What You Need to Know about Formatting Tables of Contents

You can pretty easily get Word to generate a table of contents that automatically updates with your document.

But if you need to follow some special formatting for the table, like in the Student Supplement for The SBL Handbook of Style, it’s less clear how to do that.

If you simply format the table directly, your formatting will get lost the next time the table updates.

The key to make the formatting “stick” is modifying the styles that drive the table of contents.

1. Take stock of how your table looks now.

If you followed along with my process for inserting a table of contents, you may initially see something like this:

The casing for each line of the table of contents will be as it is in that heading.

You won’t have any line leaders, and your page numbers will be listed straight down the right margin.

2. Take stock of how your table should look.

If this is how you’re table of contents looks, you’re in the ballpark. But you still need a few minor changes to get what the Student Supplement asks for.1§3.2.

That is, in the table of contents, when you have

  • Primary headings, you need the headings in all caps and a dotted line leader between the heading and the page number.
  • First-level subheadings, you need the headings indented three spaces from the left-hand margin.
  • Second-level subheadings, you need the heading indented three more spaces (six total) from the left-hand margin and so on with subsequent levels of subheadings.2To me, it seems that this practice is most in keeping with the Student Supplement’s intent. Otherwise, it won’t be clear in the table of contents where second-level subheadings come underneath first-level subheadings in the paper. The headings in the table of contents will both be indented by the same amount. But this is what the example in the Student Supplement §3.2 shows. The Student Supplement doesn’t give further information about indenting third- through fifth-level subheadings in a table of contents. Presumably, therefore, these would be indented underneath second- through fourth-level subheadings. Consequently, I am interpreting the example in the Student Supplement §3.2 as slightly awry and the intention as being to have second-level subheadings indented three spaces more than first-level subheadings. I’ve written SBL Press to confirm this interpretation but have yet to hear back as of this writing.

3. Identify what formatting you need to adjust.

From our example table of contents above, you’ll just need to change the primary headings’ casing and line leader format.

Depending on how you have the rest of your document formatted, you may also need to change the line spacing in your table of contents so that it’s double spaced as the Student Supplement requires.

But the Student Supplement’s “three spaces” of indentation is essentially equivalent to the 0.15 inches.

This distance is the indentation that Word applies to these subheadings by default. So you shouldn’t need to adjust this indentation at all.


If you try to apply formatting directly to any of these portions of your table of contents, your formatting will be lost when your full table is refreshed.

Fortunately, each level in your table of contents has a specific style associated with it that controls how that level in your table appears.

So all you need to do to change the formatting of a given heading level in your table of contents is to edit the corresponding style.

What changes need to be made in your table of contents so that it comes out as your style authority requires?

Header image provided by Kaitlyn Baker

How to Quickly Create a Dynamic Table of Contents

Creating a table of contents manually can be a pain and consume much more time and attention than it should.

Fortunately, you can let Word do the heavy lifting by creating a dynamic table of contents that updates automatically with your document.

1. Prepare your document.

Word can manage a table of contents multiple ways. Rather than discussing all of these, I’m going to describe what seems the simplest method.

So for the purposes of this tutorial, I’m going to assume two things:1I’m also assuming you have a current version of Word via Office 365. These instructions are based on v16.0.12430.20046. They should work on other recent versions as well. But you’ll notice greater differences in the process if you have an older version of Word.

  1. You’re using heading styles to format the headings within your document.
  2. You’ve set up the page numbers for your table of contents in Word as described in the Student Supplement for The SBL Handbook of Style.

If either of these isn’t true, update your document accordingly.2If you need to paginate your table of contents differently, however, simply substitute your requirements in the appropriate steps below. Then come back here, and go through the steps in the next section to add your table of contents.

2. Add your table of contents.

Once you have your document prepared:

2.1. Create your contents page header.

Place your cursor at the start of the page in your document where you want to insert your table of contents (e.g., the page numbered “ii”).

