What to Know About Writing a Book Table of Contents

examples of book table of contents

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The Table of Contents in a book is a guide for your readers to navigate your story. Typically, it’s printed on a single page (front and back, if necessary) and placed after the title page. It can also include different sections, like your book acknowledgements preceding your story.

There are many ways to format and design your table of contents, so let’s dig in to find out how to plan, format, and get creative with the front matter of your book.

Planning your table of contents

Of course, you are intimately familiar with your book or novel — now it’s time to mark your story or complete work to make it easier to navigate for your readers. The type of novel and genre your book fits into may determine how you want to format and organize your book and table of contents.

If your book is a novel, you have a natural rising action, plot, climax, and falling action for your story that can be divided into chapters based on the number of events and pacing of your book.

If you’re a writer who outlines their books, you may have already written your chapters out. The table of contents will indicate which page these chapters and sections of your story are located on once your book is formatted.

If you have a fiction novel with a word count of over 50,000 words, in addition to chapters, consider organizing it into different sections.

If you’ve written a nonfiction book — a cookbook or a photography book, for example — you may be better off planning each chapter or section with a theme. Chapter summaries could also be helpful to provide readers with additional context.

If you’ve written a memoir or bibliography, you may bundle chapters into sections that highlight significant milestones in the subject’s life chronologically. It all depends on the type of book you are publishing and the genre expectations and content of that style of book.

Ultimately, having a vision in mind for how the table of contents will organize the themes and flow of the content of your book is important. This will serve as the roadmap to the book. When readers come across a favorite event or a favorite recipe, they will know where in the book to find that.

Keep chapter titles concise

Since your table of contents is the roadmap of your book, you want to keep it consistent and concise. The simplest approach is to number your chapters — in which case you may not even need a table of contents. If you decide to title your chapters, it will likely speak to a central theme or event in the chapter. If you’re writing fiction, think of a phrase or a certain action in that chapter that is pivotal.

For example, for fiction:
Chapter 12: The Falling of Stonetree

For nonfiction:
Chapter 2: Anatomy of a Cell

These are concise and clearly depict what the chapter contains. You want to take a similar approach with your own book and chapter headings for clarity’s sake.

Formatting options

There are many creative ways to format a table of contents.

Traditional format

samples of traditional table of contents

This is a standard table of contents that you often see in fiction and nonfiction. You’ll see the listing of the major sections or chapters of the book along with their corresponding page numbers. This is the classic, straightforward approach that provides a hierarchy of the content. This format shows the structure and organization of a text.

Stylish typography

samples of stylish table of contents

Your table of contents can have visual appeal. Distinctive fonts — like elegant serif fonts or modern sans serif fonts — can make a table of contents stand out. You can play with font sizes and style or even colors to create a visually striking and unique table of contents that aligns with the book’s genre, theme, and intended audience. Make sure that these choices align with the intended genre. For example, you might want to use a colorful table of contents for a children’s book but a more standardized look for a nonfiction work.

Custom graphics

samples of custom table of contents

Another design concept to make your table of contents visually appealing is using custom graphics or illustrations. You can use design icons or symbols to represent each chapter and include them alongside the corresponding titles. This approach can add a creative touch and helps readers quickly identify parts of your book.

Tabular formatting

sample of tabular table of contentsTabular formatting is a more structured and organized way to present the table of contents. Instead of a simple list. A tabular table of contents has columns and rows to display a neat and grid-like appearance which can be useful for books with large sections.

How to choose the right table of contents format

Selecting the format of a table of contents is a creative decision that can impact how you organize and present your book’s content. To decide which is right for you, consider the genre of your book, the tone of your content, and ultimately, what you like best.

If you have a nonfiction, historical, or scholarly work, simple and traditional formatting is likely your best option. If you’ve written a memoir or biography, you could choose to use creative titles that capture a theme.

If you have a fiction book, consider creative titles that speak to the events within.

Once you pick a style that matches the genre and style of your book, aim for visual consistency and ease of use. Use the same font size, style, and design throughout your formatted table of contents to ensure your book presents as professional and enticing.

Make sure it is clean and clear to read. It’ll make navigating your book easier for your readers.

Ultimately, the choice of format for your table of contents should prioritize readability and clarity and align with the nature of your content and expectations of your audience.

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Related Posts
Tips for Writing a Book Acknowledgements Page
What Goes In The Front Matter Of Your Book?
How To Outline A Novel
Why Does My Book Need Interior Formatting?
What’s the difference between a Memoir vs. Autobiography vs. Biography?


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