What Is A Table of Contents?

Learn how it works for books and magazines

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What is a table of contents?

The Table of Contents helps readers see at a glance what the publication covers and helps them navigate to specific parts of the contents. Photo by J. Howard Bear

The table of contents (TOC) is a navigational element typically found in multi-page publications such as books and magazines. Found near the front of a publication, the TOC provides both an overview of the scope of the publication and a means of quickly locating certain sections of the content -- usually by listing page numbers that correspond to the start of a section or chapter. For books, the table of contents may list each chapter of the book and perhaps sub-sections of each chapter. For magazines, the table of contents may list each individual article or special sections.

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Sequential TOC Organization

Simple TOC
The simplest Table of Contents is just a list of chapters and page numbers. Photo by J. Howard Bear

A table of contents may be arranged sequentially in page order: chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, etc. Most books, even if they have a complex, multi-level TOC, list the contents in the order in which they appear in the publication.

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Hierarchy TOC Organization

Magazine TOC
A magazine Table of Contents is often quite colorful and segmented. Photo by J.James

A table of contents may be arranged in a hierarchy with the most important content elements listed first followed by lesser content. Magazines often use this approach, giving the "cover stories" more prominent placement over other content. A story on page 115 might be listed in the TOC before articles on pages 5 or 25.

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Relational TOC Organization

Detailed TOC
Some Table of Contents provide a detailed outline of the contents of the publication. Photo by J. Howard Bear

A table of contents may be arranged in related groups. Sections, chapters, or articles on a related topic appear grouped together in the TOC regardless of where they actually fall within the publication. A magazine about cats may group all content of specific interest to new cat owners in one section of the TOC while grouping all content related to cat health in another section of the TOC. Magazines will often include regularly recurring content (columns) in a grouped section of the TOC separate from the feature content that changes with each issue.

Although books usually list their contents in page order, that content is often grouped in related sections and chapters which is reflected in a detailed TOC.

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Basic TOC Information

A basic TOC
A basic Table of Contents includes a chapter title and the page number for where that chapter starts. Photo by J. Howard Bear

For a book of fiction, simple chapter titles and page numbers suffice. Non-fiction books may also take this approach, especially if the chapters are short or if each chapter covers a very specific topic that doesn't need to be further divided into sub-sections. With clear, descriptive chapter titles, further description isn't necessary.

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Annotated TOC Information

Annotated TOC
A Table of Contents may include a simple description of each chapter. Photo by J. Howard Bear

For text books, computer books, how-to books, and magazines a more information-rich table of contents appeals to readers. A chapter title and page number are the bare minimum but consider adding short descriptions of the scope of the chapter and even sub-section titles with or without page numbers.

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Multi-Page TOC Information

Single and multple page TOC
A Table of Contents can be a single page or multiple pages -- or both. Photo by J. Howard Bear

Consumer magazines and lengthy newsletters frequently have a table of contents with short summaries of major articles, sometimes accompanied by pictures.

A text book or other book covering a complex topic may have a basic TOC followed by a second, multi-page, multi-tiered TOC. The shorter TOC provides information at-a-glance while the longer TOC goes into more depth and allows the reader to navigate to specific sections within a chapter.

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Which comes first -- the contents or the table of contents?

Which comes first?
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which comes first, the contents or the table of contents. Photo by J. Howard Bear

It would be easy to say that of course you must have content before you can have a table of contents. But creating the table of contents first is one way to help insure that the publication covers all the necessary points and it can help lead to better organization of the book by first organizing the TOC. But that's the role of the writers and editors. If you are simply doing the page layout and TOC for an existing publication, your main concern is in creating a TOC that accurately reflects the content and helps the reader navigate efficiently.

When working on the page layout for an entire publication, it's likely that you'll work concurrently on both the content and the TOC -- deciding how indepth the TOC should be and tagging sections within the text to automatically generate the TOC.

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How is a table of contents formatted?

Formats for a TOC
There are hundreds of ways to format a Table of Contents. Photo by J. Howard Bear

There are no hard and fast rules about formatting a table of contents. The principles of design and the basic rules of desktop publishing concerning fonts, clip art, alignment, white space, and line length all apply.

Some specific considerations include:

  • Title
    By its position in the publication and format it may be obvious to the reader that they are reading the TOC. However, it is usually titled in some way. Table of Contents, Contents, and In This Issue are common titles. I've seen a TOC labeled as Index although that is usually the title of a separate end-of-the-book section.
  • Dot Leaders
    Also called tab leaders or leader tabs, these row of dots help lead the reader from one bit of information to another across a page. You'll commonly find dot leaders used in a table of contents. Using Leader Tabs or Dot Leaders has tips on design issues and the technical aspects of dot leaders.
  • Page Numbers
    A TOC can have the page numbers for each chapter or section above or below or to the left or right of the chapter or section heading. Consistency and proximity are two important principles to keep in mind. With placement above or below, keep the numbers close enough to the chapter/section heading that they don't appear to go with a different heading. With left or right placement, provide enough contrast or spacing (proximity) that the numbers don't blend into the text but not so much space that it's hard to tell which heading they go with (dot leaders can help).
  • Number of Pages
    The number of sections or chapters and the amount of detail included in the TOC may require using more than one page. For a TOC that extends more than two or three pages, it may be beneficial to the reader to include a shorter "at a glance" TOC.