Show your readers the way

Tables of contents, lists of figures, and other "signposts" for your text

Image credit: Robert Ruggiero on Unsplash

If you’re in a new place, you’ll often spend a few minutes trying to get your bearings. When hiking in the mountains or looking for a room in an unfamiliar building, you’ll keep an eye out for signs telling you which way to go. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find them! Once you do finally stumble upon one, you’ll be glad to have the reassurance that you’re on the right path or to know that you need to take a different route.

It’s similar for the readers of your thesis. Unlike you, your readers don’t know where your methodology is described in detail or on which page a specific diagram can be found. Your text is completely new to them, and they can initially feel a bit lost when encountering it. Support them with different types of “signposts” placed before or after your main text, typically referred to as “front and back matter”. With their help you can give your readers the necessary orientation and explanations for reading your work. And, unlike in a new building or in the mountains, your readers won’t have to search for these signs themselves. That’s because in longer academic works like a thesis, they’re always found in one of two places: either before or after the main content of your work. If only the signposts on some hiking trails were that reliable!

Why include both front and back matter? Why not have everything in only one place? The signposts that appear at the beginning of your work give your readers an overview and information that will help them better understand the text that follows. Materials at the end of the work provide your readers with supplemental information or help them access your text in a different way. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the different types of front and back matter and what you need to consider when including them.

Front matter for an overview

Welcome your reader to your work and show them around by letting them know what content, images, and tables they can look forward to. This helps your readers form a first impression of your text and get themselves oriented.

Table of contents

The table of contents gives your reader an overview of the text to come and lists out all the main parts of your paper that follow. It’s not always clear from the title alone what exactly your work is about and what its focus is. Using the table of contents, your readers can better grasp the main themes and scope of your work.

The table of contents usually appears after any prefatory material, such as a submission page, title page, copyright page, abstract, dedication, or epigraph. The format reflects your outline and includes your chapter and sub-chapter headings exactly as they appear in your paper, along with the page numbers where each chapter can be found. This keeps your readers from having to spend a lot of time hunting around for a certain topic in your text. Depending on your formatting requirements, not every level of your outline needs to be in your table of contents. Sometimes you may only need to go down to the third level of your outline.

The chapters and sections in your table of contents can be numbered according to the legal or alphanumeric numbering system. The legal numbering system is probably the most common type of numbering system for a dissertation. It looks like this:

2. Front matter for an overview

    2.1 Table of contents

    2.2 Table of images

       2.2.1. Table of images in Word

       2.2.2 Table of images in LibreOffice

In the alphanumeric system, letters are combined with  Arabic and Roman numbers in different variations. Here is one possible variant:

2. Front matter for an overview

    a) Table of contents

    b) Table of images

        i.  Table of images in Word

        ii. Table of images in LibreOffice

As long as you work with the appropriate heading styles, it’s easy to generate a table of contents in Word. You can also help your reader by linking the page numbers in your table of contents with the corresponding section of your document. This will make it possible to jump directly from the table of contents to the corresponding chapter in the electronic version of your document.

If you’re using Citavi, it’s best to create an outline before you start writing in Word. Add your ideas and sources to the outline as you research your topic. Once the outline is the way you want it and you have most of your content sorted by category, insert the headings from your outline into your Word document and then use Word to create the table of contents.

Table of figures

The table (or list) of figures follows the table of contents. It includes all of your images, charts, diagrams, drawings, and graphs. Each entry contains the number of the figure (which is assigned based on the order it appears in the text), its caption as it appears in the text, and the page number on which it can be found. You usually will not include source information for the image in the table of figures.

The table of images can also be easily created in Word as long as you enter the image captions and their numbering using the “Insert Caption” feature in Word. If your source information appears in the caption, you can use the trick shown in this video at 00:57 to remove it from the table of images.

If you want to manage your images and their captions together with your sources, quotes, notes, and ideas, you can use Citavi’s “image quotation” feature. Image quotations can be excerpted from a PDF file or from an already saved image file. EndNote also lets you save images, and there you can also distinguish between different types of images and tables.

Table of tables

Depending on your formatting requirements, you might list your tables as a separate section in the table of figures. If you do decide to create a separate table, it will usually appear after the table of figures and be formatted similarly: you’ll include the table number, its caption, and the page number where it can be found. In Word you can create the table of tables using the same feature as you use to create the table of images. To keep both separate from another, you simply need to use a different abbreviation for the numbering such as “Table” rather than “Fig.”.

Front matter for comprehension

After orienting your users, you may decide to include a few additional tables that are designed to facilitate your readers’ understanding of the text to follow.

