Make Your Paper Notebooks Useful: How to Set Up a Table of Contents or an Index

Let’s nerd out about the difference between a table of contents and an index; and how we can use these in personal paper notebooks.

Often I will use the terms “index” and “table of contents” interchangeably, but that is because I live dangerously. It’s not for everyone to toss around these terms so lightly… I’ve practiced for years, so I can handle such breathtaking risks.

In this post, however, we’re making distinctions.

Tables of Contents and Indexes in Published Books: What’s the Difference?

A Table of Contents in a Published Book

In publishing, the table of contents usually comes at the front of a book or document. It is a list of TITLES for sections, chapters and headings, followed by the page number where they begin. It is ordered sequentially. It can use titles that are informative, but it can also use titles that reveal zip, zero, nada about the contents (”Chapter One”).

An Index in a Published Book

In publishing, the index usually comes at the back of a book or document.
The index is a list of TOPICS in the book, followed by the page number where you can find a given topic. It is organized alphabetically. It uses keywords or tags or category names.

Both are very useful; and both must be adapted quite a bit for personal paper notebooks.

Adapting a Table of Contents or an Index for a Personal Paper Notebook

Applies to Both Tables of Contents and Indexes: START HERE

Let’s start with good news: There is no Paper Notebook Tribunal! You cannot be fined, exiled, or made to walk the plank if you mess up the numbering, or anything else, in YOUR personal book! You might be taunted by a classless rubbernecker in a café, but so what? We are not publishers. We are scribbling or hand-lettering away, and we just want to find our stuff later. Good enough is good enough.

Job #1: Number the pages of your notebook

Okay, here’s the bad news: the notebook has to have the pages numbered. You can buy notebooks with numbered pages, or number the pages yourself, which is tedious unless you have this over-the-top office toy, but it must be done.

However, it does not have to be perfect. Numbering it yourself means you might skip a number, or use the same one twice. The key is to make sure you don’t have two pages with the same number. Skipping a number is no big deal; but using the same one twice will need a fix.

If you do happen to have page 9 followed by another page 9, call one page 9 and call the next page 9½ (or 9¾, if you’re headed for Hogwarts).

What matters is that each page number is distinct. We are not getting graded on this, we just want to find our stuff later.

Job #2: Set aside some pages of the notebook for your table of contents or index

Set aside some pages at the beginning or end of your notebook for your ToC or index. I usually go with six or eight pages, because I have sprawly handwriting. Experiment and see what you need.

Quite honestly, whether those pages are at the front or back of the notebook, who cares? If you want a table of contents on the last pages of your notebook, who am I to judge? In fact, I’ve done this. And sometimes I put an index in the front, whimsical creature that I am.

What matters is finding your stuff.

Now let’s look at separate considerations for creating a table of contents versus an index:

A Table of Contents for a Paper Notebook

I’m trying to imagine a circumstance where somebody’s paper notebook is going to have “Chapter One, Chapter Two” — but hey, if that’s you, don’t let my weak imagination hold you back. Otherwise, you want titles that actually reveal something, so your future self knows what you were referring to.

For a table of contents, make up a reasonably informative title for the note, and then list the page number.

  • Aunt Ethel’s tips on making biscuits and pie pastry - page 9
  • What needs to be dry-cleaned*, and what we can wash at home - page 20
  • How to clean up red wine stains - page 21

Unlike a published (edited, proofed) book, our paper notebook table of contents entries do not have to be perfectly sequential!

If you get interrupted and forget to list an entry in the table of contents right away, that’s okay. List it when you can. The point is to be able to scan the titles and find your stuff; not to have all the numbers in perfect order.

handwritten table of contents in a paper notebook, with page numbers listed next to sample titles

An Index for a Paper Notebook

Let’s say instead of a table of contents, you want an index instead. Let’s use the examples above. We need some keywords for those topics. Several come to mind:

  • laundry
  • dry-cleaning
  • stain removal
  • pastry
  • baking
  • Aunt Ethel (maybe I have a bunch of interesting items about Aunt Ethel in the notebook..)

An index is helpful because it makes cross-referencing simple. If I am wondering about dealing with a red wine stain, I could list that same piece of information under “stain removal,” or “laundry,” or perhaps even “dry-cleaning.”

Set up your index

I do mine by writing the letters of the alphabet down the left side of the page.

Then you list your topics alphabetically, followed by the page number.

The beauty of an index versus a table of contents is that you can easily cross-reference. Let’s say I want to find the note I wrote about Aunt Ethel’s tips about making biscuits and pie pastries; and I’m also recording family stories, so I also want to include this in notes about Aunt Ethel.

I can take that note about Aunt Ethel’s baking tips on page 9, and use these key words:

  • Aunt Ethel stories
  • baking tips
  • biscuits
  • pastry

handwritten index in a paper notebook, with page numbers listed next to topic keywords

In the photo above, I made a sample index and just used one column for the entries; but of course you can make use of a whole section, and write multiple topic entries per line.

Some tips on setting up the alphabetizing for an English-language notebook, from this extensive guide to paper notebook indexing:

  • C usually takes up more space than any other letter. Give it at least one-third more space than a baseline amount.
  • I takes up somewhat less space than average.
  • J and K can be combined effectively into JK, using an average amount of space together.
  • N and O can be combined into NO, using an average amount of space together.
  • Q needs almost no space, as one would expect. I prefer to not combine it with either P or R, since they are average space-users, but rather to write it on its own, giving it only one or two lines.
  • S needs more space than average.
  • T does too.
  • U and V can be combined into UV and still use slightly less space than average.
  • W takes the most space of any of the end-of-the-alphabet letters, but can still use slightly less than average.
  • XYZ123 can be just one section and still look empty most of the time. (123 indicates entries that start with a number, like 3-ring binder or 911.)

Now go forth, and find your stuff.


REFERENCES

‘Indexes or Indices - The Plural Debate’ (2011), 16 February. Available at: https://grammarist.com/usage/indexes-indices/ (Accessed: 17 June 2022).

The Art of Personal Indexing: The Complete Guide to Indexing Your Paper Notes (2013) The Technical Geekery. Available at: thetechnicalgeekery.com/2013/06/t… (Accessed: 17 June 2022).

NOTES

* Clothing that is lined with a different kind of fabric from the outer layer, needs to be dry-cleaned. I found this out the hard way, when my jacket liner did not shrink, but the outside fabric of the jacket did. Ooops.

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