Then, type “Contents” at the top of this page, and format it like a primary heading.

This will be centered and all capital letters if you’re using the Student Supplement.3§2.6. But don’t use the style you created to format all your other primary headings (e.g., “Heading 1”).

It’s important you format the word “Contents” directly, or at any rate, not with the primary heading style. Otherwise, the first entry in your table of contents will be “Contents.” 😛

After you’ve typed and formatted this heading, place your cursor on the next line available for text below the heading.

Contents Page Header

2.2. Start inserting your table of contents.

Go to the “References” tab, find the “Table of Contents” section, and click the “Table of Contents” button.

Word has a few different tables of contents predefined. But it’ll probably be easiest for you to use the “Custom Table of Contents…” option at the bottom of the “Table of Contents” button menu.

This will open the “Table of Contents” tab in the “Table of Contents” dialog box. (The names are quite creative, aren’t they?)

2.3. Set the basic formatting for your table of contents.

Where you see “Tab leader,” change the option from “……” to “none.”

(If you’re following the Student Supplement, you’ll have the dotted leader only for your primary headings.4§3.2. So it’s easiest just to add them there rather than remove them everywhere else.)

Still on the “Table of Contents” tab in the “Table of Contents” dialog box, also find the “Show levels” option. Increase this number to “9.”

You may not have that many heading levels (and probably shouldn’t). But per the Student Supplement, the table of contents should include “every element of the paper that follows.”5§3.2.

Increasing this number to the maximum now should prevent you from having to change it later or miss headings out of your table of contents.

Click “OK” to create your table of contents.

2.4 Review your initial table of contents.

At this point, you should see a table of contents in your document that looks something like the sample below.

Of course, what the table actually shows will depend on the headings you’ve included in your document.

If you don’t see what you were expecting, double check that you’ve used heading styles in the appropriate places and at the appropriate levels in the body of your document.

Add or change these where necessary (e.g., from “Heading 3” to “Heading 2”).

Also note that the casing for each line in the table of contents will be as it is in that heading, even though the heading might be formatted in all caps.

If you see capitals or lowercase where you were expecting the other, retype that heading in the body of your document, with the proper casing.

Your table of contents will update automatically at different times. But to force an update at any point, right click inside the table, and choose “Update Field,” then “Update entire table,” and click “OK.”

The individual lines of the table of contents are also linked to the corresponding places in your document. So to jump there, just Ctrl + click on a given line in the table.


At this point, you’re saving yourself a huge amount of time and effort managing your table of contents. You’re also able to use the table in Word to skip easily to different parts of your document.

But you may notice that the formatting of the table of contents isn’t yet quite what the Student Supplement is asking for.6§3.2.

So you’ll want to take careful stock of how the formatting needs to be adjusted, which can be done with styles as well.

How have you normally set up tables of contents in Word? Did any of the steps above trip you up?

Header image provided by Kaitlyn Baker

Turn the Tables of Contents over to Word

You may have created tables of contents manually in the past. But Microsoft Word can create tables of contents where the headings and page numbers update along with your document.

When to Include a Table of Contents

If you’re writing for publication, you’ll likely not need to create a table of contents that corresponds to your manuscript.

But especially if you’re a student, you might find yourself needing to produce a table of contents.

For instance, the Student Supplement to The SBL Handbook of Style asks that you include a table of contents if you are writing a long essay of 15 pages or more.1§2.7.

Or for your thesis or dissertation, you’ll also likely need to include a table of contents.

Why to Let Word Manage Your Table of Contents

In any of these cases, creating and managing a table of contents by hand can be a nightmare.

You’ll need to replicate in the table of contents any edits you make to your headings or any changes that alter the page numbers for those headings.

You can save some of this effort by doing your table of contents at the end of your writing process.

But it’ll be much easier still if you simply let Word handle the whole table of contents from the start.

