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How to Create a Table of Contents in Word for Your Paper? [For Students]

April 26, 2024

Working on a paper or thesis is mentally exhausting on its own, but having to format everything according to MLA, APA, or Chicago style can be a real headache, especially when creating a table of contents. Manually updating it every time you make changes is tedious and error-prone. What you really need is a way to generate and update the table of contents automatically, allowing you to concentrate on the content without worrying about the structure.

This makes the entire process smoother and less stressful, letting you focus on your research without the constant formatting frustration. In this article, we will explore the essentials of creating a functional and clear table of contents in Word documents for students, covering what it is, why it's important, and how to prepare one that effectively outlines your paper's structure.

How to Create a Table of Contents in Word for Your Paper?

Table of Contents in APA, MLA and Chicago Style

In academic writing, particularly for longer pieces such as thesis, dissertations, and research papers, having a clear organization is highly beneficial. A crucial aspect that helps readers navigate your work is a Table of Contents (TOC). Despite the variations in specific style guides like APA, MLA, or Chicago, incorporating a TOC provides numerous advantages. Besides these benefits, TOCs in these three academic formats adhere to generally similar guidelines, although there are some differences that must be acknowledged and addressed.

1. A Table of Contents in APA

The American Psychological Association (APA) style is commonly used in the social sciences. While APA style does not always require a table of contents, it is often recommended for lengthy papers or theses. Here's how to structure a table of contents in APA style:

  • Placement: The TOC goes between the abstract and introduction on a separate page.

  • Formatting: Use the same font and size as your main text (typically 12 pt Times New Roman).

  • Title: Center and bold the word "Contents" at the top of the page.

  • Heading Levels: Include all level 1 (main sections) and level 2 (subheadings) headings in the TOC.

  • Alignment: Left-align all entries in the TOC.

  • Indentation: Level 2 headings are indented for clarity.

  • Lower Levels (Optional): Including level 3 headings or lower is optional and requires additional indentation for each level.

  • Length: Keep the TOC concise; ideally, it shouldn't exceed two pages.

Table of Contents in APA Style

2. A Table of Contents in MLA

The Modern Language Association (MLA) style is typically used in the humanities. While MLA does not always require a table of contents for shorter papers, longer academic works may benefit from having one. Here are some tips for creating a table of contents in MLA style:

  • Font and Size: Stick to Times New Roman, 12 point size, for consistency with the rest of your document.

  • Margins: Use standard 1-inch margins on all sides.

  • Spacing: Double line spacing is the norm for MLA formatting.

  • Indentations: Create a clear distinction between paragraphs with a ½-inch indent for the first line.

  • Headings: Use title case capitalization (capitalize the first word of each main word) for your headings in the TOC.

Table of Contents in MLA Style

3. A Table of Contents in Chicago Style

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is widely used in historical and other academic research. Chicago style often requires a detailed table of contents for dissertations and other extensive works. Here's how to create a table of contents in Chicago style:

  • Starting Fresh: Begin your TOC on a separate page following the title page.

  • Clear Labeling: Center the title "Contents" at the top of the page.

  • Spacing for Readability: Leave a double space between "Contents" and the first entry in your TOC.

  • Mirroring Your Paper: List chapter titles, headings, and subheadings in the exact order they appear in your paper.

  • Matching Matters: Ensure capitalization and the hierarchy of titles/headings in the TOC match your paper's formatting.

  • Pinpointing Locations:  Place page numbers flush right, using leader dots (a series of periods) to connect them to the corresponding entry.

Table of Contents in Chicago Style

How to Create a Table of Contents Easily in Word for Your Paper

Before inserting a table of contents in Word, we first need to format the headings of our research paper or thesis according to an academic style.

Let's take a look at it through an example for better understanding. We need to write a research paper on Environment Safety, so before getting started with the writing part, let’s create an outline for it. This means we will need to lay out the headings in order. We have a main heading called Heading 1, and then we have subheadings called Heading 2. In some instances, we have Heading 3 or Heading 4 as well, so let's take a look at the breakdown of these headings beforehand.

  • H1: The main heading of your document, typically used once for the overall title.

  • H2: Subheadings that break down your H1 topic into major sections.

  • H3: Subheadings that further divide your H2 sections into more specific points.

Once the foundation for the paper is laid out, creating a table of contents becomes much easier and quicker. To make this process not only simpler but also more cost-effective, I'll be using WPS Office. This free office suite allows students to insert a table of contents into their papers for free, along with providing other document editing tools.

Step 1: We now have our outline laid out in our document on WPS Writer.

Step 2: Even though I went through and formatted my headings and subheadings by increasing the font size of the main headings and making them bold, this is completely wrong.

Incorrect Heading format for Table of Contents

Step 3: In Word, we need to do proper formatting. To do this, click on your main heading of the essay and head over to the Home tab.

Step 4: Now, in the "Styles" section, you will see various styles. From this, click on "Heading 1", and you will notice a change in your headings formatting.

WPS Writer Styles

Step 5: To change the formatting to fit your academic style, right-click on the "Heading 1" button in the Styles section to open the context menu, and then click on "Modify".

Modify styles in WPS Writer

Step 6: In the Modify Style dialog, users can change the font, font size, and other changes to format their heading.

Modify Style dialog in WPS Writer

Step 7: Similarly, click on Heading 2 in your document, then in the Styles section, select Heading 2, and so on.

WPS Writer Heading 2 style

Step 8: Once all the headings have been formatted, now we can proceed to inserting a table of contents into our document.

