How to Craft a Table of Contents for Your Book

4883988749_efff6b4c94_nI’ve learned over many years of business travel to appreciate a tool that is often overlooked but absolutely essential: the airport directory/map. I’ve made a habit of finding one after arriving at unfamiliar airports to assess the layout, the best restaurants, any artistic/historical attractions, nearest bathroom, shoeshine stands (if my shoes are scruffy), and of course my next gate.

Your table of contents is like a map for your book. It shows the layout of your book and tells readers what they are going to find where.

Brief setup: In December 2012 I started a series of posts on how to create a book proposal. I wrote two posts before realizing the series would be far more helpful to folks if I actually coached a writer through the process of crafting a book proposal. After a brief contest of sorts I decided to work with Gary Neal Hansen. My strong hope is that others will be working on their book proposals as I coach Gary through this process. So far I’ve posted about motivationconceptbioplatform, working title, and brief description.

Unlike airport maps, your table of contents also serves a marketing function—to the people reviewing your proposal but also to potential readers. It is where all who read it begin to have a sense of the actual journey that reading your book will take them on.

Following is Gary’s current table of contents:


1. Community for Prayer — Benedictine Monasticism

2. Community for Service — The Beguines

3. Community for Study — Reformed “Prophesyings”

4. Community for Loving — Moravians at Herrnhut

5. Community for Holiness — Wesleyan “Class Meetings”

6. Community for Revolution — Latin American “Base Communities”



Full disclosure: Gary is expecting me to write about the chapter-by-chapter synopsis, which is where the author briefly describes each chapter. So he likely spent more time on the chapter descriptions he sent me than he did looking at the chapter titles. We’ll get to the synopsis, but I think it’s important to stop right here and look at the table of contents.

By the way, I think it’s a good idea to begin your chapter-by-chapter synopsis with the table of contents. Then just repeat each chapter title as a heading for the synopsis of each chapter.

Notice the different parts of the table of contents: front matter (the introduction), the body of the book, and the back matter. Note the number of chapters. Note the titles, then the subtitles. Note the relationship between the two. Note the flow of content from one chapter to another.

Let me make some observations.

I encourage Gary to add enticing subtitles to the introduction, conclusion, and appendix. Why miss an opportunity to capture additional readers?

I’ve written about how six chapters in a book of this length means long chapters. That’s a potential turnoff for readers (and publishers), but it may be unavoidable.

I assume Gary has organized the chapters chronologically by movement, which makes sense here. Another possible organization is by action. In other words, what action should a community today incorporate first, second, third, and so on. The point here is simply to be intentional about the flow.

I love how the chapters center on a singular theme (prayer, service, etc.), but there is probably a more appealing way to start each chapter than with “Community for.” Let me take a shot at the first chapter:

“Let Them First Pray Together”: Learning about the Vital Importance of Prayer from Benedictine Monasticism

The idea is to capture the reader/reviewer’s attention with the title and then describe it as enticingly as is accurate in the subtitle. It’s the “grab-and-tickle” approach to titling: Grab them with the title, tickle them with a bit of the content in the subtitle.

There are many different ways to do this, of course. “Let Them First Pray Together” is a quote from Benedict’s Rule. One can imagine a title like “Building Houses of Prayer” or “Moving Mountains.” Consider making the titles about the action or principle that communities today can incorporate.

Also, be mindful of the relationship between the book title and the chapter titles. So, for example, if the book title is 6 Ways Christian Community Has Changed the World . . . And How You and Your Friends Can Do It Again, you may want either the title or subtitle to focus on the influence that the movement had in the world: “How Benedictine Monasticism Overturned an Empire” comes to mind as a possible subtitle. I doubt it’s accurate to say Benedictine monasticism did this, but you get what I’m saying.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Your table of contents gives readers/reviewers a map of the journey.
  • It serves both a content and a marketing function.
  • Use chapter titles and chapter subtitles.
  • Be intentional about flow.
  • Be mindful of the relationship between the book title and the chapter titles/subs.
  • Grab and tickle.

Are you working on a table of contents or a particular chapter title/subtitle combination? Would you like some input? Drop what you’d like help with in a comment and let us know what you need. Then be sure to offer your input to others looking for help.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Pingback: How to Write the Marketing Section of Your Book Proposal | Chad R. Allen()

  • Pingback: How to Write a Chapter Synopsis for Your Book Proposal | Chad R. Allen()

  • Oh, and Chad, I hope you will still do a post on the chapter summaries. I would love to see your discussion of those. 🙂

  • Gary, I love seeing each new set of details on your book – it looks great! Here are my thoughts…

    –Chad’s comment about being mindful of the title of the book as it relates to your chapters was exactly my thought. I had the idea from the previous posts that your book was geared toward applying those movements to mission/world impact. When I look at your titles, 3 of the 6 don’t suggest missional concepts at all; study, prayer and holiness feel very inward. Of course I can envision how these things ultimately lead a Christian to changing the world, but I have to do the thinking myself. Since the TOC is part of the marketing process, ensuring the chapter titles support the positioning from the title seems to be very important. If you redo the chapters to be more like the titles Chad proposed, I would think that should be a key guiding goal (how does each chapter suggest the world changed from that community’s spiritual work?).

