How to create multilevel numbering in Word (that works)
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How to Create
Multilevel Numbering in Word

Multilevel Numbering in Word

Multilevel numbering in Word is the number one headache for many people working with large documents. Believe it or not, it's not complicated. You just need somebody to guide you through safely and point out the pitfalls you need to avoid.

Today that pleasure falls to me!

Cheat Sheet - How to create multilevel numbered lists (that work) in Word

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Grab the free Multilevel Numbering 
cheat sheet

1. What Multi-level Numbering Looks Like

Often used in the legal profession or in large corporate documents, multilevel numbering creates a logical hierarchy and easy navigation within the document. The headings can also be summarised later on in a table of contents. Here is a simple example:

Multilevel numbering in Word 01

2. How to Set Up Multilevel Numbering

Here is the correct process:

1.  Select the text that you want to number (this can be a section of text or the whole document).

Multilevel numbering - where to start

2.  Select the Home tab.

3.  Click the multilevel numbering icon in the Paragraph group.

Multilevel numbering icon

4.  You can either select an existing layout from the list to use as a starting point, or you can create a new numbering system from scratch. As you hover over each thumbnail image, Word provides a larger image of the numbering system.

5.  Choose Define New Multilevel List to display the control dialog.

Define new multilevel list

The dialog box can be broken down as follows:

Click level to modify

In the top left is a list of levels. As you select each level, the settings in the rest of the dialog box changes. 

Level 1 is the highest level, i.e. the main headings such as chapter or section titles. 

Level 2 is subordinate to level 1.

Level 3 is subordinate to level 2.

Click Level to Modify

Enter formatting for number

This is where the level number is constructed. If you include a previous level number, it will be displayed with a grey background, as will the number for the current level.

Type anything you wish to put in between the numbers such as dots, dashes, brackets etc.

Clear any text in the ‘Enter formatting for this number’ box.

Include level number from

When creating a subordinate level (or child level), you can first specify the level number of the parent.

For example, for section 3.2

  • 3’ is the parent level (level 1) and
  • 2’ is the child level (level 2)
Multilevel numbering in Word 05

Number style for this level

Each level can have its own number style. It may be a standalone style, e.g. 1, 2, 3 or a, b, c or continue on from a higher level, e.g. 1.1.1 or 1.a.i.

  • When creating 1.1 numbering, this option is 1, 2, 3.
  • When creating 1.a numbering, this option is a, b, c
Multilevel numbering in Word 06

Font

Set the font formatting for the selected level, if you want.

Enter formatting for number

Position

What position from the left margin do you want items for each level of numbering. For example, level 1 items may be 0cm from the left margin, level 2, 1cm from the left margin and level 3, 2cm from the left margin.

Here’s what they mean: 

  • The Aligned At determines how far from the left margin the number appears.
  • The Text indent at figure determines how far from the left margin the text following the number is.
Multilevel numbering in Word 08

6.  Click OK to save all the settings and close the dialog box.

The text you selected in step 1 now looks like this.

Multilevel numbering - initial numbering

​The next part is where the magic happens ...

3. How to Apply Multilevel Numbering

Once you have created your numbering system:

1.  Position the cursor at the beginning of a line.

Multilevel numbering - place the cursor at the start of the line

2.  Press the TAB key to move the text down a level (demote).

Multilevel numbering - press TAB to demote and SHIFT TAB to promote

3.  Press the SHIFT and TAB keys together to move the text up a level (promote).

Multilevel numbering - press SHIFT TAB to promote

If you prefer, you can also click the indent icon to demote and the outdent icon to promote between levels.

Multilevel numbering - you can use the indent and outdent icons to demote and promote between numbering levels

4. How to Change Multilevel Settings

Once you have created your numbering system:

1.  Reselect all text that is using the multilevel numbering.

2.  Click the multilevel numbering icon and select Define New Multilevel List (yes, you choose this option even if you are modifying an existing multilevel list).

Redefine multilevel list

The original settings that you defined are redisplayed.

3.  In the top-left box select the level that you wish to change, then change your settings.

4.  Repeat for the other settings.

5.  Click OK to save the settings. Your numbered list should now reflect your new settings.

5. Linking Multilevel Numbering to Styles

Each level of a multilevel numbering system can be linked to a style. This means that as you apply styles throughout the document, the numbering is applied appropriately and automatically. You can either use the built-in Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3 styles or use your own custom styles.