And let’s face it—you didn’t start writing up your research so that you could devote time to having a flawless table of contents.

So any time and effort you can save in preparing a table of contents will be a bonus.

If you allow Word to do this all for you, you can then put your time and attention into something more meaningful than manually formatting headings, indentations, line leaders, and page numbers.


If this sounds good to you, you’ll want to check out this step-by-step guide for exactly how to produce a dynamic table of contents.

The process isn’t hard. So take a read through it, and start turning your tables of contents over to Word.

How many hours would you guess you’ve spent manually creating or editing tables of contents?

Header image provided by Kaitlyn Baker

How to Format Headings with Styles in Word

In Microsoft Word, a “style” is essentially a collection of one or more pieces of formatting information.

Using styles can be a great way to ensure consistent formatting across a document. Styles are especially helpful when you use them to format your headings.1And if you ever need to turn styles into direct formatting, you can do that pretty easily also.

Here are 4 simple steps to start leveraging styles in your headings.

1. Identify the heading format requirements your style authority has.

If you’re a student writing for class, you’ll want to consult your school’s and professor’s requirements.

If neither of these authorities mandates a heading style scheme for you, you’ll get your heading styles from the Student Supplement for The SBL Handbook of Style.

In that case, you’ll format your headings as follows:2Student supplement for The SBL Handbook of Style §2.6.

Primary heading: centered, all capital letters, long titles single-spaced

First-level subheading: centered, bold, capitalized headline style

Second-level subheading: centered, capitalized headline style (no bold)

Third-level subheading: on left margin, bold, italics, capitalized headline style

Fourth-level subheading: on left margin, capitalized headline style (no bold or italics)

Of course, if you’re not writing for a degree program you’re enrolled, you might be writing for a journal, a book publisher, or someone else.

In those cases, you’ll still want to be sure to consult your style authorities in the proper order.

For more on this and other important points, see my free e-book, Secrets of SBL Style: What You Need to Know That Hides in Plain Sight.

2. Decide which Word styles to use for which heading styles.

Word comes preloaded with heading styles numbered 1 through 9. So I line them up with heading styles like those above as follows:

Authority StyleWord Style
Primary headingHeading 1
First-level subheadingHeading 2
Second-level subheadingHeading 3
Third-level subheadingHeading 4
Fourth-level subheadingHeading 5

But you might prefer to align the styles differently.

For example, you could create a new style in Word (e.g., named “Heading Primary”) and then use the built-in “Heading #” styles only for subheadings. (But I don’t recommend this because it can complicate using heading styles to create a table of contents.)

A first-level subheading would then use Heading 1, a second-level subheading would use Heading 2, and so forth.

3. Modify Word’s style formatting to match your authority’s requirements.

Next, you’ll need to modify each Word heading style to match the formatting your style authority requires.

You can do this in several ways. I find it’s easiest to:3Here, I’m assuming you have a current version of Word via Office 365. These instructions are based on v16.0.12430.20046. They should work on other recent versions as well. But you’ll notice greater differences in the process if you have an older version of Word.

1. Go to the Home tab, and find the “Styles” section. You should see an arrow in the lower right corner of the section. Click this to expand the section into a panel.

Steps to open the styles panel from the Home tab

2. Scroll down the styles panel until you find the first heading style you want to edit. The panel lists styles in alphabetical order.

3. When you find the style, right-click it, and choose “Modify.” You’ll then see the “Modify Style” dialog box where you can specify how you want that heading style formatted. So for instance, if you’re following the examples I’ve given above, you’ll modify the Heading 1 style to be centered, use all capital letters, and have single spacing.

4. After you’ve gotten the style formatting as you want it, decide whether you’ll want to use this same style formatting in other documents based on the same Word template. If so, choose the “New documents based on this template” option at the bottom of the “Modify Style” dialog box.

