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Academic Writing: 5 Tips to Writing a Table of Contents

Sep 04, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
Few of the major style guides or manuals include specific rules, standards, or instructions for the creation of a table of contents. But that doesn't mean that your teacher cannot ask you to include one, especially for longer academic papers such as a doctoral thesis or dissertation. These "papers" are generally between 100-200 pages long, making a table of contents a helpful guide.
Just as it is in most books, the section should appear after the title page and before the abstract. If you are not required to include an abstract in your paper, the table of contents should be inserted before the body of your paper. Although fairly generic in content and layout, there are a few simple tips we will share that will make it easier to create a basic table of contents section.

1. Write the paper first

As you might expect, it's impossible to know which page something will appear on before you complete the document. With that said, some writers do create a basic table of contents to use as a guide before they start writing the body of their paper. Then when they complete it, they simply fill in the page numbers for each section.
Of course, you must also edit the document before you can include page numbers, since even minor modifications can change the length of your paper. Therefore, we strongly suggest that you simply wait until the paper has been completed to create your table of contents section. And if you require a guide, simply use your outline instead, which should be far more detailed than your table of contents anyway.

2. Organize your document

By the time you complete the body of your paper, you should have a pretty good idea how it will all come together. If it is a longer work such as a doctoral dissertation, it must be separated into sections, just like any other book. Only after you have done this should you create the table of contents. To do so before the order of sections are set is often a big waste of time, since the listings may have to be revised numerous times. So, be patient and leave the table of contents section until the very end.

3. Decide how detailed it must be

As a general rule, the more technical your subject is, the more important it is to break your work into separate sections and subsections. This will help your readers find exactly what they're looking for without having to peruse an entire section. The easiest way to do this is to decide whether or not you want to simply list the level headings or both the headings and the subheadings.
When including subheadings, they should naturally appear directly under the main sections of your paper, where they will be grouped together to show that they deal with closely related topics. It is may also be helpful to number them. For example, you might begin with the title of the first main section and number it 1.0. Then the first subsection would be numbered 1.1 and the second subsection 1.2 and so on and so on. Once again, this makes it easier for your readers to locate the topics they are most interested in.

4. Create two separate columns

No matter the subject or field of study, a standard table of contents should have a column on the left and a column on the right. The column on the left lists all of the main sections and subsections of the body of your paper, while the column on the right obviously lists the corresponding page numbers. That is the easiest and most helpful way to divide the sections of your paper to make it a breeze for readers to locate specific information.
It is also important to note the length of the table of contents section should not be an issue. Some writers have simple lists that take up only about a page, while others include highly detailed sections that are about as long as the chapters of most books. The only important thing it to make certain that the table of contents fulfils it primary purpose, which is make your paper easier to navigate and thusly more accessible to the reader.

5. Properly format your table of contents

Because there are no set stylistic standards when it comes to this section, there are countless variations and permutations. And while no single format is by definition correct, there are a few simple errors that can make your table of contents harder to read and to use. What are they?
Arguably the most common one is running rows of periods from the sections and subsections to the corresponding page numbers. It might seem helpful since all the reader has to do is follow the line to correct page number. But what usually ends up happening is that all those unnecessary periods makes the page look cluttered, which actually makes it harder to read. Instead, simply leave the space between the columns blank. It's much cleaner and the page numbers will actually be easier to locate.
Another mistake many writers make is that they number their preliminary pages, including the table of contents section, and then reset the pagination in the body of their paper. Needless to say, it can be extremely confusing to the reader to have two sets of numbers in two different sections. Instead, use roman numerals to number the sections before the body, or simply don't number them at all.
It is also important to include the page numbers of your Works Cited Page and your appendixes in the table of contents. These are the pages your teachers and readers will use to check your sources, so remember to feature them prominently in the section.
By Kevin Demlon. Kevin is a good writer. All his works including samples of academic assignments are of great help to students of all levels.
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