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How to Create a Table of Contents in Microsoft Word

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When you’re creating or editing a long document, you’ll probably have to create a table of contents. That might sound like a chore, but fortunately, you can do it in just a few clicks. Then, if you change the document, Word can update the table of content instantly. Best of all, Word includes hyperlinks to the various sections in your table of contents, so it isn't just a visual aid for printed documents, but also is perfect to make easy-to-browse online documents and PDFs.

Creating the table of contents itself is simple, but the tricky part is getting it to work the way you want. In this tutorial, I'll show you everything you need to make a simple, auto-generated table of contents, and then get it to look the way you want in every version of Microsoft Word.

Screencast

You can follow along using your own document, or if you prefer, download the zip file included for this tutorial. It contains a document called The Age of Einstein.docx, which is a public domain physics textbook (credit to the author, Professor Frank W.K. Firk).

Creating Your Table of Contents

There are a few ways of creating a table of contents, but only two that you’ll ever use

  • Create them automatically from built-in styles
  • Create them from your custom styles

These methods work mostly the same in Windows and Mac.

Using built-in styles is the fastest and most common technique, and using custom styles takes only a little more work. Sometimes, you’ll want to use both techniques in the same document. Once you have a TOC in a document, you can format it with its own styles. You don’t want to format the TOC like regular text, because the formatting can easily get wiped out.

How the Textbook is Organized

Before doing anything to the document, let’s see how it’s organized. Page 1 is the title, page 2 is blank and will hold the TOC, page 3 is the preface, and after that comes the text. As you scroll down, notice that headers and subheaders are formatted.

Formatted headers and subheaders
The textbook has level 1, 2 and 3 headings

The best way to see the structure of the document is with the Navigation Pane (Document Map Pane in the Mac version).

In Windows, go to the View tab, then click the check box to enable the Navigation Pane.

Navigation Pane in the Windows version
The Navigation pane is a great way of looking through a document

On the Mac, click the Sidebar button to show it. If the Sidebar is showing thumbnails, reviewing tools or the Search pane, click the Down Arrow next to the Sidebar button and select Document Map Pane.

Map Pane in the Mac version
On the Mac, use the Document Map Pane to navigate through a document

Go back to the Home tab if you’re not already there. Keep your eye on the Styles box on the ribbon, and click the items in the pane to navigate through the book. Notice that the items with whole numbers – like 2. Understanding the Physical Universe – are formatted as Heading 1, and items with decimals – like 2.1 Reality and Pure Thought – are formatted as Heading 2. There are also a few decimal items – like 4.5 Space Travel – that are formatted as Heading 3.

Tip: when creating a document, the shortcuts for applying the Heading 1, 2 and 3 styles are Ctrl-Alt-1, Ctrl-Alt-2, and Ctrl-Alt-3 (and Command-Opt-1, Command-Opt -2, and Command-Opt-3 on the Mac).

Generating a TOC Using Built-In Header Styles

Word can now turn those Heading styles into table of contents entries. Click at the top of page 2. (Tip: in Windows, press Ctrl-G, type 2, then press Enter. On the Mac, press Command-Opt-G, type 2, then press Enter.)

In Windows, go to the References tab on the ribbon, click the Table of Contents button on the left, then choose one of the two built-in tables from the list. Note that the thumbnails show that Headings 1, 2 and 3 will be included.

It’s almost the same on the Mac. Go to the Insert menu, choose Index and Tables, then pick one of the formats on the left and click OK. This dialog box also shows that Headings 1-3 will be included.

Choosing a built-in table of contents
You can insert a table of contents just by clicking one of the samples

As soon as you choose one, the TOC gets inserted starting on page 2, and Word automatically inserts a couple of more pages, so it all fits. In Windows, you can Ctrl-click one of the items, and it will hyperlink to the item in the document.

table of contents with automatic hyperlinks
A table of contents is a field that you can update. In Windows, fields have a gray background.

