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The Working Table Of Contents AKA Outline

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I use the term, working table of contents as a way to describe a way to organize a big writing project. I probably started with this term because I don’t like the idea of outlining.

I’ve also discovered that most of my ghostwriting clients prefer the term, particularly when I explain that working means just that – it is a document in process, meant to be a guide rather than an absolute. The book or other document will have a real or permanent table of contents of course, that will grow out of the writing itself.

It’s Just A List

The easiest way to start a working table of contents no matter what it’s for is to simply make a list. Start with a fresh piece of paper or open a new file and begin listing the topics you know you want to cover. If, for example, I wanted to write a book about living debt free I might start this way:

  1. Two kinds of debt – secured and unsecured
  2. The dangers of unsecured debt
  3. What interest rates really mean
  4. Pay yourself first
  5. First, stop using credit cards
  6. Getting clear on your numbers
  7. Negotiating with creditors

I’d keep listing topics until I had 10 or 15 or so. There’s no magic number. Too many, which might be 25 or 30 items, are pretty easy to combine for a more manageable quantity. If you start with only four or five, either more will probably have to be added or several of them split.

You want to be sure you have enough to fill a 200+ page book but not so much that chapter are terribly short.

Working With The List

It will probably take several days to do a good job with this. Set your first draft aside. Look at it again. See what needs to be added. There are probably at least a topic or two that should be divided into two.

Reorder the list so it seems to flow logically.

If your so inclined, create subcategories. Heck, if you like outlining go right ahead. Outlining works for many writers. Some tell me they do such a detailed outline the book is really more a matter of filling in the text between the headings. That’s not how I work, but there are many ways to get a writing project done. Figure out what works for you.

Know too that your working table of contents will almost certainly change as you actually write your book. You’ll realize you left something out, or that the order needs to be changed, etc. That’s just fine.

The working table of contents is meant to be a guide, to make your writing life easier and to help you see a long project like a book through. Use it that way and you’ll find its a great tool.


{ 7 comments… add one }
  • jorgekafkazar

    NOW, you tell us, Anne! I’m already in the middle of a 30+ page medical chemistry report that just grew. The research is finally finished, ha-ha, and the report is about as disorganized as anything I’ve ever done. Too late to use Word outlining. I think it’ll be the ol’ bullet list approach. Either that, or I’ll turn it into a novella: “It was a dark and stormy night, and Sheriff Tyree’s rheumatism was killing him….”

    • Anne

      lol, that one has been on the site for awhile now… actually it might not be too late to use headings as a way to develop a table of contents… maybe

      • jorgekafkazar

        I’ll give it a shot. I was trying to rush the project through and didn’t spend enough time forecasting where it would go. The research really isn’t finished, I keep discovering, so it’s hard to plan ahead. I found another really, really important lead on a .gov site late last night. I may take a fresh sheet and do the full outline gizmo and then do the cut-n-paste into the new doc.

        Also found out this week that the client is going to give me the project. She may provide an MD co-author for me, too. Anything could happen. Including the Sheriff getting shot in the bum… with a hypodermic.

  • Anne

    Elizabeth – let us know if it helps. I don’t outline well and a toc as a list, even with some bullet points under a chapter title, seems to work for me.

  • I’m going to try this for my next book. I know what happens, but I’m very disorganized at this point. If I fill in a descriptive table of contents, that might help me more than outlining or trying to do synopsis exercises.

    Thanks! 🙂
    .-= Elizabeth West´s last blog ..Fans =-.

  • Another tip:

    If you use Microsoft Word, get to know and love the Outline feature. You can drag and drop headings to move them around, or even use your keyboard to quickly promote or demote headings.

    The best part: once you’ve started filling in the content, you can still use the outliner to easily rearrange your document. And at the very end, creating a table of contents from the built-in styles is a snap.


    • Anne

      Hi Jonathan, I love our differences. Word’s out liner makes me crazy and I love creating a toc using built in styles… I actually use that feature to keep track of where I am in a docment… I rebuild the contents often during writing a book… every time often when I add a subhead.

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