Table of abbreviations

In a thesis or other longer academic text, you will likely use subject terminology and abbreviations that your reader may not always be familiar with. In addition, some abbreviations or acronyms can have different meanings in different contexts: an acronym such as “ADE” can mean “Adverse Drug Event” in a medical paper or “Application Deployment Events” in the software development world. To make it easier for your reader to look up the meaning of any acronym or abbreviation that is unclear, you can create a table of the abbreviations you’ve used in your thesis. Please note that it’s not necessary to include common abbreviations that can be find in a normal dictionary.

In Word, you can create a table of abbreviations using the Index feature. Simply select the abbreviation in the text, on the “References” tab click “Mark entry”, and then enter the full term in the “Cross-reference” field.

Table of symbols

If you’re working on a paper in the field of mathematics you might need to include a table of symbols and their meanings. This table can be structured similarly to the list of abbreviations.

Back matter

After the main body of your text, you should give your readers additional information on the sources you used in your paper so that they can find the materials that you used. In addition, you may want to provide supplementary documents or files to support points made in your paper or to make it easier for your readers to find where a specific term or topic appears in your thesis.


All sources that you discuss or directly quote in your text need to be listed in the bibliography or list of references at the end of your thesis. Works you might include would be journal articles, contributions in an edited book, internet documents, dissertations, etc. Works that you did not cite in your paper should be omitted. However, depending on your requirements, you might need to include a separate list of sources that were consulted but not cited.

A bibliography is usually sorted alphabetically, but it can also be sorted according to the order in which the sources were cited in the text, depending on your citation style’s formatting requirements. Unfortunately, these can vary widely, and there’s no one accepted standard. It sometimes can seem as if every journal, research institute, or professor has their own preferred style. If you are able to choose your own citation style, it’s often a good idea to go with one of the widely-used and well-documented styles such as APA, MLA, or Chicago.

Many software programs have been developed that take care of the bibliography formatting rules for you, so that you can focus on your writing instead. Known as reference management software, these programs help you keep track of your sources and offer formatting in many different styles. Citavi is one of them, and it offers over 10,000 citation styles.

How do these tools work? Reference management programs usually install an add-in in your word processor. With the add-in you can click to insert references in your text. A bibliography is automatically created at the end of your paper and automatically updated if you add or delete a citation. If you’re not working with a reference management program, Word also offers a built-in feature for creating a bibliography.

Depending on your formatting requirements or your thesis topic, you may divide up your bibliography into different sections. For example, a legal dissertation might subdivide the bibliography into the source types “Articles, books, reports; Cases; Legislation; Treaties; Other”. A historical work might list archival sources separately. If your field is Film Studies, you might have a separate section for the list of films discussed. Some reference management programs, including Citavi, can help you automatically sub-divide your sources and bibliography into these different categories.


In the appendixes you can insert supplemental documents or files that can help your reader better understand your points but that would disturb the reading flow or take up too much space if you included them in the body of your text. The entries for the appendix are typically included in the table of contents at the beginning of your document with a different entry for each type of appendix. For example, Appendix A might include survey instruments that were used, while Appendix B might include links and descriptions for multimedia materials.


A glossary can either be a part of the front or back matter. It’s used to explain some of the central terms in your work (similar to our citation style glossary). Your glossary includes short explanations of subject terminology and uncommon terms used in your thesis. It should be sorted alphabetically, and you might also consider including the page numbers referring to where the terms were used in your text.


The index usually appears at the very end of your paper, and it gives your readers an additional access point to your text. The index is an alphabetical list of concepts, names, or terms that your reader can use to quickly find the text passages where a specific term or name was mentioned. Unlike a glossary, it does not include any explanations.

To save space in your index and help your readers find what they're looking for, you can use cross-references. For example, you might have an index entry for the term “food fraud” that reads as follows:
Food fraud, (see Food tampering)

Final words

Often you will have to adhere to certain formatting requirements and the types of signposts described in this post will be predefined for you. But, if you have a bit more freedom, you might now be wondering which of these many tables and lists you should include in your work. To help answer this question, try putting yourself in your readers’ shoes. What supplementary signposts would be useful for you if you were looking at your thesis for the very first time? Which are unnecessary?

With too few signposts your readers won’t know where they are. With too many, they might feel overwhelmed. One thing is for sure: in a thesis or other longer academic work, you’ll always want to include a table of contents and a bibliography at the very least. With these two tools you’ll help guide your reader in and back out of your work.

Have you ever felt lost when reading an academic work because it didn’t offer enough signposts? Did we leave anything out? Let us know on our Facebook page!

For Further Reading:

Turabian, K. L. (2018). A manual for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations: Chicago Style for students and researchers (9th edition). Chicago guides to writing, editing, and publishing. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.

Created by: Jana Votteler – Published on: 10/8/2019

About Jana Votteler

Jana Votteler, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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