How to Organize a Story In Microsoft Word with Styles and a Table of Contents: A Step-by-Step Tutorial for Writers

How well do you know the program you use to write?

Microsoft Word has been my go-to for nearly two decades, and my love grew tenfold when I learned how to use Styles and create a table of contents.

Knowing how to use these tools allows you to do things like:

  • use whichever font you love best for drafting a story, then change it before sending it to your agent or a beta reader
  • rearrange entire chapters or scenes
  • organize reams of story research

When you're ready to follow this quick tutorial, you'll emerge on the other side with a document that's set up to hold whatever you can throw at it, one that can be traversed in a flash, and you can apply it in areas other than writing, as well! You'll be creating a document from scratch here, but once you understand each of the steps, you can apply the same principles to any documents already on the go for your stories.

This tutorial assumes a basic knowledge level of how to use Microsoft Word. You should know how to create a new document, the difference between "Save" and "Save As", and be able to find your way to the various tabs and their associated groups (e.g. the Font and Paragraph groups can be found in the Home tab).

Nearly everything we do in this tutorial can be found in the Home tab.

I'm currently using the latest version of Microsoft Word through Microsoft 365, but this tutorial doesn't dive into any advanced features, so the steps should be nearly identical or at least similar for many older versions of Microsoft Word, as well.

With all that being said, let's style some text and table some contents! 😉

Tutorial Contents:

Step 1 | Set up the Styles

A simple beginning: open a new document.

Make sure you're in the Home tab, then find the Styles gallery. You should see different samples of text, with names like "Normal", "No Spacing", and so on.

In this tutorial, we're going to adjust and use four of the most frequently used Styles in Microsoft Word, namely "Normal", "No Spacing", "Heading 1", and "Heading 2".

"Heading 1" is the highest level of heading you'll use, while "Heading 2" will nest beneath it. However emphatic you make "Heading 1", you'll want "Heading 2" to be less emphatic, while still allowing it to stand out.

"Normal" and "No Spacing" are nearly identical, but "Normal" automatically includes spacing after a paragraph. These two styles make up the bulk of the text in any given document.

Working from left to right, let's start by modifying "Normal".

To do this:

  1. In the Styles gallery at the top of the window, right-click the Style that you want to change (e.g. for the first go round, right-click "Normal" Style).
  2. Click "Modify".
  3. You're now in the Modify Style window. Skip down to where it says "Formatting" and take a look at the different options for styling your text. For a wider selection, click "Format" at the bottom left of the window. While you could peruse a number of things here, stick to "Font..." and/or "Paragraph..." for this tutorial.
  4. Time to make some creative decisions: how do you want this Style to appear? Play with different formatting options until you've settled on the ones you like best. You can see a preview of how it will look in the middle of the Modify Style window.
  5. Where it says "Style for following paragraph", choose which Style you'd like to have follow the one you're currently modifying. This is likely to be either "Normal" or "No Spacing" (the latter is my preference).
  6. Click "OK".
  7. Repeat steps 1 to 6 for each of the Styles you're updating.

When it comes to settling on a finished look for the Styles, don't fret about perfection. They can be changed with a few quick clicks, so have fun! Don't worry about how readable it will be for others, either. You can update the Styles to more professional standards anytime.

Once you've changed the Styles to your satisfaction, carry on to Step 2.

Step 2 | Create the Table of Contents

There are different variations offered by Microsoft Word for a Table of Contents, but let's start with a simple one, which is also the same one I've used personally and when creating this tutorial. To create it, follow these steps:

  1. Click the References tab.
  2. Click "Table of Contents".
  3. Click "Automatic Table 2".

Unless you've tried out any of your headings in the document, you'll get a pop-up message that reads: "Creating a table of contents? Start by applying a heading style from the Styles gallery to the selected text."

This will be taken care of in the following steps, so click "OK" and carry on with the tutorial.

If you're creating a template, skip to Step 7.

Otherwise, carry on to Step 3.

