How To Insert An Automatic Table Of Contents In Word

A table of contents is a useful feature to have in long documents, such as a thesis, to allow readers to quickly find what section they are looking for. Creating a table of contents, however, can be a tricky task, especially when you have to keep on updating the page numbers. But, did you know that there is a feature in Microsoft Word to automatically create one for you? No need to manually add and update page numbers, just let Word do the hard work for you.

In this guide, I will show you how to use the features of Word to enable the creation of a table of contents that can be updated automatically.

1. Create headings in Word

To be able to create an automatically generated table of contents, the trick is to use Word’s hierarchical headings system. So, for main headings ensure these are set to a ‘Heading 1‘ style and sub-headings would then go down in ascending order, e.g. ‘Heading 2‘, ‘Heading 3‘ etc. I have created an example to demonstrate this below. Each heading title is indicated in blue and the heading style used is highlighted in red.

2. Insert the table of contents

The first thing you need to do is to click on the document where you would like the table of contents to be inserted. I have just selected the very top of the document. Next, go to the ‘References‘ tab and then find the ‘Table of Contents‘ button on the very left. By selecting this, you are given a few optons which are built-in to Word. For this guide, I will select the ‘Automatic Table 2‘. This type of table will update the headings and the page numbers automatically. Note, there is an option for a ‘Manual Table‘, however, you will have to insert the headings and page numbers yourself. Not a very efficient way if you have a long document and want to change aspects of it in the future.

By selecting the ‘Automatic Table 2‘, Word has inserted a table of contents with the correspondng titles and page numbers. Notice that the titles with the ‘Heading 1‘ style are above the ‘Heading 2‘ titles in the list. The page numbers are indicated on the right-hand side of the table.

3. Keeping the table of contents updated

Despite being called an ‘Automatic Table‘, this does not necessarily mean that every time you add a new heading it will be added to the table of contents. Additionally, if you move headings around, or add more pages, the changes will not be reflected in the table until you select the ‘Update Table‘ option.

Whenever you make changes to the document, ensure you update the table of contents. To do this, click on the table of contents and an option will appear at the top of the table called ‘Update Table…‘. Click on this.

A new window will appear with two options:

  • Update page numbers only‘ – As the name suggests, this will update only the page numbers for each section. This is useful when the heading titles have been unaltered and you want to ensure that the correct page numbers are assigned to each section.
  • Update entire table‘ – This option will update the page numbers and the titles for each heading. Obviously, if you edit a heading title within the document, you will need to select this option to reflect these changes in your table of contents.

Select an option which is appropriate to you and click on the ‘OK‘ button to update the table of contents.


Microsoft Word version used: 2016


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