How to format a table of contents in a Word document
How to format a table of contents in a Word document
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Word’s table of contents, by default, has no formatting. You can add formatting directly, but you’ll have to reapply it every time you update the table. Instead, learn how to modify the table’s underlying styles.

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Image: Ahlapot, Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you’re working on a document that requires a table of contents, Microsoft Word has an easy-to-implement feature based on built-in heading styles. Word uses Heading 1, Heading 2, and so on to build a table of contents; however, the resulting table of contents by default is almost devoid of formatting–it’s downright bland. I’ll show you how to modify the table of contents styles–specifically, we’ll add a bit of color, but you could apply a number of formats.

I’m using Office 365 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can use earlier versions of Word. You can work with your own document or download the demonstration .docx and .doc files. The browser edition will display an existing table of contents and even let you update it, but you can’t add a table of contents or modify a style.

LEARN MORE: Office 365 Consumer pricing and features

Word’s default table of contents

You might expect heading styles used in your Word document to persist in a table of contents, but that’s not how it works; while this behavior might seem odd at first, it’s by design. As a general rule, a table of contents is fairly bland. The table of contents will not have the same formatting as the heading styles.

Figure A shows a simple table of contents with three heading levels: Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3. All three styles are blue—a font format. I added a direct color format, red, to one Heading 2 instance to be comprehensive. (If you’re using a theme, blue might not be the predominant color.)

Figure A

The table of contents isn’t blue even though the built-in heading styles are.

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The table of contents isn’t blue even though the built-in heading styles are.

Word doesn’t use the heading styles (whether built-in or custom) applied to the document’s headings to format a table of contents. You could add direct formatting to the table of contents, but every time you update it, you’ll have to reapply the format. Fortunately, there’s an easier solution: Modify the built-in table of contents styles.

Word’s table of contents styles

Word uses a dedicated set of styles to format a table of contents. If you want to permanently format the table of contents, you’ll have to modify the corresponding styles.

To access the table of contents styles, click the Home tab, and then click the dialog launcher for the Style group to open the Styles. If you’re working in a document that already has a table of contents, you’ll find the table of content styles in use. For instance, the demonstration document uses three levels in the table of contents, so those corresponding styles are available in the pane (Figure B).

Figure B

The corresponding table of contents styles should be available in the Styles pane if the current document has a table of contents.

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The corresponding table of contents styles should be available in the Styles pane if the current document has a table of contents.

If the table of contents styles aren’t in the pane, do the following to add them:

  1. Click the Options button at the bottom of the Style Pane.
  2. In the resulting dialog, choose All Styles from the Select Styles To Show dropdown.
  3. Select Alphabetical from the Select How List Is Sorted dialog (Figure C).
  4. Click OK. In truth, you added all of the styles to the pane, not just the table of contents styles. 

Figure C

Display all styles, alphabetically, in the Style Pane.

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Display all styles, alphabetically, in the Style Pane.

How to modify a table of contents style in Word

Once you have the table of contents styles in the Styles pane, you can easily modify them. To demonstrate, let’s add color to level 2, which corresponds to Heading 2 and TOC 2. Follow these steps:

  1. Thumb down in the styles pane until you find TOC 2.
  2. Click TOC 2’s dropdown and choose Modify from the resulting submenu.
  3. In the resulting dialog, choose blue from the color dropdown (Figure D) and click OK.

Figure D

Add a color to the level 2 table of contents style, TOC 2.

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Add a color to the level 2 table of contents style, TOC 2.

As you can see in Figure E, all level 2 items are now blue. Note that the red heading in the document doesn’t change. We didn’t modify Heading 2–we modified TOC 2. This is why there are two sets of styles—one for the headings in your document and one for each level in the table of contents. Also note that there’s a style for the table’s heading: TOC Heading. Although we added a simple color format, you can use this same technique to completely stylize a table of contents, if warranted.

Figure E

Add color to a document’s table of contents.

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Add color to a document’s table of contents.

Send me your Microsoft Office question

I answer readers’ questions when I can, but there’s no guarantee. Don’t send files unless requested; initial requests for help that arrive with attached files will be deleted unread. You can send screenshots of your data to help clarify your question. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, “Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what’s wrong” probably won’t get a response, but “Can you tell me why this formula isn’t returning the expected results?” might. Please mention the app and version that you’re using. I’m not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise when helping readers, nor do I ask for a fee from readers I help. You can contact me at susansalesharkins@gmail.com.

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