5. Click “OK” to save the style formatting you’ve specified in the “Modify Style” dialog box.

4. Use Word’s heading styles in your document.

To use the heading styles you’ve built in your document, simply

1. Highlight some text in your document. Then choose the appropriate heading style from the Styles menu. Or,

2. Choose a style from the Styles menu, and then type your heading text.

After your heading, you can then use the “Normal” style or another one you’ve crafted for after a heading to format that paragraph appropriately.


Using styles to format your headings will help ensure your headings are consistent with one another.

Via the navigation panel, you’ll be able to see easily if you have any sections with only one subheading.

You’ll also be able to quickly generate a properly formatted, dynamic table of contents that updates with the rest of your document.

So if you haven’t given much attention to Word’s heading styles in the past, give them a try, and start making things easier on yourself and your readers.

What’s been your experience with styles in Microsoft Word? How have you found them helpful?

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Pro Tips for Busy Writers: Alex Stewart

Alex Stewart headshotTo this continuing series on “Pro Tips for Busy Writers,” I’m pleased to welcome Alex Stewart, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands.

Alex and I met during our time at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Alex has published sixteen articles or essays, written or co-authored five books, and begun a second PhD.

By this point in your career, you’ve likely worked on several writing projects concurrently (e.g., articles, books). What’s a memorable example of a cluster of projects you worked on concurrently?

There is always overlap with writing projects, revisions, etc. This is necessary because, even after you submit an article or book, there are several months before you receive feedback which often requires returning to the project to make changes.

The nature of the beast requires constantly bouncing back and forth between projects to see them to completion. I have been making progress on a second academic monograph in the background for the past five years or so while doing other articles and smaller books.

Concurrent projects slow down each of the individual projects but often benefit from synergism in the research.

Larger projects (e.g., a dissertation, a second monograph) can be more important but less urgent than others (e.g., conference papers, book reviews). How do you avoid letting good-but-less-important projects push out or cause you to procrastinate on those that are more important but less urgent?

This is not easy. Before giving my main strategy, I want to mention two practices which slow down larger projects but are worth it. They both provide short-term loss but long-term gain.

1. Book Reviews

First, despite what many people say, I have greatly benefited from doing book reviews. I have averaged 3–4 book reviews a semester for various journals over the past several years.

These require time, but the semesters are often so busy with teaching, advising, and other administrative duties that they are more conducive to one-off book reviews.

It is sometimes easier to squeeze in reading and writing a book review during an otherwise full week than to get the time and mental energy to make progress on a difficult or demanding larger project.

The benefits are tremendous. I keep more up to speed with recent work in my field and in related areas.

I try not to review books too far removed (due to lack of competence) but often dabble in related areas of interest. In particular, when I know I will be working on a topic in the next 6 to 12 months, I request related books to review in advance.

As you develop relationships with book review editors, you will often be able to ask for specific books.

Finally, although book reviews do not contribute to tenure or promotion, they make a significant contribution to the field.

Sometimes I regret requesting a particular book. But more often than not, I gain new perspectives and insights that I would have missed if I had just been reading and researching for the next writing project.

2. Reading Groups

Second, I began a Greek reading group with students when I first started teaching at Tyndale Theological Seminary. This group has met from 8:30–9:00 am Monday through Friday every week during the semesters for the past seven years. I also started and ran a half-hour Hebrew Bible and LXX reading group for a year and a half.

Students who regularly participate make tremendous progress, but I have benefited the most from this practice. I am convinced that genuine competence comes from the daily and automatic habits that shape our lives and productivity.

Sometimes I match the reading with projects (e.g., we read Revelation this past semester because I am working on several concurrent projects on Revelation this year). But even apart from that, regularly reading and translating the primary sources builds a deep well of competence over time.

3. Long-term Strategy

Both of these practices (lots of book reviews and regular and extensive time reading Greek and Hebrew) don’t directly help immediate projects and often slow them down. They are a short-term loss.

