Working with a Table of Contents in Word: The Only Guide You Need

Learning to create, format, or update a table of contents in Word isn’t hard.

You just need to follow a couple of straightforward steps. (Note: A Microsoft Word table of contents—or any TOC, for that matter—shares many features with an outline. It’s the “snapshot” of your document’s body.)

We’ll be working with MS Word’s built-in styles and using the term heading quite a bit, so if you need a refresher before we begin, have a look at our MS Word styles tutorial first.

Bookmark this page so you can come back to it later. If you find this post helpful, then share it!

Note: Throughout this post you’ll see the initialism TOC, which stands for table of contents.

archives room, table of contents in Word, Word table of contents

A table of contents in Word works just like binders in an archives room, allowing users to easily and quickly find what they need.

I. How to Create a Table of Contents in Word

Once you learn how to insert a table of contents in Word, you never forget. (It’s sort of like riding a bike, but without the scraped knees.)

Step 1: Style Your Headings

A table of contents (TOC) is made up of entries. Each entry comes from a heading within your document, whether that’s a report, a white paper, a dissertation, or something else.

We can use the Styles pane in MS Word’s Home tab to “tag” each heading: Heading 1, Heading 2, etc. (Sample text shows what each style looks like.)

  1. Put your cursor in any heading that is highest in your heading hierarchy and click on Heading 1 in the Quick Styles pane.
  2. Apply the Heading 1 style to all other top-level (H1) headings. H1 heads are the broadest in scope, followed by H2, H3, H4, etc.
  3. Repeat for all heading levels that you want to use in your TOC.

Tip: To help readers the most, include at least two levels of heading—but not more than three. (You don’t want a 10-page TOC.)

Step 2: Insert the TOC

Once you’ve styled all of your headings, you can create the table of contents in Word.

  1. Place your cursor where you want the TOC to appear. (At RedLine, we insert the TOC on a blank page after the title, half-title, and acknowledgments page but before other front matter pages such as the acronym list, abstract, executive summary, etc.)
  2. From the References tab, select “Table of Contents.”
  3. Choose between MS Word’s automatic or manual TOC. (The difference is that an automatic TOC inserts “fixed” entries, while a manual TOC inserts entries that you can type over if you wish to change them.) If you’ve worded your headings correctly in the document, then use the automatic TOC.
table of contents in Word, Word table of contents

Choose from any of Word’s automatic TOC templates.

Tip: Insert a page break before and after your TOC by clicking Cmd + Enter (Mac) or Ctrl + Enter (Windows).

Tip: Style every element in your document, from table captions to footnotes. Most page elements won’t become entries in your TOC, of course, but they’ll have a consistent look throughout the document.

II. How to Update a Table of Contents in Word

Step 1: Change Headings (If Needed)

  1. Check the entries in your TOC for wording and correct case. Your options are title case and sentence case.

    Title case means that the first word in the heading as well as all “important” words such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. take a capital letter. (Articles and most prepositions remain in lowercase.) The headings in this post are in title case.

    title case in table of contents in Word, update a table of contents in Word

    For title case, capitalize all words except articles and most prepositions.

    Sentence case means that only proper nouns and the first word in the heading take a capital letter. (This style gets its name from the fact that this is how we capitalize sentences in English.)

  2. Change headings that are not worded or styled correctly.

Tip: Help your readers by making your headings visually distinct (for example, all H1 headings in all caps, all H2 headings in title case, all H3 headings in sentence case, etc.).

Tip: Adjust headings in the document itself, not in the table contents.

Step 2: Update Your TOC

  1. To update a table of contents in Word, right-click on the table.
  2. Choose “Update Field.”
  3. Select either “Update page numbers only” or “Update entire table.”
update field in table of contents in Word, Word table of contents

Right-click to update a table of contents in Word, then choose whether to update the entire table or pages numbers only.

Tip: When you update a table of contents in Word, choose “Update page numbers only” if your headings have moved (because you’ve added or deleted content) but their wording hasn’t changed. However, if you’ve changed the wording or capitalization of your headings since the last update, select “Update entire table.” This second option is “safer” (more thorough).

III. How to Format Your TOC

Step 1: Pick the Easy Way or the Hard Way

When formatting a Microsoft Word table of contents (or doing just about anything in Word, actually), you have a couple of options.

You can always change things manually. For example, you can click and drag to select an entry in the TOC. Then, from the Home tab, you can change the appearance of your selection.

But why in the world would you do that for dozens of entries in the TOC? This is the hard way.

The easy way is to make changes globally using TOC styles.

  1. Navigate to the References tab.
  2. Select “Table of Contents,” then “Custom Table of Contents.”
  3. Click on “Modify” in the dialog box, which opens up a window that allows you to change the look of the TOC entries: TOC1, TOC2, etc.

Step 2: Format TOC

  1. Select the TOC style that you want to format from the list. Ideally, you’re using only TOC1, TOC2, and (maybe) TOC3.
  2. Click “Modify.”
  3. Change typeface, font size, bold attributes, or any other formatting feature.
styles in table of contents in Word, Word table of contents

Format your TOC by changing styles globally, not manually.

Tip: Do your formatting last—it’s the easiest part.

IV. Next Steps

Now it’s your turn. Time to practice!

Download the document that’s used in the screenshots in this post to play around with an MS Word table of contents. Then try the following:

  1. Delete the existing TOC and insert a new one: Word will pull the various headings from the document and create entries in the TOC. (Section I)
  2. Update your TOC: Change the wording of any heading in the document (add, change, or delete words). Then update the TOC and verify that the change is reflected in the entry in question. (Section II)
  3. Format your TOC: Following the steps above, change the look of your TOC styles. (Section III)

Ask a question in the comments if you have any trouble.

So now you know how to insert, format, and update a table of contents in Word. If you need help, then get in touch. It’s the software we use in most of our document formatting work. Thanks for stopping by!

Check out this table of contents to see how entries for sections and subsections can appear.

Last, download our editing checklist to help you create better digital content.

2 Comments

  1. Graeme November 21, 2017
    • Matthew Kushinka November 21, 2017

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