Numbering in Microsoft Word

Word’s Auto-Numbering features are powerful and very useful for attorneys. However, they are not very intuitive. Here’s how to master paragraph numbering and more.

Paragraph Numbering

The way Word has constructed paragraph numbering—a twisted combination of fields and styles—makes it difficult to customize numbering to your preferences and easy to screw up somewhere along the way. If you are going to use Word’s native paragraph numbering, you will want to be armed with basic knowledge and some snafu-busting techniques.1

The Basics

Word 2016 bullet library for paragraph numbering

Starting an auto-numbered paragraph is deceptively simple. See those buttons on the top row of the Paragraph section of the Home tab? The left-most one is for bullets; the next two to its right are for numbering and multi-level numbering, respectively. Simply click the button to toggle the feature on, or click on the drop-down arrow on each button to select a specific style. If you don’t like any of the delivered choices, you can click Define New to set your own.

If you use multi-level numbering, use the Increase/Decrease Indent buttons on the Home tab (just to the right of the numbering buttons in the Paragraph section) to change the numbering level of a particular paragraph. The numbering of subsequent paragraphs will self-adjust.

Making Adjustments

The first thing you will notice is the paragraph will not be indented the way you want. Microsoft has its own ideas about how your paragraphs should look, but you can override them. The quickest way is to right-click on the paragraph number you just created and choose Adjust List Indents from the menu that pops up.

If you are using the basic one-level paragraph numbering, you will get a small dialog box in which to make your adjustments:

Word 2016 Adjust List Indents dialog box for paragraph numbering

Number position is what it sounds like: how far from the left margin the number should be placed. Text indent is how far from the left margin you’d like your paragraph’s second and subsequent lines to wrap. Most people choose Tab character for the follow number with value, although you can also choose Space or Nothing.

Sample paragraph numbering settings

If you are using multi-level numbering, the Adjust List Indents dialog box is more complex:

Word 2016 multilevel paragraph numbering settings

The values for Number position (here called Aligned at), Text indent and Follow number with are in the Position section at the bottom. With multi-level numbering, you also have easy access to settings that control the type of numbering at each level, the characters before and after each level’s numbers (period versus parenthesis), and the list number style (1, a, I, etc.).

Restarting/Resetting Paragraph Numbering Sequences

You can control whether your next paragraph number continues the current sequence or starts again at 1 within that same right-click menu. If one of your numbers gets out of sequence, simply right-click and choose Continue Numbering. If you want to force the number back to the beginning (say, you’re switching from interrogatories to requests for production), choose Set Numbering Value (which will also give you the option of continuing the previous list).

Adding Space Between Paragraphs

With the numbered paragraphs shown above, there is no extra spacing between the paragraphs. That’s easy to fix. Go ahead and type out at least part of your first numbered paragraph, then go to the Page Layout tab and adjust the value of Spacing After in the Paragraph section. Still no extra space? There’s one more setting to check. Click the launcher arrow in the lower right-hand corner to go to the Paragraph dialog box, uncheck the box next to “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style.” Click OK. That paragraph and all the remaining numbered ones will have more breathing room.

Word 2016 spacing for paragraph numbering

Placing an Unnumbered Paragraph in the Middle

You will occasionally want to place an unnumbered paragraph in the middle of a sequence, but the moment you hit Enter, another paragraph number pops up. To fix this, toggle paragraph numbering off by pressing the paragraph numbering button you used for the previous paragraph. (If you use the button’s drop-down, choose None as the numbering scheme.) Unfortunately, the paragraph settings won’t revert to Normal here; it’ll usually have the paragraph indented 0.25. Use the keyboard shortcut CTRL+Q to strip paragraph settings out, then revise the formatting as you wish.

When you are ready to restart numbering, you can use the technique above, or you can place your cursor inside a numbered paragraph above, click the Format Painter (the paintbrush icon on the Home tab under Clipboard), then click on the line where you want to restart numbering. Using Format Painter this way solves several paragraph numbering problems (the number sequence, indents, and inter-paragraph spacing) simultaneously.

Beyond Paragraph Numbering

Numbering can go beyond paragraphs and can include numbers other than plain Arabic numerals.2

For example, you might like to auto-number like this:

Word-SEQ-aff-defenses

If you frequently include items like these in your legal writing, you’ll want to construct these and keep them in your Quick Parts so you can insert them with two clicks.

The heading here could be anything: affirmative defenses in an answer, articles in a contract, etc. It doesn’t matter; the technique is the same with only slight variations. The result is that you’ll have a heading saved in your Quick Parts that will be numbered correctly, no matter how many items you add or delete. This makes this technique particularly useful in building templates for common documents; because it’s always easier to delete than add, they’ll re-number themselves after editing.

Two Word Settings to Check

When using fields like these in documents, there are two settings you’ll want to check (and re-set if necessary). Go to the File tab and click on Options.

The first setting, under Display on the left, instructs Word to always update any field values before printing a document. The second, under Advanced, will always display fields on the screen with shading so you can always see, at a glance, which items are just text and which are fields.

Auto-Numbering Affirmative Defenses

For our example, let’s do headers for affirmative defenses that say “First Affirmative Defense”, “Second Affirmative Defense”, etc. Put your cursor where you want your first heading to go, then go to the Insert tab, click on Quick Parts, then click on Field:

On the Field dialog box, you want to select the Seq field:

Microsoft-Word-SEQ-field-1

We’re going to name this “affdef,” but actually you could name it anything you like. Once you’ve done that, click on Options to define the field:

Microsoft-Word-SEQ-field-2

There are three settings we need to embed in this field. The first is to tell it what kind of numbering we want to do (in this case, “First, Second, Third”), what case we want to use (upper case, title case, etc.), and a switch to tell Microsoft Word to increment the numbers. Click each of these settings as shown below, being sure to click Add to Field after each one:

Microsoft-Word-SEQ-field-3

So what you have now is a Seq field that has an ordinal number in uppercase letters that increments.

Microsoft-Word-SEQ-field-4

And it looks something like this:

Microsoft-Word-SEQ-field-5

Don’t worry, that shading behind the word “first” won’t print. That’s just there to show you that it’s a field and not just text. Now you can type the remainder of the phrase and format it however you like (bold, centered, new font, etc.):

At this point, you can save this to your Quick Parts so you don’t have to go through the whole “inserting the field” sequence over and over again.

One caveat: you may occasionally notice that when you insert several of these in a row (easy to do when you click on Quick Parts and find where you’ve saved it), the automatic numbering doesn’t seem to work:

Microsoft-Word-SEQ-field-7

Not to worry. Click CTRL-A (to select all text), then click F9 to update all the fields.

Microsoft-Word-SEQ-field-8

Microsoft Word will update those fields anyway the next time you print or save the document, but you may want to force update the fields just to set your mind at ease.

How to Auto-Number Discovery Requests in Microsoft Word

From the Remedial Action Law Blog:

Just ignore the all-caps. You know better than to use all-caps.


  1. These screenshots and instructions are for Microsoft Word 2016 for Windows. 

  2. These screenshots and instructions are for Microsoft Word 2016 for Windows.