The long-term benefits, however, are incredible and hard to quantify (or at least that’s what I will keep telling myself).

The best strategy I have used for making progress on long-term projects came from the academic dean who recruited me for Tyndale, Drake Williams. He encouraged me to outline the next academic monograph and then seek to fill in the sections with conference presentations over time. This could take years but would eventually lead to a completed monograph.

Every January, I consider the various conferences for the year in the U.S. and Europe and send out proposals related to sections in the next long-term major book (in my case, my second academic monograph). Between ETS, IBR, SBL, the Vrije Universiteit NT Seminar, and an annual summer conference at KU Leuven, I normally send off 4–6 paper proposals annually and end up presenting 3–5 papers a year.

Most of these papers are strategically related to the long-term project, although some end up being one-off articles. These accepted proposals then become a part of my research agenda for the year.

The final paper doesn’t always exactly fit the major project, and I end up publishing it on its own. But it still helped build the research foundation for the larger project.

When you’ve worked on multiple projects concurrently, what processes, principles, or practices have you used to be sure you’re making good progress on all fronts?

The closest deadline gets all the attention. It is about that simple.

The other key has to do with summer and winter breaks. Everyone has different responsibilities and priorities, but I make most of my research and writing progress between semesters.

We take a normal family vacation. But aside from that, I treat school breaks as normal workdays and will be in the office 8:00–5:00 Monday through Friday researching and writing. I don’t know if this is an early career versus late career thing, but it has been the key to my research output.

I remember my first summer as a teacher when I didn’t have any projects with deadlines to work on. I still came in every day and read through and took notes on most of Charlesworth’s two-volume Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.

Research and writing productively simply takes time and hard work. If you treat school breaks as normal work weeks you will make significant progress over time.

Do you divide your process between research and writing? If so, how?

For one-off articles, I first outline the article and write an abstract of what I think I will argue.

I then try to read and take notes on 15–20 important articles or book chapters and 1–2 monographs. Then I go back and write the article.

Sometimes the final product has very little to do with the originally intended abstract, arguments, and claims.

What do you do to help you avoid overcommitting yourself either on timelines that are too short for their projects or on how many projects you take on? How do you avoid undercommitting?

This balance changes with the years (early career versus late career). As a young scholar, I have said yes to every opportunity since there have actually been very few invitations.

Some people seem to become very well networked during the course of their PhD program and get multiple contracts from the very beginning. This was not my story. I had nobody seeking me out to write chapters, submit articles, edit volumes, or do anything really.

Publishers are increasingly interested in your author platform, and if you don’t have a platform, they will likely have little interest in your proposal.

I responded by focusing more on peer-reviewed journal articles. You don’t need to be famous or have a platform to pass double-blind peer review. You simply need to do good work.

I also developed many book proposals and actively tried to shop them to publishers at the annual SBL meeting, but this has not been terribly successful.

As far as I can tell, a young scholar with no name recognition and few major connections simply needs to work hard with blind peer review venues.

I am at a bit of a turning point in my own academic journey after seven years of full-time teaching, and the danger of overcommitment is looming. Time will tell how I navigate it.

Administrative responsibilities and teaching load play a big role in how much research and writing can be accomplished without sacrificing quality.

When working on multiple projects concurrently, what tools do you use (e.g., filing systems, project management tools, apps)?

I have no major advice here. I keep a different folder for each separate project into which I put articles and other related pages. I often have files with further research ideas or for things I need to explore further in the future.

What are two or more projects you’re particularly excited about that you’re now working on concurrently?

I am really excited about four books which are all currently underway.

My second monograph on fear appeals and the rhetorical use of divine threat in antiquity has been in process for several years. I should be able to land the plane within three years. This will continue building on the theme of motivation I discussed in my revised dissertation.

I am also working on the Revelation volume for the EGGNT series with B&H. I am co-editing a volume with Alan Bandy on Revelation with Lexham Press that has some incredible contributors. Finally, I am finishing up a small, popular-level volume on Revelation for Lexham Press called Five Rules for Reading Revelation.

