Are chapter numbers necessary?

Subject: Are chapter numbers necessary?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 18 Feb 2002 10:00:17 -0500

Emily Berk is <<... working on a document that consists of a series of
chapters that are related, but that emphatically need not be read
sequentially. The document is not a reference, it's really quite
conceptual. But it is simply not necessary for the reader to read it in
order, and, in fact, I want the reader to feel "invited" to dip into the
document more or less at random. When I began work on this document, I just
pulled up my standard book template, which puts the chapter number on the
top right of the first page of each chapter, just over the chapter title.
But, now, as I look at the nearly-completed chapters, the sequentiality of
those chapter numbers is starting to bug me. I don't want my readers to feel
that the sequence of chapters is in any way meaningful.>>

"Chapter numbers" are one of those things that have been around so long that
readers expect them, and where you need to make reference to chapters within
the book or from other resources (e.g., online help), they're a godsend to
readers--and to writers, for that matter. The question then becomes: "what
advantage do I confer to readers by departing from the standard?" In your
case, there's no obvious advantage. In a work of fiction (including some
manuals? <g>), the sequence is necessarily linear, and there are no
cross-references, so chapter numbers become optional--but even in fiction,
chapters are commonly numbered.

If there's no obvious hierarchy in the topics, readers will quickly figure
this out, and particularly so if you specifically state your opinion ("read
it in any order") in the introduction. However, if there's really no need to
work with the material linearly, and access will be primarily random, this
suggests that a book might prove less useful than online information.
Context may prevent this, of course, but it's worth thinking about.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

Hofstadter's Law--"The time and effort required to complete a project are
always more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's

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