A table of contents is more than a list of topics you intend to include in the document. It is an outline of the document, with the topics in the order you plan to develop and present them. (This plan might change during the writing, but changes should be minimal if you have done sufficient planning.)

Novice writers, and those with little experience in developing tables of contents, often wonder where to start. I learned how to plan rather late in my career, having relied more on the technique of ‘write it all down first and then try to put it in a logical order’ – a technique that allowed me to produce some excellent documents, but only if I worked alone. When I began working in a team situation, I had to unlearn these chaotic habits and learn some new planning skills.

In the process, I developed the following set of hints for developing a table of contents. I hope you find them helpful.

  1. Before you start, I assume you have gathered as much relevant information as you can, so that you have a reasonable idea of the scope of the work and the expectations of whoever has assigned the job to you. (Those expectations might be unrealistic or inappropriate, but that’s the subject of a different essay.)
  2. Write down the purpose of the document and how you intend it to be used: policy? procedures? reference? marketing? public information? legal requirements, such as an annual report?
  3. Write down your audience analysis. For example:
    • Who are they? Company staff, customers, general public?
    • What background information should they already have?
    • How do you think they will use this document? Is this the same as the way you want them to use the document? (It often is not the same, and you need to plan the document to take this discrepancy into account.)
    • What is their attitude likely to be toward the document?
  4. Make a list of everything you think these people need to know about the topic of the document. Just brainstorm at first, making notes on anything you can think of. Don’t try to put the list in order, or evaluate the topics, or make the topics into well-worded headings, at this point. (It often helps to have several people involved in the brainstorming, even if they won’t be involved in the writing.)
  5. Now organise this list into some semblance of order, using logical principles appropriate to the document. Again, don’t worry about elegant phrasing at this point – it’s the ideas that count.
  6. Write down all the questions you can think of that members of your target audience might ask about the topics you’ve identified, or about the subject in general. Usually this will bring to mind some things that you left off the first list, and you can put them in.

    Note: Sometimes I do the question-list first, before I make the list of what I think the audience needs to know. This helps me avoid the trap of telling them what I want to tell them, rather than telling them what they need to know. The important thing is to make two separate lists, from two separate viewpoints, and then compare the two lists.

  7. Refine the organisation of your list from step 4. Put little one-paragraph notes under each of your topic headings, to refresh your memory about what you intend to discuss about that topic.
  8. Now fiddle with the headings to make them as meaningful as possible, and not too long or too cryptic. Apply the principles of parallelism as appropriate.
  9. Show the first draft of this table of contents to several people, including an experienced editor if one is available, and incorporate their suggestions and comments into the draft.
  10. You are now ready to have the draft reviewed by whoever needs to approve it.

Last updated 23 November 1998

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