    –Regarding chapter numbers, I obviously have no insight from the publisher’s view, but let me give you some thoughts from a reader’s view. I read a LOT of non-fiction books – 48 last year, according to my Kindle app (!). The vast majority of them are theology or history books, so I spend a lot of time looking at TOCs for books like yours. Here’s what I would think if I looked at your TOC with 6 chapters of this nature:

    1) I would assume the chapters are very long if the total book is very long. Because most main stream books don’t have such long chapters, I would assume that either 1) it wasn’t published by a big publisher (which decreases credibility in my eyes) or 2) it will get way too detailed about each community (this equals boring, even for someone who loves history).

    2) If the total book is not very long and there are only 6 chapters, I would assume that it doesn’t have enough meat. When I buy a book, I want to really dig into something. If it’s a short book, I figure I could read about these communities on Wikipedia or something. I want to get immersed in a long enough book, but not one that gets lost in details.

    I like the idea that Bill had about breaking each one into two chapters – first the community, then the application, but I sense from your feedback so far in the process that that would place too much explicit focus on the application part. To me, the way to solve all of the above is to turn this into 10 communities as Chad originally mentioned. Then you have 10 chapters that appear to be of much more reasonable length and I would feel like I was really getting a lot more immersed in the topic of historical communities. This is all just perception, but perception is everything in marketing.

    –Lastly, and this kind of goes back to the chapter titles, but it’s a big promise in the title to talk about how to change the world. That grabs people. I’m not sure the book structure delivers on that in perception. That could be totally solved by changing the titles to focus on making that concept clear, but it seems to require more if you are going to deliver on such a big promise in the title. I remember in the book description that you mentioned the conclusion will address how we can apply these things, or communities applying them today, and I envisioned that to be more than just a chapter under the name “Conclusion” (otherwise, it doesn’t seem substantial enough to make it into your book summary). If you want to keep the book to 6 communities, how about this:

    Part I: Looking Back at Communities that Changed the World

    (Chapters 1-6)

    Part II: Models for Today (something like that)

    7. How We Can “Do it Again” (a chapter that explicitly ties back to the title and brings us forward to today – probably similar to your current conclusion, but make it a chapter)

    8. Today’s communities that are changing the world (I’m not suggesting this as a title, just a topic – it applies the chapter 7)

    9. Where Should Your Community Go From Here? (Bringing back to action items for the reader)

    Chapters 7-9 are probably things you would cover in the conclusion or other places, but isolating them in chapters that I can see in the TOC and supports the title much more and would impact me far greater as a potential buyer.

    I hope that gives you some additional thoughts!

    • Good stuff, Natasha. You’re pointing to a different way to increase the number of chapters that is certainly worthy of Gary’s consideration.

      I just want to add and make very clear that i think it is vital for every chapter to include material on what we can and perhaps should incorporate from each of these movements into community life today. If the reader has to wait until chapter 7 for this, he’ll lose them, particularly, as you say, if the promise is right here in the book title.

      GREAT feedback here.

      • Chad, I totally agree. I should have said in every chapter summary that there would be material to incorporate in community life today, as well as some ways to bring our community life into conversation with these historical examples to discern what is useful, how it needs to be adapted, etc.

        And I would have done so if I were aiming for six sentences instead of five per section!

    • Natasha, thank you! This is great and helps me see through eyes different than my own. I do need to think carefully about the way the promise of the title links to the promise and delivery of the chapters. I also need to think about making all of the above clearly communicate what I’m trying to actually do — which is not trying to say these communities started with a missional focus or had practices that were directly missionally focused.

      Rather I want to say that they had practices that built community of depth and integrity, that the practices were different and created very different kinds of community life, and that from the community they built, because it led to shared discipleship that had real depth, mission and service were the outcome.

      I resist the idea that we can just be the kind of communities we already are and add on some missional practices–that’s not what you are suggesting, but it is common enough in churches. We fail to be effective in living out God’s mission in part because the shape of our community does not take us into a richly engaged discipleship. I want there to be lots of take aways that help us move toward depth of community like these movements had–community that is not self-focued but that nurtures growth and equips for service.

    • Great insight and ideas….Chad, you should hire Natasha as an editor!

  • Thank you Chad!

    Yet again I send off something that I think is EXACTLY right and find out how enlightening it is to see it through someone else’s far more experienced eyes.

    Great input here, and in the comments too. I get the idea of making the chapter titles and subtitles more active and inviting, and will have to ponder how to do so in ways that fit where I’m wanting to go in the chapters.

