Lesson 5: Table of Contents and Chapter Summaries
This is part of our free non-fiction book proposal course written by Lydia, Senior Editor at Penguin Random House. To see all posts in this series, please click here.
In this lesson, we’ll be looking at writing a table of contents and detailed chapter summaries
Writing a table of contents is important because it will help the publisher understand what you aim to cover in your book and show them that you are organised.
What should feature in a Table of Contents?
A table of contents (which publishers sometimes refer to as T.O.C) shows a publisher how you plan to structure your book. A table of contents usually includes chapter titles and information about other material you might choose to include in your book, like a glossary, an index, or further resources.
Start with a list of your chapters. Give them clear chapter titles or names. If you intend to divide your book or certain chapters into sections or parts, explain this. For each chapter in your table of contents, write one to three sentences about what is contained in each chapter. You can keep this brief though, as you’ll have plenty of room to expand upon these brief sentences with much more detail in the individual chapter summaries that come later.
Here’s an example of a Table of Contents for a popular science book about the sun and how it shapes our bodies and mind:
Chapter One: The Science of the Sun
A brief overview of how the sun works, the role it has played in earth and humankind’s development, and how our attitude and relationship has changed towards the sun.
Chapter Two: Our Body Clocks
This chapter will explain how our body clocks are affected by the sun’s circadian rhythms, the importance of sun for daily functioning, and what happens when we don’t get enough sunlight.
Chapter Three: The Benefits of Sunshine
This chapter looks at the physical and mental benefits of sunshine, explaining how it affects our mood, sleep, sociability, community and long-term health.
Chapter Four: The Effects of Shift Work
This chapter looks at how today’s work culture is disrupting sleep patterns and leading to medical complications. Looking at case studies of shift workers and their radically altered relationship with the sun, this chapter will outline the harm of shift work and provide these workers with helpful tips on how to reduce the health consequences of working this way.
Chapter Five: Protection from the Sun
This chapter explains why we need to protect ourselves from overexposure to the sun, the importance of using sun cream properly, and presents new research around the damaging effects of climate change on the ozone layer and UV absorption, and the health consequences.
Chapter Six: Light Therapy
A look at cutting edge light therapies that are being used to treat specific health conditions and what they can teach us about everyday health. This chapter also includes information on SAD (seasonal affective disorder), appropriate treatments, and offers tips for everyone on how to get more sunlight in the winter months.
Chapter Six: Our Society’s Body Clock
An overview of how modern behaviour (spending too much time inside, staying up late, working at night, lying in etc) has altered our relationship with the sun and how that has damaged our physical and mental health.
Drawing all learnings together, the conclusion offers simple and easy to follow advice on how to improve your sun exposure and sun care, for optimum health.
Note that this table of contents follows an orderly pattern – it starts with an overview outlining the science of the sun, it then sets up how our bodies are affected by circadian rhythms, it explains the benefits of sun, then moves on to the harms over exposure and under exposure can cause, the consequences of modern behaviours on our health, and finally, offers practical and instructive advice to help the reader ameliorate these dangers and optimise their health.
The key point about writing the table of contents for your book is to show that you’re organized and that you’ll cover all the essential aspects of your topic. If you structure this table of contents appropriately at the outset, you might find that if you do get that book deal, writing the book is relatively easy – sometimes even easier than putting together the book proposal!
Publishers understand that your proposed chapter list may change as you research the book and start writing. But at this point all the publisher really wants to see is that you have a clear plan in place.
One of the best ways to demonstrate just how well you have structured and planned your book is to write detailed chapter summaries. These chapter summaries go much further than the sentences accompanying the table of contents in showing the publisher what you will address. Each chapter summary should be about 500-800 words.
As you write the chapter summaries, think about what questions, topics, issues and perspectives each chapter will cover.
If you’re writing a prescriptive non-fiction book, whether it is on psychology or business, think about what the reader is learning in each chapter. Include a list of takeaways that the reader will be able to apply to their own life after reading your chapter.
If you’re working on a history book, make sure you explain what key historical events will be covered in each chapter and which sources you will draw upon. Are there extraordinary people who you have uncovered in your research whose stories you will tell in this chapter?
If you are writing a memoir or biography, you should provide a summary of plot points, scenes, places, character development, and themes for each chapter. The chapter summaries should reveal your or the character’s story of transformation, from beginning to end.
Tips on writing chapter summaries
This section of the proposal is the place where detail is welcomed most. So if you have an incredible story about a character, person or event, now is the time to really get into it.
Be clear about what each chapter will address, whether that’s covering well known events in a new way, presenting ground-breaking scientific research for the first time, outlining helpful self-help frameworks, or uncovering the incredible lives of war heroes and heroines, hitherto unknown. And then do just that. Describe what you said you would explore in that chapter.
I often find that the best chapter summaries are the ones that switch between telling the publisher what it is you are going to cover in the chapter and actually covering it. For example, if you say ‘this chapter is going to illustrate the secret lives of bees’, can you follow it up with a fascinating description of a bee’s daily activities, complete with compelling descriptions and interesting facts?
You’ll likely be familiar with the phrase, “show not tell”. In these chapter summaries, you’re expected to do both! Tell us what you are going to address in the book and then actually show us what that would look like – what reading that particular chapter would feel like.
There is no one formula for writing good chapter summaries and you can approach them in a number of ways.
While it’s important to explain what each chapter will address, you don’t have to start every summary by saying ‘this chapter will…’. You might open with a provocative question, statistic, or dive straight into telling a story.
For example, if you’re writing about the lives of women in WWII, you might begin one of your chapter summaries with the story of Beryl, a London baker turned spy and recount what she was doing the moment before she was approached to be a spy. If you’re writing a book about the role wildflowers play in our ecosystem, you may begin with a description of a rare flower found only on the rocky cliffs of the Hebrides and span out to make a bigger, important point on food chains.
When you’re writing chapter summaries, think what the best way is of presenting this information or telling this story that will get the publisher interested?
Other things to consider: You may want to include an estimate of what you think the word count will be for each chapter. You can include this information at the end of the chapter summary or alongside the chapter heading.
From reading your Table of Contents and expanded chapter summaries, a publisher should be able to discern the story of your book. This section of the proposal should demonstrate that as an author you have figured out what your readers will expect, what they need to know, and when they need to know it.
A publisher will be looking to see that you have a well thought through structure and plan. They will also be interested to learn more about how you will approach the subject of your book and how you write. Remember that detail is your friend in this section.