Step 3 | Clarify the focus

What is it that you want to organize in this document? Consider these possibilities:

  • research notes
  • worldbuilding
  • rough draft
  • fiction writing tips
  • notes for one particular story
  • admin and publicity

While the document can be as expansive or minimal as you like, there's a balance to strike, so approach the document with a specific focus in mind.

Step 4 | List the main sections

While you can figure this out as you go, it's helpful to consider what sections are needed for the document ahead of time. This will be influenced by the focus you decided on in Step 3.

List any sections you think you might need, along with any subsections. If you're struggling, look at the information that needs organizing and go broad: "Characters" rather than "Romeo, Juliet's Boyfriend" and "Mercutio, Romeo's BFF", for example. A start at organization is better than none at all!

Research - Section Examples

a section per topic
unanswered questions
a running bibliography

Worldbuilding - Section Examples

magic system
a section for each culture
landscape features

Admin and Publicity - Section Examples

list of completed stories
list of in-progress stories
agent information
editor feedback
promotion ideas

Read more: A Peek Into How I Organized My Work-in-Progress

Step 5 | Start building the document

This is the fun part, when you put the organizational building blocks to work and see everything come together!

If you're not currently in the Home tab, find your way there before carrying on.

Go to the end of your first page, click below the Table of Contents, and press Ctrl+Enter. This will create a page break.

Now that you're on a new page, it's time to create the first section!  If you're unsure which one to do first, start at the top of your list and work your way down.  You can easily rearrange sections later (I'll show you how at the end of this tutorial).

Ready?  Here we go!

  1. Type the name of the first section. (If this is for a template, just use placeholder text, e.g. "First Section".)
  2. Select what you've just typed.
  3. In the Styles gallery at the top, click "Heading 1".
  4. Go to the next line. The Style for this line will be whichever one you chose in the "Style for following paragraph" option when creating the "Heading 1" Style. (If this is for a template, just add some placeholder text here, e.g. "this is where the normal text goes".)

If you have no subsections to add in this section, you'll be using the "Normal" or "No Spacing" Style now, depending on your preference.  If there does need to be a subsection, repeat the above steps, but choose "Heading 2" rather than "Heading 1".

For Example: If you're creating a section for character notes and want to include subsections for your main character, antagonist, and general notes, "Character Notes" would be at the top of the page and made "Heading 1"; "Main Character" would come next and be "Heading 2", as would "Antagonist" and "General Notes".

Create a page break at the end of each section you create before beginning a new section (after adding everything to the "Character Notes" section, for example), rather than manually going to a new page by pressing the "Enter" or "Return" key. That way, no matter how extensively you add or subtract content from a section, the next section will always start on a fresh page.  It keeps things tidy with little effort on your part.

Step 6 | Update the Table of Contents

Amazing as it would be, these TOCs don't update automatically the moment a change is made, such as a new heading. (I like to think it's the program's way of saying, "Are you sure that's what you want to do? You're not going to change your mind? No, it's okay, I'll wait! Take your time.") The Navigation Pane/Document Outline is always up to date, however.

When you're ready to update the table of contents, follow these steps:

  1. Click directly on the Table of Contents. In the version of Microsoft Word I'm using, a light blue background pops up behind the Table of Contents whenever my cursor hovers over it - that's how I know I'm clicking in the right spot.
  2. Click "Update Table" at the top.

The very first time you do this, the Table of Contents will update and nothing else happens.

Anytime after, a message will pop up, clarifying if you want to update the page numbers or the whole table. When this happens, click "Update Entire Table" and then click "OK".

Step 7 | The first save

If you haven't already done so, now is the perfect opportunity to save your document for the first time, but there's a decision to make before doing so: do you want to keep your document as a template for future use?

If the answer is no and you've been creating this document for a specific purpose, save it wherever and however you like, then click here to skip to a few final tips and tricks.

If you would like to use this document as a template, however, there are two ways you can do it.

