Bulletproof Paragraph Numbering, Part 1

Nearly every week, I get an email like this:

When using several different Styles in a document, I sometimes (TOO often) find that the formatting of a paragraph has reverted to an odd-size line or paragraph indent or the numbering doesn’t change back to 1, notwithstanding that I’ve selected “Restart list after …” in the Define new Multilevel list box. It seems that something is corrupted. Can you explain?

Or like this:

Hi! My biggest headache is paragraph numbering, I never know how to set it up to do it automatically and end up putting the paragraph numbers in manually. Also, how to get back to the main heading (e.g. no. 2, Communication & Procedures) then back to the sub-headings e.g. 2.1.

Which boils down to this:

Multilevel list numbering is my biggest frustration!

Even though I’ve included some paragraph numbering training in my basic Word course and have published articles elsewhere dealing with paragraph numbering specifically and various types of automatic numbering generally, it seems multi-level numbering is enough of an irritation to a sufficient number of people that I need to deal with this subject head-on.

Part of the problem with Microsoft Word’s paragraph numbering feature (single- or multi-level) is that it’s a twisted combination of Styles and Fields, so twisted it’s nearly impossible to separate them. Word has a lot of paragraph numbering Styles already built in, but following the advice of some genuine Microsoft Word experts (Ben SchorrJan Berinstein and the late Shauna Kelly), I’m going to show you how to create your own multi-level paragraph numbering List Styles you can save into your Normal (or other) template and use forever after.

The questions I’ve gotten are usually asking about one of three different types of multi-level numbering:

Inline multi-level numbering. This is paragraph numbering that looks like this:


Inline multi-level numbering with text. This paragraph numbering differs slightly from the above in that there is some text before and/or after the number which may or may not need to be included in a Table of Contents, like this:


Numbered headings. This numbering is embedded in headings that float above its related text, like so:


Given that we’re talking about three different types of multi-level paragraph numbering, I’ll deal with each type in a separate post. This post deals with the first type listed above, inline multi-level numbering.

(If you’ve never used Word’s built-in multi-level paragraph numbering and want a primer on how to use it, click here.)

But first, let’s talk about the basic methodology I’m going to use on all three types: creating your own list definitions to control the numbering. Because, let’s face it, the built-in ones are too hard for most people to control.

Why bother creating your own list as opposed to altering the existing lists? The problem with attempting to alter an existing list is that the changes (in my experience) seldom “stick”. Plus, the experience of defining your own list gets you familiar enough with the structure that you’ll be able to diagnose and solve problems when lists go awry.

With all three of the multi-level lists we’re going to talk about, the starting place is the same. On the Home tab, click the drop-down next to the multi-level numbering button in the Paragraph section. Because this first tutorial is covering situations where you just want to number the paragraphs, not build an outline or Table of Contents, choose Define New Multi-Level List:



That gets you this dialog box. Be sure to click More


… so you can see and work with the entire dialog box.


Looks pretty overwhelming, right? Let me walk you through an example customization:



      1. I start off by unlinking level numbers from Styles in the Link level to style drop-down. In this particular example, we’re not doing headings or anything like that, so having each level linked to a Style would just muck things up.
      2. Now that I’m on Level 1 (which is where this dialog box will start), I choose the Numbering style for this level and add a period after the “1”. If Legal style numbering is checked, I uncheck it. Obviously, if that’s the kind of numbering you want (1.1, etc.), leave that checked.
      3. Next, I tell Word how I want the numbers and the paragraph positioned. In this example, I’m indenting the first line of the numbered paragraph 0.5″ (Aligned at set at 0.5″) and wrapping the text back to the left margin (Text indent at set to 0″). To start each paragraph’s text at the next tab stop, I set Follow number with to Tab character.
      4. To avoid having to do this entire positioning exercise down all nine levels, I click Set for All Levels, which simply increments the Aligned at and Text indent at settings 0.5″ for each subsequent level (see “C” below). “A” below corresponds to Aligned at, and “B” below corresponds to Text indent at.
      5. Once I choose Level 2, you notice that Restart list after is now enabled. Obviously, after paragraph 2, I want Level 2 to re-start at “a”, so I check that box and have it restart after the previous level.
      6. Once everything is set the way I want, I click OK.

See step #4, above.

Those settings get me this result:


Promoting/Demoting Paragraph Levels

Pressing Enter after each paragraph should (in most instances) give you another paragraph with an automatic number. But say you want to start a Section (level 2) underneath that Article (level 1) you just created?

If you want to start a Section (or a lower level), there are three ways you can promote that paragraph to the next level (or demote to a previous level):

  • Use the Increase Indent (promote) or Decrease Indent (demote) buttons on the Home tab (my preferred method), OR
  • Click the Multilevel list drop-down and choose Change list level, OR
Increase Indent/Decrease Indent buttons (left) and Change List Level menu (right)

Increase Indent/Decrease Indent buttons (left) and Change List Level menu (right)

  • Use the Tab and Shift-Tab method to promote and demote, respectively

That last method requires that you have a particular AutoCorrect setting enabled. Go to the File tab, click Options, choose Proofing along the left-hand side, click the AutoCorrect Options button, and make sure this box is checked on the AutoFormat As You Type tab:


Your Turn

So, what questions do you have about paragraph numbering so far? Anything above not explained clearly? Did I skip a feature in these dialog boxes you want to know about? What do I need to write about next? Let me hear from you in the comments below. Your comments will shape how this series goes, so don’t be shy!
Click here for the entire series.

