If you're putting together a long document in Word it’s generally a good idea to include a table of contents. Not only does this allow readers to find the information they need quickly and easily, but it also lends a level of professionalism.

Thankfully Microsoft has built tools into its all-conquering Office suite that makes this a simple task. We show you how to create an automated table of content in Word.

If you haven’t got Word yet, then check out our How to get Word for free guide.

How should I format my document?

Before we begin, it’s worth mentioning that there’s no magic button that will take a rambling document and transform it into a highly ordered manuscript. There’s going to be a little bit of formatting involved. But not much, we promise.

Essentially the way the automated contents feature works is that Word scans the document for any text formatted as either Heading 1, 2, or 3. Then it uses these to create the contents sections.

The two Headings formats also stand for different things. Heading 1 is for new sections or chapters. While Heading 2 creates sub-sections within the last main section, and Heading 3 subheadings within those.  

So, the first thing to do is to go to your document and highlight the text that will make up your first section/chapter heading. This shouldn't be the title, which should have the Title styling applied.

Now, make sure the Home tab is selected on the ribbon at the top of the page, then go over to Heading 1 in the Styles section and click on it.

how to make an automated table of contents in word

The text will turn into a large font, most likely in a blue colour, thus indicating that it’s now in a Heading 1 format.

Repeat this step for all your main section headings throughout the document.

If you have subsections you want to include, then be sure to use the same method as described above, but this time selecting the Heading 2 or Heading 3 style.

how to make an automated table of contents in word

How do I create an automated table of contents?

With all of your headings and subheadings formatted, it’s now time to create the table of contents.

Choose where you want the table to appear by clicking on that area of the document. Then go up to the menu ribbon at the top of the page and select the References section.

On the left you will see an icon for Table of Contents. Clicking on this opens up a drop-down menu that has three options.

how to make an automated table of contents in word

The top two are automated tables that behave in basically the same way, with the only difference being that the first labels the table as Contents, while the second uses the nomenclature Table of Contents. The last is a Manual option, if you just want to write the whole thing yourself which you probably don't.

So select either the first or second option and you will see a contents table appear, using all of the heading styles you selected.

how to make an automated table of contents in word

All the text will be the same as it appears in the main document, because this is where the contents are drawn from.

If you decide to change anything then you’ll need to edit the document rather than the table. It’s worth noting that the contents won’t automatically update though, so once you’ve made an adjustment you’ll need to click anywhere on the table and look for the menu in the upper left corner. 

how to make an automated table of contents

Click Update Table and your new text should appear in the contents below. Selecting the drop-down menu option to the left of Update Table will allow you to either change the style of the table, or delete it entirely if it’s not to your liking.

This, then, is a quick way to smarten up your written creations, while making them easier to navigate. Your readers will be pleased.