Method #1 – an informal template

The first way is to set it up according to the steps we've discussed so far, with placeholder names in place of a few sample sections and subsections, then save it with a name like "rough draft template" or "writing notes template", depending on what sort of document you've set up.

Whenever you want to use it in the future, e.g. for a new story, follow these steps:

  1. Open this template document.
  2. Click the File tab.
  3. Click "Save As" - not "Save" - and give it whichever name you'd like for the new version.

This way, your original template document remains intact and you have a new document to play with, as well!

Method #2 – a formal template

To create a document that Microsoft Word recognizes as a template, you first need to choose a folder on your computer where the templates you create will be saved.

Once you've decided on a folder, you need to save its location to be able to tell Microsoft Word where to look. If you're following this tutorial on a Mac, you can search the internet for how to copy a folder path on Mac and you should be able to find what you need! On Windows, however, you can do the following.

Open the folder which contains your chosen template folder in File Explorer (also known as Windows Explorer prior to Windows 10, this is just a fancy name for what we use to view folders on a Windows computer). Hold down the Shift key, then right-click on your chosen folder and click "Copy as path".

Return to Microsoft Word and follow these steps:

  1. Click the File tab.
  2. Click "Options".
  3. Click "Save".
  4. Where it says "Default personal templates location", paste the folder location you copied. If you chose a folder within your Documents folder, for example, the location may look something like: "C:\Users\ACCOUNT NAME\Documents\FOLDER NAME"
  5. Click "OK".

This has told Microsoft Word where to look for templates.

Now you need to save your new template. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Click the File tab.
  2. Click "Save".
  3. Enter a name for this document, as you usually would.
  4. Click the drop-down menu directly below where you fill out the name. You should now see a list of file formats to choose from.
  5. Click "Word Template".
  6. Click the "Save" button directly to the right.

Finally, to make sure your template works correctly in the future, you'll need to check something in the Styles.  Follow these steps for any of the Styles you modified and plan to use in the future:

  1. Right-click the Style, then click "Modify".
  2. At the bottom, toggle "New documents based on this template".
  3. Click "OK".

Once you've followed these steps for each Style, be sure to save the changes.

Now your new template should be ready to go! To test this, follow these steps:

  1. Click the File tab.
  2. Click "New".
  3. Your template may appear right at the top, beside a template named "Blank document". If not, you can always find it just below by clicking "Personal".

If you can't see the template there, either, make sure the file location you entered at the beginning of this section was correct.

And there you have it! A new template, styled just the way you like it, ready to hold just about any creative goodies you think to throw its way.

A few more tips and tricks

One of the benefits of organizing a document this way is being able to navigate it with ease, no matter how lengthy it gets.  There are two simple ways to jump cheekily from, say, Chapter 3 to Chapter 27 or from research notes on whiskey to character notes on your dastardly antagonist.

If you're viewing the Table of Contents, Ctrl + Click on the section you want to navigate to.

Alternatively, if you have the Navigation Pane open (click the View tab, then "Navigation Pane" in the Show group), click "Headings" (as opposed to "Pages" or "Results") and click on the section you want to navigate to.

How do you rearrange the document sections?

This is quite easy to do, so long as you have the Navigation Pane open.

In the Navigation Pane, find the section you want to move, then click and drag it within the Navigation Pane to the desired location.

Moving sections this way will maintain their levels in the hierarchy: for example, if you move a section designated by a Heading 1 beneath a Heading 2 section in the Navigation Pane, that first section will still be a Heading 1 and won't nest within the Heading 2 section. To change a section's position in the hierarchy, you need to manually change their associated Styles.

And with that, this adventure into the organizational depths of Microsoft Word is complete!

You've learned what Styles are, how to customize them to suit every whim, and how to harness their power for a flexible system that grows along with your ideas. If any of this has left you flummoxed, please feel free to let me know and I'll do my best to assist.

Whether you use your new knowledge to corral research, prompts, or story drafts, may your creativity flourish as a result!

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