Don’t Start Writing Your Nonfiction Book without a Table of Contents

nonfiction book table of contents

Every year in October, I begin working with aspiring nonfiction writers to help them prepare for the Write Nonfiction in November (WNFIN)Challenge. Without preparation, they will not get the results they want.

One of the first things I have those taking the WNFIN Challenge (aka National Novel Writing Month or NaNonFiWriMo) prepare is the Table of Contents for their book. I want them to complete this before they ever write a word.

A Table of Contents (TOC), which is found at the beginning of a book, is a list, usually found on a page before the start of the book, of its chapter or section titles. Sometimes it also includes brief descriptions of the chapters. And, it offers the reader the page number for the beginning of each chapter.

Think of the TOC of your book as its structure. Like your spine, it holds the book together and gives it form. If the spine doesn’t work or has something out of alignment or misplaced, the entire body—the content or manuscript—can’t stand up straight. It won’t function optimally.

That means your readers might feel lost as they read or not understand the progression from chapter to chapter. That could cause them to stop reading the book or to give it a bad review.

Or potential readers may never purchase the book. Typically, people decide whether or not to buy a book by looking at the cover, the back cover, and then the TOC. In a nonfiction book, the TOC should give the reader a good idea of the book’s content at a quick glance. If they can’t understand what the book offers them, they will put it down.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to write a book if you haven’t first prepared the TOC. The list of chapters become the backbone for your book’s outline. Everything you plan to write about in your book flows out of the TOC.

That’s why you need a TOC before you start a book or attempt to write one in a month.

October Nonfiction Writer’s Challenge

To complete this month’s challenge, plan the Table of Contents for your book.

I wrote about how to create a TOC extensively in my book Creative Visualization for Writers as well as in this blog post, which explicitly shares the steps you need to take. I’ll share the steps with you again below:

To create a TOC for a nonfiction book, which usually has about 10 to 15 chapters, you can:

  • Create a list of 10–15 topics you know you want to cover in the order you want to include them. Write a compelling title for each subject; you can refine it later, but this becomes the chapter title.
  • Think of 10–15 common questions you want to answer for your readers. Then write creative chapter titles for each one of those questions; you could leave the titles as questions as well.
  • Think of 10–15 most-pressing problems you want to solve for your readers. Then write creative chapter titles for each one of those questions; these could be “how-to” titles.
  • List 10–15 benefits you want to offer readers. Write titles that entice readers into those chapters by telling them WIIFM? Factor—the added value that speaks to their interests.
  • Research until a structure presents itself or until you find the core idea for your book. Then repeat Steps #1–4.

If you want to write a memoir or fiction, read this blog post for more information.

Once you have created the TOC for your nonfiction book, plan the content you will include in each chapter. Then you’re prepared to start writing!

If you have other tips for creating a TOC, leave a comment.

training for writers and authorsDo you think you need more information about how to write a nonfiction book and succeed as an author? The NFWU Masters level program provides the only Author Training program available. Click here to find out more and become a member!

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