1.  In the Numbering dialog box, click the MORE button in the bottom-left corner to expand the dialog box.

2.  Select level to modify in the top-left box.

3.  Open the Link level to style drop-down list and choose the style you wish to connect to the numbering level.

Link level to style

4.  Click OK.

5.  In the document, apply the Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3 styles where needed.

It’s a good idea to create a body text style and apply that where appropriate, so that the body text does not inadvertently get caught up in the multi-level numbering.

6.  Select the whole document (or the portion of the document where you want to apply your numbered sections).

7.  Click the  icon in the Paragraph group (Home tab).

8.  Select your custom numbering style from the gallery. The thumbnail image should show the linked styles.

Multilevel numbering in Word 12

6. How to Use Styles to Set Number Levels

1.  Select all the text that you wish to apply the same number level to. Alternatively, if you wish to go line by line, you can place the cursor anywhere in a line of text.

Multilevel numbering - place the cursor at the start of the line

2.  In the Styles gallery, click the style that corresponds to the number level you wish to apply. For example, to apply the top level numbering click Heading 1 and for the third level numbering click Heading 3 (assuming those are the styles you assigned).

The numbering and all the numbering settings will be applied to the selected text or the paragraph in which the cursor was positioned.

Multilevel number styles

And that, my friend, is how you do multilevel numbering in Word with no loose ends.

7. Watch the video (over the shoulder demo)

Click to watch video

8. What next?

ACTION ITEM: Before we close out this post I want to give you one little action item! Comment below with ONE thing you learned from this post and how you're going to put it into ACTION. Share your successes and drop any questions you have below.

Enjoy the rest of your day!

Jason Morrell blog signature
Jason Morrell, Office Mastery

About the author

Jason Morrell


Jason loves to simplify the hard stuff, cut the fluff and share what actually works. Things that make a difference. Things that slash hours from your daily work tasks. He runs a software training business in Queensland, Australia, lives on the Gold Coast with his wife and 4 kids and often talks about himself in the third person!

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  • Jan says:

    Dear Jason,

    Thank you very much for your guide, it was very helpful to me.

    However, I am interested in making lists that have more than 9 levels. I understand your comment that generally, more than just a few are not necessary – which probably is why only 9 are available to begin with – and that more than e.g. six is often confusing. Some weird projects however, are just the more confusing without proper numbering, and in my case I would need about 20 levels for a genealogy project, where this systems is the clearest I can come up with. It works if you put in the numbering by hand, but it would be a dream for me if I could get Word to automate it for me.

    I have seen guides relying on SEQ to get more than 9 levels, but I do not understand them, as I have no experience with this method. If you know more how to get more than 9 levels to work following the same logic, I would be grateful to hear more about it.

    kind regards

    • Jason Morrell says:

      Hi Jan

      While you could theoretically use the SEQ field to create 20+ levels of numbering, it is a time-consuming process and offers no real advantage over typing your numbers manually. For what it’s worth, here’s how it works:

      Field are enclosed in braces { } but you cannot just type them – you must insert a field. To insert any field into a Word document, press Ctrl F9 then type in the field name followed by any relevant switches OR on the Insert ribbon click ‘Explore Quick Parts’ then ‘Field’.

      Sample file at https://officemastery.com/example/multilevel-numbering-using-SEQ-fields.docx

      The following fields …

      { SEQ Lev1}
      { SEQ Lev1 \c} {SEQ Lev2 \r 1}
      { SEQ Lev1 \c}.{SEQ Lev2 \c}.{SEQ Lev3 \r 1}

      { SEQ Lev1}
      { SEQ Lev1 \c} {SEQ Lev2 \r 1}
      { SEQ Lev1 \c}.{SEQ Lev2 \c}.{SEQ Lev3 \r 1}
      { SEQ Lev1 \c} {SEQ Lev2}
      { SEQ Lev1 \c}.{SEQ Lev2 \c}.{SEQ Lev3 \r 1}
      { SEQ Lev1 \c}.{SEQ Lev2 \c}.{SEQ Lev3 }
      { SEQ Lev1 \c}.{SEQ Lev2 \c}.{SEQ Lev3 }

      … result in the following numbering

      1
      1.1
      1.1.1

      2
      2.1
      2.1.1
      2.2
      2.2.1
      2.2.2
      2.2.3

      • The SEQ field provides single-level sequential numbering.
      • The Lev1, Lev2 Lev3 … names are arbitrary. Use whatever names you want. Each name is it’s own numbering sequence. One sequence has been used for each numbering level.
      • The dots (periods) between each field are typed directly.
      • The \c switch means use the preceding number from this sequence.
      • The \r 1 switch means reset this numbering sequence (level) back to 1. Notice that this switch is only used the first time it appears within each hierarchy. The second an subsequent occurrences don’t use the switch

      Press Ctrl-A then F9 to update the document numbering.
      Press Alt-F9 to toggle between displaying the fields and the results.

