Over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time walking in the forest. On two occasions, I was lucky enough to see little brown frogs hopping through the fallen leaves. Frogs are thought to be an indicator of the overall health of a forest. Healthy frogs equals healthy forest—and if your frogs are showing up with six legs or four eyes, you know there’s something wrong with the larger system.
Similarly, your table of contents (or TOC) is a barometer of the overall health of your non-fiction manuscript. If the “forest” of your manuscript has pests, it’ll probably show up in the TOC.
Let’s imagine a book called BOTOXTM 101: A Guide for People Considering BOTOXTM Treatment. Here are three sample TOC’s for this book and the larger problems they point to:
Sample Table of Contents #1: The Scatterbrain
Ch. 1: What is BOTOXTM?
Ch. 2: Common uses of BOTOXTM
Ch. 3: Myths and Facts About BOTOXTM
Ch. 4: Bro-tox: Stories of Guys Who Love BOTOXTM
Ch. 5: Before-and-After Pics of Celebrity BOTOXTM Disasters
In this example, the author starts off with a few plausible-sounding chapters, then veers off into territory that, while interesting, does not belong in this particular book. Writers often get carried away in the first draft and want to include anything and everything they come up with, even if it doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole.
A common piece of advice handed out at writing workshops is “kill your darlings.” It’s not unusual for writers to hang on to sections or entire chapters that really don’t belong in their book simply because they’ve grown fond of them or stopped noticing them—they’re the writer’s “little darlings.”
While looking over your own table of contents, ask yourself if each chapter really belongs in this particular book—or if it would do better in a different book altogether.
Sample Table of Contents #2: The Narcissist
Ch. 1: BOTOXTM: Is It Right For You?
Ch. 2: My Personal Journey With BOTOXTM
Ch. 3: My Reasons for Getting BOTOXTM
Ch. 4: How BOTOXTM Saved My Marriage
One of the most frustrating things I’ve seen writers do is come up with a fantastic idea, then proceed to write about themselves instead of the idea. No matter what the book’s genre or its purported subject matter, there will always be writers who find themselves more fascinating than their ideas. Unfortunately, few readers share this fascination.
Some books call for more details about the author’s personal life than others, but unless you’re a celebrity or major-league athlete, be wary of putting yourself (rather than your brilliant idea) too much in the spotlight.
Sample Table of Contents #3: Jude the Obscure
Ch. 1: BOTOXTM: A Beauty Revolution
Ch. 2: BOTOXTM: Turning Back the Clock on Age
Ch. 3: BOTOXTM: Helping Restore Your Natural Beauty
Ch. 4: BOTOXTM: Rejuvenate Your Face
After reading this (hypothetical) table of contents, I still have no idea what I’m going to learn from this book or how I’m going to benefit from buying it. The chapter titles all sound like variations on one another and are too vague to entice me to read them. I suspect the book will be a disorganized ramble with little useful information.
These examples might seem ridiculous, but they’re hardly an exaggeration of real book proposals that are submitted to publishers or turned into manuscripts and self-published every day.
If you suspect that your table of contents suffers from one of these (or any of dozens of other) serious conditions, have a friend or editor look it over. An unhealthy table of contents often indicates an unhealthy manuscript, so it’s worth some serious effort to correct.