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Given the choice between a can of Pringles and a seat at Nobu, which would you go for? For me personally, it depends. If I’m sitting at home preparing on catching up with the latest comedy special on Netflix, then I’d go with the Pringles. But if I don’t really have anything better than do, then I could do a lot worse than a plate of Miso cod.

Long form and short form contents

It might sound like a strange comparison, but that is exactly what I think about short form and long form contents. They’re not an either/or situation, both should complement each other. It might be easy to think that with our relatively short attention span, short form contents (anything under 2,000 words) might be the way forward, as has been proven by the rise of sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy but that’s not necessarily the case.

As the world has been reeling from one political upheaval after another (Brexit, Trump, North Korea etc) in recent years, the spotlight has now fallen back to traditional publications as the world collectively tries to make sense of what’s going on in the world. Buzzfeed realizes this as well and has in recent years branches out into the realm of investigative journalism and was the one who broke the story on Anthony Rapp that eventually lead to the downfall of American actor Kevin Spacey.

Still, long form contents are both difficult to write and consume. Say you jump into a story expecting to finish it by the end of your coffee break only to find it’s longer than you expected and you’re forced to leave it for now and pick it up a later time. Once you’re done with work, you open that story again only to forget where you left off and resigned yourself to read it from the beginning. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? I do too and that’s where one of web development practices could do you wonders. Drum roll for table of contents.

Table of contents, a digital bookmark

Anyone who’s ever opened a math book in school should be familiar with the term. Table of contents (TOC) is a list usually found on a page just before the start of the actual book containing chapter titles, sub-chapters and their corresponding page number. Online, a TOC is most commonly found on wiki sites like Wikipedia, where instead of a page number, each section listed in the TOC serve as a link immediately directing you to the section in question.

If you’ve ever jumped into the Wikipedia wormhole (a totally scientific term describing a phenomenon of someone clicking one link after another from one original article) then you should already know just how useful a tool a TOC can be. If you’re young enough to have never been in that position though, here are a couple reasons why:

  • As a general outline for users

First and foremost, TOC work as a heads-up to give users an impression of what they’re about to read. This can be especially important in a technical article to make sure that the information contained in the article fits with what the user is looking for.

  • As a quick way of reaching the section they’re interested in

Not everyone who went looking for Meghan Markle in Wikipedia is interested in her entire history. By that same token, sometimes a user will stumble upon your long form article when in fact they were simply looking for an answer to a question. In cases like these, it’s useful to have a TOC that could act as a quick jump-off point. Who knows, if they like the answer they found, they might be tempted to read the whole piece.

  • As a digital bookmark

Some long form contents are just too long for me to digest in a coffee break. Some had to be cut short when life happens. The latter occurs far more often than I would’ve liked and I personally think it’d be great to be able to easily pick up where I left off. While the use of headings in an article is good enough as a signpost, nothing beats a well-structured TOC to identify a natural stepping point. Additionally, there’d be no need to scan where you left off the last time with a TOC hyperlink.

  • As a form of structurization

If you’re writing an in-depth technical article with lots of headings, sub-headings and even more bullet points, the use of a TOC could help you in structuring your article. Whether there are placements that could be moved around so that the article flows better, sub-headings that could use more attention or even sections that should be removed or merged, a TOC could help you in making all these decisions.

The tricky thing with TOC is that it doesn’t necessarily lend well to non-technical articles. An opinion piece or anything that involves a storytelling tends to not mesh well with a TOC. You can divide them into broad chapters or sections like you would do a book but it can be hard to find the proper dividing point.

Still, a TOC doesn’t have to be limited to one article. An article series or a selection of articles covering the same general subject could also be linked together under one article acting as a TOC. When I was still learning the basics of network engineering, I used materials from Learn Cisco as one of the resources. They have a permanent TOC over on the right section of the page to make studying as painless as possible. If you’re still on the fence, know that implementing TOC on your website is easy as there are a number of plugins available for WordPress.