Becoming a great writer starts with being a savvy reader. You learn from watching what other people do. So as an aspiring nonfiction author and a student of writing, when I open a nonfiction book, I’m not just settling in to learn about the book’s topic. I’m also there to observe and notice the decisions the author made when they were writing. Every book is my teacher.
I used to think that approaching books with a more analytical perspective detracted from the joy and pleasure of the reading experience.
Actually, what I found as I started doing this more often was just the opposite: As I got better at “reading” the subtext of a book, at thinking through the decisions the author must have made for the book to appear as it does, I actually started to enjoy reading more.
Now, every time I read I discover something new. I approach the reading experience with curiosity and openness. I let go of my preconceived ideas and expectations about what the book should be, and I see what it really is. Even if I hate the content and don’t learn anything about the topic, I learn something about the decisions that the author made and I determine not to make those same mistakes.
There’s a lot that you can notice when you open a book, but let’s start with an example of one of the most foundational elements: the Table of Contents (TOC).
How to Analyze a Table of Contents
Lately I’ve been a bit obsessed with Ramit Sethi’s podcast “I Will Teach You to Be Rich,” which I heard about on my other favorite show, “The Daily Stoic.” Then my husband and I binge-watched his Netflix show, How to Get Rich. After that, it was only natural that I picked up the book to see what else I could learn. (Side note: See how superfans develop?)
The first thing I noticed when I opened up the TOC was that there’s a LOT of text.
Whoa… that’s a lot of detail.
Honestly, my eyes went to all of the small text under each chapter first. Is this an annotated Table of Contents in the actual book itself? On further inspection, I realized that under each chapter is a list of the outcomes and key ideas for that chapter. They have fun, interesting, thought-provoking phrases and paradigm shifts like, “You’re not a victim—you’re in control.” “Secret perks your credit card offers.” “Negotiate out of fees with your current bank (use my scripts).”
Just from reading the TOC, I’m already learning something new!
I realized I was getting lost in the minutiae, so I went back to the top and started again.
I saw: “An Open Letter to New Readers,” which made me realize something I had missed on the front cover: This is a second edition. Cool. And, by the way, this section of Ramit’s book is a fantastic example of how to write a note for a second edition (which is legally required!).
Next, I looked at the title of the Introduction. I believe an Introduction should have an interesting title and that it’s lazy when authors simply call their intro “Introduction.” This is a valuable opportunity to catch the readers' attention! If there’s no interesting title, people will most likely skip it. So I’m happy seeing a title—but especially one as provoking as “Would You Rather Be Sexy or Rich?” Good question! It’s provoking because it’s debatable. Either way, now I want to read it.
Moving onto the main chapters, I notice that all of the chapter titles have clear directives:
I know just from the verbs that this is going to be a practical, action-oriented book. Every chapter is going to have tangible deliverables and takeaways.
Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the sub-headings/tag lines in italics under each chapter. They sound like blog post titles and it’s feeling to me like there’s perhaps too much to look at, but that’s just my personal opinion. They are well-written.
The next thing I notice is the illustrations and the use of a second color (green) for the chapters. That tells me a significant investment was made in the manufacturing and a lot of thought was put into the reader’s experience. I know that I’m in for some whimsy and humor while reading this book. It feels very on brand for the author, who talks often about how much he cares about aesthetics. I imagine that these elements took some negotiating with the publisher, and I like that the author won!
There is one thing about this Table of Contents that is not clear. The subtitle of the book is: No Guilt. No Excuses. No BS. Just a 6-Week Program That Works. But where are the six weeks? We’ve got nine chapters, and all of them have action-oriented titles. Normally, I’d expect to see some more abstract chapters, perhaps on mindset or money psychology, towards the beginning of the book, with the more practical chapters laying out the six-week program coming next, perhaps in a “Part Two.” As an editor, that’s a recommendation I would have made to the author.
Despite that little bit of uncertainty, this is an exemplary Table of Contents. If I were grading it, I'd give it an A (rather than an A+, because the six weeks really should be clear...). But I absolutely love how evident the value of this book is for the reader. There's no doubt in my mind about what I'll be learning and how it applies to my life. And I haven't even started reading a single sentence of the actual book yet!
That's the power of a great Table of Contents.