Headings in Word

Create headings using Word’s styles labeled “Heading 1,” “Heading 2,” etc. Don’t just make text big, bold, or underlined.

Why Headings Matter

Benefits to Students with Disabilities

  • Screen reader users will be able to hear which blocks of text are headings and what level each heading occupies in the hierarchy of the page.
  • Screen reader users will be able to skim the page by jumping from heading to heading.

Benefits to Faculty

  • It saves a lot of time because you can apply consistent formatting to your headings throughout your document without having to choose the font, size, weight, shading, and borders each time you make a heading.
  • You will be able to change the formatting of all the headings of a given level at once.
  • You can easily create consistent formatting from document to document.
  • You can instantly insert a table of contents for your document, complete with page numbers, all based on your headings.
  • In outline view, it’s easy to rearrange your document just by dragging headings. All the text under that heading will move with it.
  • You can use Word’s “Navigation” side panel to see a list of headings and jump to any part of the document by clicking its heading in the list.
  • You can make a link in your document that jumps to a heading in another part of your document.

You get none of those benefits if you just make text big and bold or underlined without encoding the document’s structure with heading styles.

How to Make a Heading

  1. Click anywhere in the block of text you want to make into a heading. You don’t have to highlight the text, just click once anywhere in the paragraph.
  2. From the styles on the “Home” ribbon, click the level of heading you want.

Find Hidden Styles

If you don’t see the heading level you want in the styles section of the ribbon, you can bring up a more complete list of styles. On a Mac, click the “Styles Pane” icon. On Windows, click the subtle “Styles” icon at the lower right of the Styles section on the Home ribbon.

The Windows Styles pane can be opened with the keyboard shortcut: Alt+Ctrl+Shift+S.

Once you have the pane open, you can filter the styles you see. By default, you will see “Recommended” styles. On a Mac, change that to “All Styles” using the “List” menu at the bottom of the Styles Pane. On Windows, click “Options” at the bottom of the Styles Pane, then choose “All styles” under “Select styles to show.”

Video on Making Headings

Microsoft offers the following video on how to make accessible headings in Word.

Create a Consistent Hierarchy without Gaps

Usually, the topic heading at the top of your page will be Heading 1. The headings of sections within the document will have Heading 2 styles. Headings within a level 2 section will have Heading 3 styles.

The idea is to convey the information’s hierarchy with headings. Here is an example of how the heading levels relate. For illustration, this uses a list instead of actual headings:

  • A Guide to the Babel Fish (Heading 1)
    • What is a Babel Fish? (Heading 2)
      • Physical Appearance (Heading 3)
      • Decoding Mechanism (Heading 3)
    • The Babel Fish in Philosophical Arguments (Heading 2)
      • Oolon Colluphid’s Arguments (Heading 3)
        • Argument for (Heading 4)
        • Argument against (Heading 4)
      • Agrajag’s Argument (Heading 3)

If you change your view to “Outline,” or if you activate the “Navigation” sidebar, you will see your headings nested much like the ones above.

No heading level should be out of order. You would not have a Heading 4 come directly after Heading 1, for example. A level 4 is a section of a 3, which is a section of a 2, which is a section of a 1.

For most documents, three heading levels will do. You rarely need more than four.

Title or Heading 1?

Templates that Microsoft supplies for Word usually use a “Title” style at the top of the page instead of Heading 1. Then they use a Heading 1 for each subsection instead of a Heading 2. That’s fine, as long as you use that convention consistently throughout your course and the heading levels below the Title are nested in a logical hierarchy. In fact, for a long document, it may make sense to use a Heading 1 at the start of each chapter and a “Title” style for the name of the document.

Change How Styles Look

Change the Default Heading Styles

The default heading styles in Word look pretty lame. But it’s easy to change how they look:

  1. Right click (Mac: control click) on the style in the Ribbon. Or, hover over the style in the Style pane and click the little arrow that appears on the right.
  2. Click “Modify.”
  3. In the “Modify Styles” window, you can choose things like font, size, weight, color, and alignment.
  4. If you want to do things like indent the left side of the text or change the line spacing, click the “Format” button at the bottom left of the “Modify Styles” window.
  5. After you make your selections, click “OK” and all text of that style will change to your choices.

Create Custom Styles

You can also create a custom style and assign it an outline level so the style will be treated as a heading. This comes in handy if you want to the same level of heading to look different in different parts of your document.

In the Styles pane, click “New Style” button. On Windows, it’s an icon at the bottom of the pane. On a Mac, it’s near the top.

In the “New Style” window, click the “Format” button at the bottom right and select “Paragraph.” In the Paragraph window, choose an “Outline Level.” “Level 1” gives you the equivalent of a Heading level 1, for example. “Level 2” corresponds to a Heading level 2.

If you save your document as a PDF file, any text with a style assigned a level will translate into a heading at that level.

When Existing Formatting Won’t Budge

Styles work great on fresh text. Sometimes, though, you have a document where you already formatted text. You highlighted it and chose what you wanted from the Ribbon. Formatting that’s applied directly to text like that can override your styles. The Styles pane can help you remove that direct formatting:

  1. Open the Styles pane as described in the section above on How to Make a Heading.
  2. Highlight the text you want to clean up. Include some text before and after, if you can. If the whole document is a challenge, you might want to select everything.
  3. Click “Clear All” or “Clear Formatting” at the top of the Styles pane.
  4. Then structure your freshly cleaned text with styles.

These directions are for Office 2016. Other versions of Microsoft Office may work slightly differently.