If there’s one thing I’ve learned writing documentation for software and other procedures, it’s that people love a good table of contents (TOC). I include a TOC in almost every document I create, and when someone gives me a document to edit and make pretty, I add a TOC whenever appropriate.

For the record, let me say that the wrong way to generate a TOC is by copying and pasting—or worse retyping—the section headings in any given document into a makeshift TOC. The process is prone to error, and the result is static and cannot be updated except by more wasteful manual efforts.

To teach you and your users the right way to generate a table of contents, this week’s column is a crash course on the value of a TOC and how to use Word’s TOC feature.

Six benefits of the TOC
Your TOC can appear on its own page, or it can just take up a few lines on the top of the first page of your document. Either way, a TOC offers at least six benefits to the authors and recipients of technical documents. Specifically, a well-planned TOC can help:

  • Make a good impression. A document with a table of contents has a more professional appearance than a document without one.
  • Arrange your material. When you’re creating or editing a document, a TOC helps outline and organize your thoughts so you don’t leave out anything important.
  • Manage reader expectations. The TOC gives readers a high-level view of the content in the document. The author can use the TOC to set the tone and the framework for the document.
  • Provide a road map. Readers need familiar points of reference for quickly locating important information. The TOC’s page numbers help when users thumb through a hard copy. When viewing a “soft” copy of the Word document, users can enjoy Web-style navigation by clicking on an item in the TOC. (To read more about creating Web-style links in Word documents, click here.)
  • Make the document easier to discuss. Have you ever been in a meeting reviewing a document and the copy that was distributed didn’t have page numbers, much less a table of contents? Set the standard for documents that require group discussions, and include a TOC in your key documents.
  • Complement your training outline. When writing how-to manuals or documentation to be used as a handout in technical training, one of my favorite tricks is to use my training outline as the entries in the table of contents. The TOC acts as an executive summary or cheat sheet for the content of the document.

Creating a TOC for a how-to document
To illustrate the process of creating a basic TOC, I’ve created a how-to document in which the top-level headings are all instructions that can function as a cheat sheet. Figure A shows the sample how-to document.

I decided that the first page of the document would include both the title of the document and the table of contents. So I typed the placeholders Title of Document and Table of Contents on page 1, and then pressed [Ctrl][Enter] to enter a manual page. Next, I formatted the text I wanted to “hit” the table of contents—phrases that served as the section headings for our process—as Heading 1.

Figure A
This sample document demonstrates how easy it is to generate a table of contents.

Looking down the left side of our sample document window, you’ll notice that in the Styles pane I’ve used only two styles so far: Normal and Heading 1. I’ll explain how to copy the items formatted as Heading 1 to the table of contents in a moment

The Style area

Displaying the Style area will come in handy later when you’re troubleshooting why certain unwanted items keep sneaking in to your tables of contents. To control how the Style area appears, go to Tools | Options | View. In the Outline And Normal Options section, you can set the width of the Style area from 0 to 4.15″ (for those of you using inches as your unit of measure). Once you display the Style area, you can adjust its width by mousing over it and clicking and dragging.

Generating the TOC
When you finish writing and editing the various sections of your how-to document, go to page 1 and move the insertion point to the line below the text Table of Contents. Then go to Insert | Indexes And Tables and click the Table Of Contents tab. Without changing any of the default settings, press [Enter] or click OK.

When you do, Word will copy into the table of contents each paragraph formatted using the named style Heading 1, as shown in Figure B. If you make editing changes, such as inserting or deleting pages from the body of the document, select the table and press [F9] to update it. (You’ll have the choice of updating the entire table or just the page numbers.)

Figure B
When I generated the table of contents, Word copied all items formatted with the Heading 1 style.

Your TOC homework
Word generates tables of contents by looking for text formatted with certain styles. That makes it easy to create a rudimentary TOC by formatting as Heading 1 the items I wanted to appear in the sample TOC.

In creating that single-level TOC, I just scratched the surface of a feature that can enhance the quality of your technical and training documentation. Motivated Word users now probably want to know: What if I want to show more levels, such as Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3 items, in my table of contents? What if I want to change the appearance of the TOC?

I’ll talk about advanced TOC techniques in future columns. In the meantime, your homework assignment is to create a table of contents for the next document you create for your manager, your peers, or your end users. Go to Insert | Indexes And Tables | Table Of Contents and start experimenting.

Word up!

To comment on this tip, or to share your favorite Word support tips, post a comment below or write to Jeff.