Share this tip!

About the Author

I spend an inordinate amount of my time playing with computers and attempting to explain technology to lawyers and law office staff. It's not always easy, but someone's got to do it.


Quite helpful and informative. Thank you so much for the article. I’d like to suggest that you also add some sort of downloadable format of this kind of information.
Thank you kindly

    Deborah Savadra

    That’s a great idea! I will keep that in mind.

Robert Walsh

Hi – great post and hopefully a god send. A couple of things that were not clear.

In the Define new Multilevel View dialog box,First, when I clicked on the “Set for All Levels”, there is a setting “Additional indent for each level”. That was at .25. It wasn’t clear to me that I had to change that to .5 on my first read. So a screen shot of that would help to make sure that is not missed.

Second, on the “Follow number with:” I would highlight the “Add tab stop at:” checkbox and to set that number to .5. Otherwise it leave a default.

Third – you mentioned to use the promote feature in your example. I never knew what those buttons were for or what they were called, despite using Word for 10 years or so, so you may want to highlight that as well. That was a very handy tip and one I will remember. I always thought using the tab key would do that automatically. Is there a way to do that?

Forth – after you do the changes to make the multilevel list do what you want it to do, is there a way to name and save it for future use?

Fifth – is there a way to stop using it, say to add some text that is not numbered, and then to go back to it or start a new list at 0? I have never been able to figure that out.

Thanks for the great post.

    Deborah Savadra


    I’ve revised this post to address your concerns on points 1, 2 and 3 above and included a video in the next post that I hope clarifies point 3. I’ll cover points 4 and 5 in a future post. Stay tuned, and thanks for your detailed comments!

      Susan Terry

      Are there any benefit to defining a New Multilevel List as opposed to defining a New List Style? Because there doesn’t appear to be any way to ever edit the New Multilevel List after you’ve created it.

        Deborah Savadra

        Actually, if you go back to Add New Multilevel List while your cursor is sitting in the middle of your list, it allows you to edit the existing scheme. Counter-intuitive, I know, but it does work.

Multilevel paragraph numbering with embedded text

[…] the previous post in this series, we went through the basics of setting up a multilevel paragraph numbering scheme […]


When I follow these steps, I can’t seem to “demote” all the way back to Level 1 in such a manner so I get paragraph number “2.” to appear. When I hit “enter” at the end of the sentence 1 b) in your example, it gives me “c)”, as it should. When I “demote” from there, it gives me “1.” instead of “2.” What am I missing?


    Ignore my first post. I figured out what I had done wrong. When I went to place the period “.” after the number “1” from within the”Enter formatting for number” box, I deleted every thing in that box and had typed “1.” instead of typing just a period after (the greyed “1” in the box). This had the effect of setting the “Number style for this level” setting to “none.”

Laura Schwartz

I feel like an idiot asking this question, but can this be saved as a new style? Thank you.

    Deborah Savadra

    Not a dumb question at all! I’m planning to cover “saving and transferring” in detail in another post, but here’s the corrected quick-and-dirty version on saving it for future use:

    Saving numbering scheme to List Library

Steve Stovall

Is there a way to set the paragraph spacing within the list definition? I typically like to have 6 or 12 points between the items in the list to aid readability. I know I can do it in the paragraph spacing command but was wondering if I could set a default in the list formatting so I don’t have to go through that extra step.

    Deborah Savadra

    I’m still working out an efficient method for doing that, but it looks like it comes down to doing one of two things: (1) linking each level of a numbering scheme to a paragraph style or (2) creating a custom list style. As soon as I work out what I think is the best method, I’ll publish it and get everyone’s feedback on whether that works for them.

Mary Lou Fisher

Hi Debra,
Thank you so much for this article; it really is one of the biggest issues to deal with in Word ever since the ribbon came into effect. (In the old days, it used to be much easier to modify multilevel numbering.)
So now that I better understand how to CREATE multi-level numbering schemes, and save them as a List Style, I have 2 more questions:
1) After I have created it, how can I modify my new List Style?
2) I actually do want to use a custom multi-level numbering scheme for the built in standard Headings. Would I then use the “Link level to style” option?

    Deborah Savadra

    1) It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but you just click anywhere within the numbering scheme and go back to Define New Multilevel List. You’ll see that all your original settings are there, and you can change anything and save it to apply it to the entire list.
    2) Yes. I’ll be covering that in detail in the third post.


Great article–looking forward to the other ones. Maybe I missed it, but is there a way to save a particular numbering scheme you’ve set up so that you can use it later? Our legal documents have several different types of numbering styles and it would be nice to be able to give each a name and then just call it up when needed. Thanks!

Multilevel paragraph numbering with Styles

[…] Click here for Part 1 of this series. Click here for Part 2 of this series. […]

Creating a New List Style in Microsoft Word

[…] of you have asked, in the comments to previous installments of this series, how to save your favorite numbering scheme for future use and how to embed paragraph formatting (line spacing, spaces between paragraphs, […]

Lorrie C

Genius! I‘m looking forward to practicing…thank you.

Comments are closed