Note: Without changing the styles, WPS Writer won't recognize the headings or subheadings, and they won't appear in the table of contents.

Step 9: To insert the table of contents, visit the References tab and then click on the "Table of Contents" option in the ribbon menu.

References tab in WPS Writer

Step 10: WPS Writer gives its users the option to insert a pre-formatted table of contents, but if you wish to insert a custom-made table of contents, that's also possible.

Pre-formatted table of contents templates in WPS Writer

Step 11: Once you have selected your desired table of contents, it will be added, and you can now complete your work with ease.

Table of Contents in WPS Writer

In WPS Writer, as you can see, the steps to add a table of contents are quite similar to those in Microsoft Word. Additionally, the interface closely resembles that of Word, making it easy to navigate. There are a few differences, such as indicating the selected style for easier navigation, and of course, adding a table of contents is completely free. WPS Writer offers convenience for students by providing more tools to work on their papers with ease. Give WPS Writer a try and experience how effortlessly you can complete your paper!

How to Update the Table of Contents in Word for Your Paper

The outline was ready, or at least that's what we thought, but now we added a few new headings, but they won't show up in the table of contents. Now, to address this, we need to Update our Table of Contents:

Step 1: Let's open WPS Writer again. As we can see, the table of contents hasn't changed, even though we've correctly styled the headings as they appear correctly in bookmarks.

Un-updated Table of Contents in WPS Writer

Step 2: To update the table of contents, right-click anywhere on the table of contents to open the context menu.

Step 3: In the context menu, we need to click on "Update Field" or simply press the shortcut key "F9".

Update field in Microsoft Word

Step 4: Now, we see the Update Table of Contents dialog. Click on "Update entire table" and then click "OK".

Update Table of Contents options in WPS Writer

Step 5: The table of contents will now be completely updated with the new headings that you've inserted.

Updated Table of Contents in WPS Writer

Bonus Tip: Converting Your Paper to PDF Without Losing Format

Once you're done with your paper and a well-organized table of contents, the next step is often converting it to a PDF. This is crucial because PDFs preserve formatting, ensuring that your hard work doesn't get scrambled when shared or printed. However, conversion can be tricky, especially with Microsoft Word 365. When converting a document to PDF in Word 365, you might encounter issues like misaligned text, broken page breaks, or distorted table of contents formatting.

WPS Writer

WPS Office is an excellent alternative to Microsoft Word 365 for PDF conversions. It offers robust PDF features that can convert your paper without losing formatting. Here's why WPS Office might be a better choice:

Direct PDF Conversion: WPS Office has a built-in PDF converter that maintains the layout and structure of your document, reducing the risk of misalignment.

Enhanced PDF Features: WPS Office allows you to merge, split, or compress PDFs, which can be useful if you need to adjust your document after conversion.

Easy Table of Contents Management: WPS Office handles tables of contents well, ensuring links and formatting remain intact.

WPS Office: Use Word, Excel, and PPT for FREE, No Ads.


Now, to convert your Word document with the table of contents into a PDF document without losing any formatting in the process, WPS Office provides a very easy and effective solution:

Step 1: Let's open the Word document in WPS Office and then head over to the Menu on the top left of the page.

Step 2: In the menu, click on "Save as" and select "Other formats" from the flyout menu.

Save options in WPS Office

Step 3: Simply in the Save as options, change the file type to "PDF" in the "File Type" field and then hit "Save" to save your document as a PDF.

Save document as PDF in WPS Office

FAQs about Table of Contents in Word

1. How do I Link Headings to Table of Contents in Word?

If you've inserted a manual table, here's how to link headings to a table of contents in Microsoft Word:

Step 1: Go to your table of contents.

Step 2: Select the heading in the table of contents you want to link to your document heading.

Microsoft Word select heading in Table of Contents

Step 3: Right-click and choose "Link" from the context menu.


Step 4: In the Insert Link dialog, select the "Place in This Document" tab and choose the heading you want to link to. Click OK to finish.

Select destination heading in Word's

Step 5: The linked heading will appear blue and underlined in your table of contents.

Headings linked to Table of Contents in Word

2. How do you update a Table of Contents in Word and keep formatting?

To adjust your current table of contents:

Step 1: Go to the References tab.

Step 2: Click on Table of Contents.

Step 3: Choose Custom table of contents.

Step 4: Use the options to change what appears in the table, how page numbers are displayed, adjust formatting, and decide how many heading levels to include.

3. How do I link a table of contents to a page in word?

Users can easily link the table of contents to pages in Word by applying heading styles to document sections and then clicking on the Update tab in the Reference tab.a

Perfect Your Paper: Mastering Table of Contents with WPS Office

Your thesis or report isn't complete without a table of contents, especially if it's a requirement. Forgetting this crucial section could lead to a lower grade, which might have been avoided by simply adding a well-structured table of contents. To ensure your report meets the necessary academic standards, not only should you include a  table of contents Word for students, but you should also make sure it's correctly formatted according to the guidelines.

WPS Office is the ideal tool for writing your paper, thanks to its robust formatting capabilities. It's particularly useful when you need to share your document or convert it to PDF, as WPS Office maintains your formatting without glitches. So, if you haven't tried WPS Office yet, consider downloading it now to streamline your writing process and keep your formatting consistent.

15 years of office industry experience, tech lover and copywriter. Follow me for product reviews, comparisons, and recommendations for new apps and software.