Outline Numbering in Word

Me and my partner, Jennifer Ellis, just returned from presenting numerous seminars at The Paralegal Institute and The Law Practice Management and Development Institute, both of which were held at the beautiful Lancaster Marriott Hotel & Convention Center.  I presented, among others, a session on Word for Paralegals, and Word for Attorneys, respectively, at each institute.  I ran into a frustrating and embarassing problem when demonstrating Outline Numbering in Word.  I promised those who attended I would get to the bottom of the problem and post the resolution on my blog.  I am making good on that promise with this post.

While still at the conference, I contacted our Microsoft trainer, Judith Kraft, to see if she had a solution.  Judy’s suggestion was worth noting, however it was not the cause of the problem I experienced at the conference.  I had already detected that a Microsoft Word default setting was, ahem, wrong, and fixed it.  But it’s likely that you haven’t, so you will want to check this first, before you attempt to follow my instructions.

It seems that by default the automatic numbered lists check box might not be checked in the Autocorrect section.  To get there:  Click the Office button / select Word Options in bottom right / Proofing / Autocorrect / make sure that “autoformat as you type” is checked.  If not, click in the box to turn it on.  The default is NOT turned on in the 2007 and 2010 versions out of the box. 

Ok, but as I said, that isn’t what was causing the pesky problem during the demonstration.  Then I remembered that when I last suffered a similar embarassment, it was demonstrating the exact same feature in Word 2003.  And I further recalled having the problem as far back as Word 2000, when I first encountered it.

The resolution at the time was to accept the fact that the one outline numbering format/style which seemed to be the most popular and appropriate with/for attorneys was in fact the only one which was buggy.  It just doesn’t work.  Could it be that all these years later, the problem had not yet been fixed?  Inplausible.  Impossible.  Yet, unbelievably, absolutely true!!

Since every outline style is completely customizable — one of the reasons for the demonstration — I decided to prove the hypothesis by using a different style, and making it look like the other one.  In doing so, I also discovered yet another shortcut which you will find makes it even better and easier to do this.  Here are the steps I performed:

  1. From the HOME tab, click on the Multi-level List Icon (the main icon, not the pull-down arrow next to it).
  2. When the menu opens, I noted that “None” was selected.  I immediately scrolled down to the bottom section of the dialog box and selected “Define New Multilevel List”. 
  3. I clicked on Level 1 to modify in the top-left box. 
    • I went to “Number style for this Level” and clicked on the down arrow, and selected  “I, II, III” for roman numerals.
    • I went into “Enter formatting for number box” immediately above.  I removed the right parentheses and replaced it with a period.  [Remember, you format this the way you want.  Just because I choose to put in or take out a parentheses or period, doesn’t mean you have to do the same.  You format each level how you want.]
    • I clicked on “Font” immediately to the right.  I picked the font I normally use for default, since it’s pretty likely it will match whatever document I use it in.  While you are in there, you should notice whether your font color says “No Color” and if so, change it to “Automatic”.  [If you want your numbers to stand out, you can pick whatever other color you want.]  I also chose to make the numbering Bold.  I also noticed that all of the “Effects” were shaded.  Just to make sure there were no errors, I purposely checked, and then unchecked each, so no special effects would be inadvertently applied.  [Remember, if you do this right, you won’t have to do it again, so take the time to do it right.]
  4. Anyone who does outlines which contain roman numerals, or have more than 9 items at the same “level” knows that your indenting can quickly misalign when your number is more than one digit in length if you only use the default .25 inch indent after the number.  So I changed the “Text indent at” setting from .25 to .50. 
  5. Here is the new step which saved tons of time aligning all the following levels.  I checked the box immediately to the right labeled “Set for All Levels.”  It opened a dialog box, where I changed both “Text Position for First Level” and “Additional indent for each level:” from .25 to .50.  By doing this, I didn’t have to do anything for the additional levels except for repeating step 3a through 3c above.  [Note:  for those of you who don’t want the text to all align like on this list – perhaps you want to have the text return to the position under the number for second and subsequent lines, or even wrap to the left margin, it will mean that you will want to change the “Additional indent for each level” number.]
  6. Once all nine levels were defined to my satisfaction and looked pretty good in the preview screen, I clicked “OK” and I was in my document at “I”. [Note:  for some reason, the “Numbered List” key was activated, and not the “Multi-level Numbering” key.  But I continued anyway, and it worked fine.
  7. Now came the testing.  I entered at least two lines of text for each number, and at least two numbers for each level.  I tested all nine levels to make sure that everything was indenting and wrapping just as I wanted, and that the labels were as I wanted. 
  8. Avoid the most common mistake made with Outline numbering.  To move down (right) a level, you press the “Increase Indent” key, not the Tab key.  To move up (left) a level, you press the “Decrease Indent” key.  Again, not the Tab key.  While Tab may appear to work correctly, you are putting errors in the side-stream of your document which very well could cause it to corrupt later. 
  9. Avoid the second most common mistake made with any kind of numbering – flat list or multi-level.  If you want an extra blank line between your numbered items, don’t try using an extra return, turning off numbering, and then another return and turning numbering back on.  Instead, build the space into each paragraph by going into Home / Paragraph.  Select the little right arrow on the right of the Paragraph section label to open the dialog box, and adjust the “Space After” setting.  [Note:  Word hates blank paragraphs.  It’s designed to have the extra blank spaces included within the paragraph definition.]
    • You’ll note that if you use the up and down arrows, by default the increments will change in 6 pt increments.  But you can just select (click and drag over) the number and type in anything you want.  If you’re using 10 pt for your font, then putting a 10 pt space after your paragraph will give you the equivalent of one blank line.  If you’re using a 12 pt font, then you’ll want to space 12 pt after the paragraph for the proportionate blank line.  And so forth.
    • When you correctly include the extra space within the paragraph, you’ll discover that when you move things around you won’t wind up with blank paragraphs (your extra blank lines) getting numbered in error, and having to turn numbering on and off manually.  Again, your current technique may look like it’s working, but it’s actually putting errors in your document side-stream which can eventually cause it to corrupt. By building the space into the paragraph, Word intelligently selects the paragraph with the extra space, and moves them together without causing numbering errors.
  10. Avoid the third most common mistake made with any kind of numbering– flat list or multi-level.  If you want multiple paragraphs within your numbered item, don’t try using a regular return, turn off numbering, type the next part, and then turn numbering back on after however many desired paragraphs are finished. You know what happens already – it is often difficult to align the text in the additional paragraphs.  And of course you’re doing additional work.  But the real problem shows up when you decide you want to take that multi-paragraph numbered item and move it elsewhere.  Each individual paragraph winds up getting its own number in the new location, and you have to start making manual corrections.  All of which puts more errors in your document side-stream, which lead to document corruption. When you want a multi-paragraph numbered item, like this one, you want to use a soft return instead of a hard return.  A hard return is created by pressing “Enter” whereas a soft return is created by pressing “Shift+Enter”.  You’ll notice that instead of a paragraph symbol, you’ll see a bent arrow.  You’ll want to do two soft returns to get the appearance of a blank line between paragraphs.Word will not see separate paragraphs, since there is no hard paragraph return.  It will intelligently select all of the paragraphs as one item when you copy / cut / paste.  There will be no numbering errors made in the new destination, and no corrections to make.

