How to Develop a Table of Contents for Your Book

People tell me they want to write a book but have no idea how to organize it.

My response: Let’s play with a table of contents.

Just imagine that your book is written and published. In your mind’s eye, flip to the table of contents. What does it look like? What headings does it include?

Creating a table of contents is an intellectual adventure of the highest order. This is a chance to define your core message and the value it creates for readers.

Also, playing with ideas at this level is fun—a lot more fun than slogging out sentences in the body of your manuscript (more about that process later).

To develop a table of contents, experiment with the following steps, which are adapted from Publishing to Niche Markets by Gordon Burgett.

1. State your purpose in one sentence

For example: “The purpose of this book is to help readers double their productivity by doing a regular weekly review of their current projects.”

2. Restate your purpose as your “big question”

Continuing our example, this could be: “How can readers double their productivity by doing a regular weekly review of their current projects?”

3. List smaller questions implied by the big question

Some possibilities:

  • What is a weekly review?
  • How can I build the habit of doing a regular weekly review?
  • What is productivity?
  • How do we measure productivity?

4. Arrange your list of questions in a logical order

I’d choose the following:

  1. What is productivity?
  2. How do we measure productivity?
  3. What is a weekly review?
  4. How can I build the habit of doing a regular weekly review?

5. Restate your ordered list of questions as chapter headings

For example:

  • Chapter 1. A Definition of Productivity
  • Chapter 2. How We Measure Productivity
  • Chapter 3. How To Do a Weekly Review
  • Chapter 4. Making Your Weekly Review a Habit

Note: The trick is to make this an authentic process of Socratic questioning. Imagine having a dialogue with a group of people who connect emotionally with your stated purpose. These people are sitting in a room with you. What questions would they actually ask?

Image by Horia Varlan, Flickr Creative Commons

This post is adapted from a comment I left on a post by Matthew Cornell. He’s got an interesting blog.