      You can speed things up by creating AutoText Quick Parts.

      1. Select a row containing the SEQ fields (e.g. { SEQ Lev1 \c} {SEQ Lev2 \r 1})
      2. On a PC, select the Insert ribbon | Explore Quick Parts | AutoText | Save Selection to AutoText Gallery. On a Mac, select the Insert menu | AutoText | New.
      3. Type a name for the block of text (e.g. Lev2) and click OK.

      Then in your document:

      1. Position the cursor.
      2. Type the name (e.g. Lev2) and when prompted press Enter.

      This inserts the block of text called Lev2 into your document, and save the hassle of repeatedly creating fields or spending hours copying and pasting. Keep an eye on the \r 1 switch – use it or remove it as necessary.

      As I said at the start, it can be done, but it’s a lot of work and you’ll need to check it carefully before you publish.

      Good luck!

      Jason

      • Jan says:

        Dear Jason,

        Thank you for you thorough reply and the effort you put into it.

        It seems that I do not entirely understand the utility of SEQ numbering. It it still “automated” or not? Meaning that after it has been manually added, does it automatically change if you add numbers inbetween? Adding sequences would not be a problem, but the usefulness I imaged would be as follows: e.g., you think you have mapped a family, but later you find out that you missed one person. Somewhere in a sequence, you need to add a person. Consequently, the next sibling in that family change a number, plus all the children of those siblings. Can the SEQ entry account for this automation?

        • Jason Morrell says:

          Once it is set up, you can manually update the entire document (any time) by pressing Ctrl-A then F9 and all the numbering will update. So if you need to insert another family member, do so then update the document. In that sense, SEQ fields provide automatic updating of the numbering. However, you still have all the work of inserting the fields in the first place.

      • Jan says:

        I realise that this may be a very simple question, but I cannot get the SEQ to work. I can find the field “SEQ” and add it, but I cannot add the information between the brackets to get it to work. I have tried to follow other guides on this as well, but I suppose it still eludes me.

        • Jason Morrell says:

          If you are inserting the SEQ field using the Insert ribbon | Explore Quick Parts | Field, then click the Options tab to display the switches and choose one.

          If you are inserting the SEQ field by pressing Ctrl-F9 then you can type anything you like between the braces.

          To edit an SEQ field that is currently showing the number, right-click the number (which should have grey shading behind it) and choose Toggle Field Code.

  • Taghi says:

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for helpful points. I am trying to set default font (complex script) in multilevel numbering list in Word 2013 but “set default” icon is not active there. Each time starting Word, I need to define a complex multilevel numbering, I should set it manually for that session and then it goes off when exiting the application.
    For the normal writing style I have done successfully the default fonts for both Latin and complex scripts but in multilevel numbering list it doesn’t work.
    How I can set default my choices in this menu?

    • Jason Morrell says:

      Hi Taghi

      First, if you link each multilevel numbering level to a style (e.g. link Level 1 to Heading1, Level 2 to Heading 2 etc.) you will not have this problem.

      Second, I strongly suggest that you never use the Normal style as-is within a document. Think of the Normal style as your baseline style, then create your own styles based on the Normal style, but leave the Normal style alone.

      Third, if you want to copy your styles between documents, open the Styles pane, click the Manage Styles icon at the bottom, then click the Import & Export button, then use the 2 boxes to copy styles between your current document and the Normal template (or vice versa).
      Alternatively, create this one-line macro and run it:

      Sub Copy_styles_from_master_doc()
      ActiveDocument.CopyStylesFromTemplate Template:=”C:\folder\folder\your_master_file_name.dotx”
      End Sub

      Let me know how you go.

      Jason

  • visitor says:

    No reference to how you can use the heading numbers to refer to a piece of text:

    ” In section??, we learn how to put in cross-references…”

    • Jason Morrell says:

      Annabelle, that’s a different topic, but here is the quick version.

      First you bookmark an item, then cross-reference the bookmarked item:

      1) Select the item you want to reference, or position the cursor in front of it.
      2) On the Insert ribbon, choose Bookmark. Type a name for the bookmark. Don’t use spaces.
      3) Position the cursor at the point where you want to refer to the bookmarked item (e.g. in Section??).
      4) In the Insert ribbon again, choose Cross reference.
      5) Set ‘Reference type’ to Bookmark. Set ‘Insert reference to’ to Bookmark text or Page number.