    [Note:  some of you may not know about intelligent selection.  If you put your mouse in the gutter to the left of any paragraph you want to select – you’ll see an arrow instead of the blinking cursor — and double-click, Word will intelligently select the paragraph in entirety, including any spacing before or after, and including what looks like multiple paragraphs thanks to soft returns.]

SAVE YOUR DOCUMENT.  Even if you’ve tested the outline with total gibberish for text, it doesn’t matter.  As long as you’ve got all nine levels on there and looking as you want, and the spacing between paragraphs just as you want, give it a name and save it.  Why?  My next post will tell you how to make a style out of the outline in this document, so you never have to do this again.  Ever.  You’ll only have to turn on the style, and it will be perfect every time.  So stay tuned!


  • By twelvedaysold, January 18, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

    THANK YOU!!!!

  • By Gordon Dudley, May 4, 2013 @ 9:26 pm

    Outline Numbering in Word
    this was helpful but could not find the follow up post
    “My next post will tell you how to make a style out of the outline in this document, so you never have to do this again. Ever.”

    Has it been posted yet?

  • By LawDog, May 7, 2013 @ 12:15 am

    could not find the “next post” where is it?

    My next post will tell you how to make a style out of the outline in this document, so you never have to do this again. Ever. You’ll only have to turn on the style, and it will be perfect every time. So stay tuned!

  • By Ron, May 21, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

    Good article, but in reading I never found a description of what the particular problem was that you encountered. there are many problems with numbering in Word -I’m fighting a few of them now. Please consider adding an explicit description of what the problem was you experienced at the start of the article.

  • By Glenn, January 23, 2014 @ 9:32 pm

    The simplest way to get past all these outlining problems easily is … use WordPerfect! I’ve used both extensively and there is no comparison. WordPerfect is infinitely easier to use and will produce perfect documents. Just turn on reveal codes feature and you can do anything you want, quickly and easily.

  • By Eating on Two Wheels, February 27, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

    I’d love to be able to build in space after only LEVEL ONE paragraphs, not ALL paragraphs, and work this into the outline format, rather than using a soft return.

  • By Ellen, March 25, 2014 @ 7:46 pm

    You can definitely do this within the definition of the style. Just change the paragraph spacing “after”.

  • By Rick Bryan, April 22, 2014 @ 9:23 pm

    The developers of the Word outline numbering system should be shot.

  • By William, February 14, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

    This was an excellent help! I have struggled with the formatting of outlines and bullets many times.

  • By Ellen, March 7, 2015 @ 12:15 am

    Thank you. Glad to be of assistance.

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