    I’m continuing to frame this according to my original plan of six movements/chapters, rather than adapting as I go per the feedback about chapter length and number of chapters. Here’s my question as I think that through:

    From your perspective, Chad, in terms of word count what is the ideal chapter length? You say six chapters would mean long chapters, but that clearly assumes a particular overall length. It seems possible to have six chapters of a particular workable length making up a slightly shorter overall book. Can you help me on this?

    • Yes, in a previous post you projected a length of 53,000 words if memory serves. Setting 5,000 aside for front/back/appendix matter, you’re left with 47,000 words. Divided by six you’re at about 7800 words per chapter. Figuring 250 to 300 words per printed book page, the chapters will be about 28 pages long. That strikes me as a smidge long for today’s short-attention-span readers. But this isn’t assembly line work, and you’re not creating just any old widget.

      Before thinking much about ideal length, etc., if i were you i would first ask, “Is there another movement or two or more that could fit in this book?” If so, great; if not, well, at least you tried.

      The problem with sticking with six chapters but making the shorter is that then the book starts to look a bit slim. I mean, you’re writing about nothing short of changing the world!

      My advice is to cover more movements but devote less space to each movement.

      • Thanks Chad.

        When you describe short attention span as a factor in chapter length it still seems like there is an ideal out there. Working backward from ideal chapter length to ideal book length kind of helps me nudge toward a reconfiguration.

        I’m pondering other movements, though I stuck to the original six for all parts of the proposal coaching process rather than switching midstream.

        • Sure, that makes sense. As soon as i refer to an ideal length, someone will name five reasons why that’s not ideal. But I can do ranges; how about that? I tend to think chapters of 15-20 pages are about right for trade readers today. 50,000 words for the entire book is okay–if anything, a little short. And I tend to look for at least ten chapters, but I’m not wooden about this.

          • Thanks Chad, that helps.

            Sounds like 15-20 pages, 250-300 words per page. Minimum 10 chapters, and maybe 60,000 words rather than 50,000 as a healthy target. I’ll revisit my spreadsheet.

  • I agree with Bill above… “Every line should help sell the book.”

    After back cover copy, the TOC is the first place I go when wanting to know more about the book. I’m a layperson so, while obviously this is Gary’s expertise and not mine, I want some shiny baubles (action words, too) to entice me further. Shallow? Perhaps… But just like writers/artists are visual creatures, so, too, are our readers.

    Gary, I’m so thrilled to see how God’s using you, your book, and this process. And I’d love to interview you sometime in the future if you’re available.

    Chad/Gary, I’m curious about use of photos? Will there be any? Just something I thought of as I studied Gary’s TOC.


    • Cynthia, of course I’m available! Thrilled and honored as well. Message me on Twitter when you want to chat about it.

    • You raise a good point regarding photos. One could imagine Gary using photos to show some relevant historical artifacts and/or art that depicts folks in these movements, perhaps. The three things to be aware of when it comes to photos are permissions, file format, and resolution. You need world rights permission when working with a traditional publisher, jpeg or tiff format is best, and 300 dpi (dots per inch) resolution.

      • Chad, what do photos add to the cost of production and price of the book?

        In what percent of cases is the author on the hook for the price of permissions?

        • The increase of cost varies and depends on a number of factors.

          Our contract requires authors to cover the cost of permissions. The one possible exception in our case is trade reference works.

  • Every line should help sell the book, including the Table of Contents. I agree with replacing Introduction and Conclusion with something snazzier. I do like the parallel structure of the TOC, but wonder if it, too, couldn’t get spiced up a bit:
    1. Communities of Prayer: How Benedictine Prayer Warriors Called Down the Power of Heaven.
    2. Communities of Service: How Self-Sacrificing Beguinite Nuns Unleashed World-Changing Revival.
    Each entry should offer a promise, invite me in, make me want what the chapter offers.
    I think the feel of the word “communities” (plural) gives a transcendent sense to the word — something we can duplicate in the present — rather than a past-tense historical gridlocked feel.
    I’m wondering if each chapter might be split in two… structuring the first part around the story of that particular community and the second part around modern day incarnations and/or guidelines for us to continue in that spirit…
    Thank you for letting us feel like a part of this project.
    Blessings on the journey.

    • Thanks, Bill. Some great possibilities for subtitles here, Gary. While i like “Communities of” better than “Community for,” I’m still not sure I’d go for that over a unique, eye-catching title for each chapter. But Bill makes a good point. The goal is to make sure that by the time i’m reading the chapter title and sub, I’m hooked.

  • It’s kind of crazy how a few words, or a reordering of words can transform something so much. This is a good reminder to me to take my time and really think through all the details. I actually do look over the table of contents before I buy non-fiction.

    • It IS crazy, isn’t it! And the fact that you review the TOC before purchasing is a perfect example of TOC as marketing device. Thanks, Lisa!