Microsoft Word & numbered lists

Updated: September 5, 2018

Sometimes, seemingly trivial things can be daunting. Say you're writing a document in Microsoft Word. Say you're using headings (title, headings 1, headings 2, etc.), and then you want to create a table of contents, too. But then you realize you haven't really numbered your headings. You want to do this retrospectively, and you realize it's not an easy task.

In this guide, I'd like to show you how you can create smart, flexible multilevel lists with numbering and bullets, so that you can style your document headings with precision. This will also help you create more professional papers and your tables of contents will be better looking, too. Let's do it.


Modify styles

Create a document. Write a bunch of stuff. Style the different elements. For instance, my simple yet witty sample page comes with six lines of text, including a title, three levels of headings and then some ordinary paragraphs.


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There are many ways you can go about trying to number your headings. In the ribbon interface, under Home, in the Paragraph section, you have three drop-down options, including bullets, numbers and lists. This last one is what lets you style your headings. The automatic choice comes with several templates, but it won't really work after the fact - otherwise you'd not be reading this article. Instead, we will try something else.

If the full Styles sidebar isn't open, expand it by clicking in the bottom right corner of the Styles section of the Home tab in the ribbon. Then, for each relevant style, right click > Modify. A window will open. Click the Format drop-down button in the bottom right corner and select Numbering...

Modify style


You will have several templates available, but that's not what we need. But we do want a new, custom one. Click Define New Number Format...

New format

Once the new window opens, define the number format, style and font. If this is a top level heading, you don't need to specify a separator. If this is say heading 3 or heading 4, you will need to define how Word ought to interpret the numbering hierarchy. You can use any non-numerical separator.

Define new format

You need to repeat this for each heading. Then, you will probably notice that the numbers are indented differently from what you had by default. You may want to change this. Again, we need to modify each and every related style. This time, we want Format > Paragraph. Specifically, we need to change indentation before text and Special: Hanging value. For instance, if you want everything flushed to the left, use 0 as the value.

Paragraph indent and hang

This will work just fine. But, then may will notice that there's no numbering auto-restart once you go up one level. In other words, you may see 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 2.4. If it works fine, you're all set, job done. If not, we will need do something else.

Create a new multilevel list

In the ribbon interface, click on the list button and then select Define New Multilevel List...

New multilevel list

This will open a somewhat complicated wizard. For each selected level, you need to click the number on the left. Then, you need to link level to style. For example 2 to Heading 2. There's the usual formatting next. You can then define at what number the list starts (in most cases 1), but more importantly, you should tick the box that reads Restart list after: and then select the one level above. In general, Word will auto-select the hierarchy level one up, so you don't need to worry about this. Lastly, we have the indent and alignment. You can set all to zero, if you like.

Multilevel details

Next list depth

And we're done! All good now. Happy days.

List complete


Sometimes, office suites and word processors can be rather difficult, and what makes them even more intimidating is that they become quite programmatic, not unlike markup languages. For that matter, you might as well use HTML or LaTeX. But then, writing documents well isn't a simple thing, and if you want to have a consistent format, you need to work heavily with styles.

Hopefully, this tutorial was of use. Numbering headings isn't always straightforward, so my suggestion is to define what you need upfront. This will save you time editing things later on. But you can always define a multilevel list, and there are a lot of options available. And that concludes the lesson for today. Well, then, happy writing. See you around.