How to work with the Table of Contents in Microsoft Word

Oct 3, 2019 | Word Hints and Tips

Have you ever created a long document in Microsoft Word and needed a table of contents at the beginning to help you see the structure of the document and find your way around it?  Have you produced this manually and therefore find that if you make any changes to the document it doesn’t update?  Wouldn’t it be so much better if you added or removed text and the page number changed automatically or if you added a new heading it would add to the table of contents without manual intervention.  If you set up your table of contents correctly then this can happen.

Assigning heading styles

The first thing you need to do is use heading styles for your headings before you create the table of contents and it uses these to decide what is pulled through.

Image of Word Styles

On the Home tab, the styles section contains some preset styles that you can use for your headings.  Don’t worry too much at this point about what they look like.  These can be altered later. There are 9 levels of heading style available but normally only the first 2 are shown.  However, as you add a heading in the lowest style the next level normally appears.

Structure you document using these heading styles.  By default, only the first 3 levels will show in the table of contents unless you change the options.

To change what a heading style looks like

If you have already used the heading styles elsewhere in the document then it makes sense to change all the existing entries when modifying it.  To select all the headings formatted in a style right click on the heading style on the Home tab and Select All to make any changes required.  With the headings still selected right click on the heading style again and Modify the format to what you require.

You are now ready to create the table of contents

Create table of contents

Image of table of contents in word

Click in your document where you want the table of contents to go (normally near the start of the document).  Choose one of the Automatic options from the Table of Contents icon on the References tab.  The only difference between these is whether the heading says Table of Contents or just Contents.

Updating the table of contents

When new headings are added or page breaks or text inserted the table of contents will not update until you click on the table of contents and choose update table at the top.  You will then get the option of updating the whole table which should be used if additional headings have been created or removed or page numbers if the only change is that some of the existing headings will have moved from one page to another.

Creating a custom table of contents

Rather than using the automatic table of contents options instead choose custom table of contents from the Table of Contents icon.  This gives additional choices such as whether you include a page number and if so how it is displayed, what format is applied and number of heading levels that will be included.  In addition, modify allows the template to be built from styles other than the heading ones.  In addition, if the style chosen is “from template”, then the formatting of each level of the table of contents style can be updated creating a totally bespoke design.

Remove a table of contents

From the table of contents icon choose remove table of contents.

Creating and modifying the table of contents in the way described here saves huge headaches in keeping it constantly in sync with the document it relates to.

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