This works great, but there’s one problem. Before the Introduction, there is a Preface that should be included in the TOC. And just before Appendix A1 is the heading for the Appendix, and that should also be included. But they weren’t, because they’re both formatted with a custom style called Large heading, and custom styles don’t get included in the default TOCs. The second method of creating TOCs will fix that.

Creating a Table of Contents from Custom Styles

Word can include any styles in a table of contents. We just have to tell it which ones to choose. And we can update the table, rather than having to delete it and start over.

In Windows, go back to the References tab, click the Table of Contents button, then near the bottom of the menu, choose Custom Table of Contents.

On the Mac, go to back to the Insert menu and choose Index and Tables. In the Table of Contents section, click the Options button.

This shows that the Heading 1 style will have TOC level 1, the Heading 2 style will have TOC level 2, and the Heading 3 style will have TOC level 3.

options dialog showing heading styles
Word uses its built-in styles to determine what goes into the table of contents

Scroll down to the bottom of the list, then in the box for Large heading, type a 1 to make it level 1. TOC levels can come from more than one style.

custom styles in the headings dialog
To include a custom style in the table of contents, assign a heading level to it

Click OK in the Options dialog, then OK again in the TOC dialog. When Word pops up a message asking if you want to replace the table, choose Yes. The Preface and Appendix are now both included in the table of contents.

table of contents that includes custom styles
After adding custom styles to the TOC list, text formatted with those styles will appear in the table

Manually Updating the Table of Contents

There are other times when you’ll want to update the table manually. This is handy when you change the text of one of the headings and want the change reflected in the table of contents.

Scroll down to page 4, and at the top of the page replace PREFACE with FORWARD. Make sure it still uses the Large heading style.

Go back to the top of the TOC and click in it. Note that it has a gray background; that means it’s a field, and fields can usually be updated. Click the Update Table button either on the TOC itself (that button doesn't always appear) or on the References tab, and the first entry changes to FORWARD. On the Mac, right-click the table and choose Update Field from the pop-up menu.

table of contents after editing document text
Update the table of contents with either of the Update Table buttons or by right-clicking the table and selecting Update Field.

Now that the table of contents displays the correct text, we can apply nicer formatting.

Modifying Table of Contents Styles

Each heading level of the table of contents has its own style that’s automatically applied. All we have to do is change the formatting of the styles to change the table’s appearance.

  1. In Windows, in the References tab of the ribbon, click again on the Table of Contents button and choose Custom Table of Contents, near the bottom. On the Mac, click Insert > Index and Tables. On the left side, choose the format you already applied, then click Modify. Everything else works the same way as in Windows.
  2. In the Table of Contents dialog, click Modify, and another dialog appears, showing style names and formatting for the TOC heading levels.
  3. Select TOC 1.
  4. Click the Modify button just below it, and the Modify Style dialog appears.
Modify Styles dialog
Use the Modify Style dialog to choose the heading levels you want to format.

Format the style with Arial or Helvetica, 12 points, bold. Then click OK.

Edit Styles dialog for changing heading appearance
Modifying the style of a TOC item is the same as modifying the style of any other text in Word
  • Repeat for the TOC 2 style, and set it to Arial or Helvetica, 12 points, normal.
  • Repeat for the TOC 3 style, and set it to Arial or Helvetica, 11 points, normal.

The table of contents should now look like this:

table of contents after applying new style formatting
After editing the table of contents styles and updating the table, you'll see the new formatting

Conclusion

When you have a long document, you don’t have to fear creating a table of contents. Whether you’re using Windows or a Mac, you can insert one in just a few clicks, then use the same dialog box to change the formatting.

Remember not to apply formatting directly to the table, because it can get wiped out if you replace the table. If you make any changes to the document itself, remember to click the top of the TOC and update it. Leave a comment below if you have any trouble making or tweaking your table of contents.

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