      I have an upcoming post that covers the process in more detail but that should be enough to get you started.

      Jason

  • Soma Tekumalla says:

    Great Tutorial on Numbering. Big Help to me on my current project. Thank You Very Much

  • RL says:

    Very nice video, thank you.
    I have 3 questions, I wonder if you answer them

    1) what if you want the body text under each numbered list to be indented according to the level of each numbered list? – like in a procedure document.
    2) what if you want to create new style names (not reuse existing “heading x” style names)
    3) what if you want to remove multilevel list levels? (when I go to define new multilevel list), it starts with 9 levels 1.1.1.1.1.1.1.1.1., so I want to remove the last 4.

    thanks ahead of time!
    RL

    • Jason Morrell says:

      Hi RL. Some good questions there.

      1) When you define your multilevel list, for each numbering level, set the ‘Aligned At’ and ‘Indent At’ at the bottom of the dialog.

      2) You can use any styles you like, so if you have created some custom styles, link to those instead of Heading 1/2/3 in the multilevel numbering dialog.

      3) You can define up to 9 levels but you don’t have to use them all. The most I’ve ever used (for a legal client) was 6 levels.

      I hope that helps. All the best RL.

      Jason

  • Bill says:

    Hi I found your video very helpful. I have a large document containing numbering which in part has been entered using word and in part entered manually. Is there a simple way to get rid of the existing numbering and start again using word?

    • Jason Morrell says:

      Hi Bill. If the numbers have been typed in, you have no choice but to delete those, but if the numbering (in whatever form and however messy) is a numbered list then there is hope!

      1. Place the cursor on any top-level item.
      2. Click the multilevel numbering icon and choose Define New Multilevel List.
      3. Set up each numbering level the way you want it and make sure to click the MORE button and link each level to a style (i.e. level 1 to Heading 1, level 2 to Heading 2 etc.)
      4. Place your cursor on each numbered item in the document and select the appropriate style in the styles gallery.

      It sounds like a lot of work, but you should be able to get about 100 pages done per hour, depending on how much content is numbered. There is no shortcut. Just gotta get your head down and chip away. Once it’s done, and your numbering is straightened out, your document will update itself like a dream.

      Good luck.

  • Pascal says:

    After some frustrating hours of trying to get a 3-level numbering to work and following a bunch of instructions that didn’t help, I found this one. Half an hour later, my document looks as it should. Thank you so much, Jason, for this help, it is greatly appreciated!
    Only thing to mention, I had to link the numbering to styles because the tab key does not demote text in Word 2016 for Mac.

    • Jason Morrell says:

      Hi Pascal. I’m glad you found a way to get it to work. You can also use the indent/outdent icons on the Home ribbon to promote/demote a level, regardless of whether or not numbering levels are connected to styles. All the best. Jason

  • Chris says:

    This is a great tutorial I have used twice. But I run into problems you don’t. Such as once I have created a multilevel list and go to add my heading to the link portion it selects, I click ok, then it resets it when I reopen it. Or the Heading itself unlinks and won’t apply. Or the heading applies, but the numbers under that heading, say V.1 stays I.7. It seems this could be a good system, and I have used it before, but with these problems it is almost unmanageable.

    • Jason Morrell says:

      Hi Chris. Styles shouldn’t unlink from a defined number system when you reopen a document. Shoot me a sample at support@trst.com.au and I’ll take a look. (Remove any confidential or private info first). Jason

  • Tochi says:

    This was very helpful. I now understand how to use Multilevel numbering which has been a huge challenge to me Thanks a lot.

  • Fabien says:

    Thanks Jason, clear explanation unlike other sites! Now I set up in my documents as template.

  • Luciana says:

    Best explanation ever. Very clear. Thanks so much.

  • Sajit Viswan says:

    Can the text that goes under a level be linked to the outline level or does it another style with a similar name so that it is placed next to the outline level in the balcony?

    • Jason Morrell says:

      Hi Sajit. There’s a few points tied up in your question.

      1. If you press SHIFT ENTER to create a soft return instead of just ENTER which creates a hard return, then the following text will be part of the same paragraph or numbered item (if that’s what you were getting at).

      2. If you use the standard Heading 1/2/3 styles, they are always listed together by default. If you create your own custom styles, then use a common prefix (like your initials) and in the styles pane they will be listed together alphabetically.

      3. By ‘balcony’, I assume you mean the Styles Gallery on the Home ribbon?

      Does that help?

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