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 it's also perfect to make easy-to-browse online documents and PDFs with.
Creating the table of contents in Word 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.
How to Make a Table of Contents in 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).
Watch the video screencast above or follow the written tutorial instructions below for more detail on how to make a table of contents in Word.
Creating Your Table of Contents in Word
There are a few ways of creating a table of contents in Word, 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 versions of Microsoft Word.
Using MS Word 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 table of contents (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 table of contents, page 3
is the preface, and after that comes the text. As you scroll down, notice that headings
and subheadings are formatted.
The best way to see the structure of the document is with
the Navigation Pane. (In some versions of Word for Mac, it may be called the Document Map Pane.)
In Windows, go to the View tab, then click the check box to enable the Navigation Pane.
On the Mac, click the Sidebar option to show the drop-down menu. Click the arrow next to the option and click Navigation. (On older versions of the Mac software, the option is called Document Map Pane.)
On your Mac or PC, 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 Table of Contents Using Built-In Header Styles in Word
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 Return.)
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.
As soon as you choose one, the table of contents 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.
This works great, but there’s one problem. Before the Introduction, there is a Preface that should be included in the table of contents. 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 table of contents. The second method of creating table of contents in Word will fix that.
Creating a Table of Contents From Custom Styles in Word
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. Click the Options button near the bottom of the dialog box to display the Table of Contents Options dialog box.
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.
On the Mac or PC the Table of Contents Options dialog box 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.
Scroll down to the bottom of the list (on the Mac, you'll use the down slider). Then, in the box for Large heading, type a 1 to make it level 1. Table of Content levels can come from more than one style.
Click OK in the Table of Contents Options dialog, then OK again in the Table of Contents dialog box. When Word displays 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.
Manually Updating the Table of Contents in Word
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 the page with the preface. 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 table of contents 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. Choose the Update entire table option and click OK.)
Now that the table of contents displays the correct text, we can apply nicer formatting though.
How to Modify Table of Contents Styles in Word
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, here's how:
- 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. In the Table of Contents dialog box, click Modify.
- On the Mac, click Insert > Index and Tables. On the left side, choose From Template, then click Modify. Everything else works the same way as in Windows.
- In the Table of Contents dialog box, click Modify, and another dialog box appears, showing style names and formatting for the TOC heading levels. Select TOC 1.
- Click the Modify button just below it, and the Style dialog box appears. (On the Mac, it's called the Properties dialog box.)
Format the style with Arial or Helvetica, 12 points, bold. Then click OK.
- 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:
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.
As you learned in this table of contents tutorial, remember not to apply formatting directly to the table, because it can get wiped out if you replace it. If you make any changes to the Word 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.
To learn more about working with Microsoft Word, study the following tutorials:
- Microsoft WordHow to Convert & Edit PDF Documents in Microsoft WordMatthew Guay
- Microsoft WordHow to Make Microsoft Word Text Effects and Typography ArtVaclav Krejci
- Microsoft WordHow to Simplify Word Document Formatting With StylesBob Flisser
Editorial Note: This post was originally published in 2014. It has been comprehensively revised to make it current, accurate, and up to date by our staff—with special assistance from Laura Spencer.