by Jean Hollis Weber
Keyword 3 (3), August 1992, p. 23. (Journal of the Australian Society for Technical Communication (NSW) Inc.)
Planning a project before beginning the detailed work is one of the vital steps to success in technical communication.
Developing a table of contents is one of the steps in the planning process of a document. A table of contents is more than a list of topics you intend to include in the document. It is an outline of the document, with the topics in the order you plan to develop and present them. (This plan might change during the writing, but changes should be minimal if you have done sufficient planning.)
Novice writers, and those with little experience in developing tables of contents, often wonder where to start. I learned how to plan rather late in my career, having relied more on the technique of ‘write it all down first and then try to put it in a logical order’ – a technique that allowed me to produce some excellent documents, but only if I worked alone. When I began working in a team situation, I had to unlearn these chaotic habits and learn some new planning skills.
In the process, I developed the following set of hints for developing a table of contents. I hope you find them helpful.
- Before you start, I assume you have gathered as much relevant information as you can, so that you have a reasonable idea of the scope of the work and the expectations of whoever has assigned the job to you. (Those expectations might be unrealistic or inappropriate, but that’s the subject of a different essay.)
- Write down the purpose of the document and how you intend it to be used: policy? procedures? reference? marketing? public information? legal requirements, such as an annual report?
- Write down your audience analysis. For example:
- Who are they? Company staff, customers, general public?
- What background information should they already have?
- How do you think they will use this document? Is this the same as the way you want them to use the document? (It often is not the same, and you need to plan the document to take this discrepancy into account.)
- What is their attitude likely to be toward the document?
Note: Sometimes I do the question-list first, before I make the list of what I think the audience needs to know. This helps me avoid the trap of telling them what I want to tell them, rather than telling them what they need to know. The important thing is to make two separate lists, from two separate viewpoints, and then compare the two lists.
Last updated 23 November 1998