Once you have completed your table of contents (TOC), it’s time to continue your Author Training by looking at what you’ve created from a publishing business perspective—as if you were an acquisitions editor. You already have some training in this particular type of evaluation because you purchase books, and you often do so based on a TOC. Now put this ability to use and evaluate your book’s TOC.
How to Evaluate Your TOC
First, take a step back and imagine you are a potential reader of the book you want to write. Imagine it already exists and you have found it in a book store or on Amazon.com. You pick it up or click to download it.
Go back and read what you wrote in your Overview (Step #2): your book pitch, summary and list of benefits. Imagine this is the back-of-the-book copy, what you see written on the back cover of your book. Maybe it is more condensed and polished, but it’s something close to the marketing copy you view when you click on the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon.com and ask to read the back cover or turn over the book in your hand. Reading this material, you know what the author promises will be inside the covers.
Second, imagine you open the book to the TOC or you click on the “Look Inside” feature and ask to see this page or pages. Read this “list of chapters,” and ask: “Is there anything in this book that interests me?” Your answer to this question is essential, but answer it objectively as a reader. If you can’t do this, remember the reader you profiled in Step #3. What would he or she respond?
Now, take your training a step farther. See your TOC through the lens of agents or acquisitions editors. They will consider what you wrote in Step #2 and determine if your TOC follows logically as the next step, while also targeting your market and providing unique and necessary content in the category you have chosen. Will a publishing professional think your TOC carries out everything you described in your Overview?
To see your TOC through the lens of an agent or editor, also evaluate if your TOC:
- easily shows what your book is about, why it is unique and why it is necessary
- provides an order that reflects a beginning, middle and end of your topic or story
- illustrates a compelling, unique topic or story with depth
A TOC Gives Your Book Structure and Direction
Books need structure. Plenty of room exists for creativity, but if your idea is not given direction by its TOC, your message will take a meandering path—and not arrive at its destination. A book without a clearly defined TOC won’t get readers where you want them to go. They will get lost along the way, take another route or decide to take a different journey entirely. Remember: The TOC provides the map for your book as well as its structure. You’ll use it to ensure you get to your destination—write the book you set out to write—and to ensure readers get where you want them to go—receive the information you promised to provide. Also, readers will use the final TOC published in your book to determine if they even want to travel to the place you desire to take them.
Without a TOC, readers remain lost. They wander around like Alice—even if they actually want to have a destination. An early reader of this book received draft chapters but no TOC; she said she had no idea where the book was going. She had no map to look ahead and see how I intended to get from point A to point B; in fact, she didn’t know my starting point or my intended destination (and the chapters still needed work, and, therefore, didn’t guide her well either). She gave up after three chapters, too frustrated to continue reading. She told me, “A TOC, or outline, to use to follow structure would have helped and would be a good idea to give to your beta readers so they can better follow along with your intentions.”
Another beta reader received the manuscript as the text for the first running of my Author Training 101 course but was not given a TOC either. She was learning the concepts in teleseminars as she read, yet she remarked, “I was totally lost and struggled to wrap my head around where you were taking me. A TOC would have given me a foundation to build each step upon and help me see the purpose in what you were building.” She has told me she learned an enormous amount from the early read through of this book’s manuscript, but imagine how much more she might have gained had she had a TOC.
Without a strong and clear TOC, readers will have a hard time following your message or story, which means they’ll put your book down—if they pick it up at all. Not only that, you’ll lose agents and publishers’ interest, preventing you from getting a manuscript traditionally published and to readers. That’s why it’s imperative that the TOC you create have a structure that fleshes out and supports your idea fully, targets your market, benefits your readers, and is unique in its category.
This post is an excerpt from the draft of my new book, The Author Training Manual (Writer’s Digest Books, Spring 2014), which I am blogging here on Write Nonfiction NOW! You can read previous posts here. Only select pieces from the manuscript, a “working draft,” are being posted—not the complete manuscript. I’d love to hear your thoughts and get your feedback. Leave your comments below.
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