What closing advice (if any) would you offer to (post-)graduate students and new faculty as they try to become comfortable and competent for themselves in making progress concurrently on multiple writing projects?

Don’t compare yourself with others, and don’t rush things.

No scholar, even the most prolific, can research and write on everything. You can’t be an expert on everything, but you will be able to make a significant contribution on something.

Also, don’t sacrifice long-term competencies for short-term gains. Develop the habits which will build genuine competence over time.

Pro Tips for Busy Writers: David DeSilva

David DeSilva headshotTo the series “Pro Tips for Busy Writers,” I’m pleased to welcome David DeSilva.

David is the Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary.

David has published or in press more than 15 academic books and another 13 for popular audiences. Beyond this, he has contributed upwards of 50 articles and essays to journals and edited volumes.

For more about David, see his personal website.

Larger projects (e.g., a dissertation, a second monograph) can be more important but less urgent than others (e.g., conference papers, book reviews). How do you avoid letting good-but-less-important projects push out or cause you to procrastinate on those that are more important but less urgent?

I’m personally not very good at this, but the key is, first, to say “no” to conference papers, invitations to contribute essays, and especially to book reviews (and usually invitations to respond to questionnaires that aren’t about one of my projects!).

[Given this principle, my special thanks to David for his decision not to say “no” to participating in this interview! 🙂 ]

I think I’ve done five book reviews in the last decade. When I do think about conference papers or essay invitations, I try to make sure they are in line with my current (or anticipated) project so that my head keeps swimming in the same pool.

When you’ve worked on multiple projects concurrently, what processes, principles, or practices have you used to be sure you’re making good progress on all fronts?

To be honest, I don’t really work on projects concurrently. If necessary, I set the one aside and get the other done, then return to the first one.

I find immersion to be the best way for me to make progress on something.

Do you divide your process between research and writing? If so, how?

Yes, I tend to try to do the bulk of the research first, take a plenitude of notes, and shape them into the orderly progression that will become the article or book.

Of course, new questions arise in the course of the actual writing. But those tend to be rather specific things that I had not anticipated having to dig into and don’t stall the writing process too much.

What do you do to help you avoid overcommitting yourself either on timelines that are too short for their projects or on how many projects you take on? How do you avoid undercommitting?

Undercommitting has just never been a danger for me. I’ve used those rare occasions when I’ve had free time between projects to be creative in other ways, like composing anthems or arranging organ music for my church work.

I have a serious problem with overcommitting, and I’ll simply say that it’s better to err on the side of undercommitting—and having some good free time for other interests or just for the tasks of home ownership and yard maintenance!—than on the side of overcommitting.

The Hebrew Bible image for enjoying covenant blessings was sitting under one’s vines and trees, not incessantly working on them.

When working on multiple projects concurrently, what tools do you use (e.g., filing systems, project management tools, apps)?

When I can’t avoid working on multiple projects in the same time frame, I tend to compartmentalize and devote, say, Monday and Tuesday to the one and Thursday and Saturday to the other (before our kids were grown, however, Saturdays were sacred to playing!). That way, I can keep my focus in one place at a time.

But in these cases, they’ve also been significantly different kinds of projects, e.g., working on the Greek handbook on Galatians (so a lot of very technical and not-so-creative work) alongside writing my novel, Day of Atonement.

Organization is, of course, essential. I’ve never used “project management tools.” I just put all the physical books I need for one project on one group of shelves and those for the other on another group of shelves. I divide all my notes and drafts into appropriate folders on my computer desktop.

How has your approach to concurrent writing projects changed over time?

I have accepted my tunnel-vision approach and try not to work against myself.

What are two or more projects you’re particularly excited about that you’re now working on concurrently?

I’m excited not to be working on two or more projects concurrently!

What closing advice (if any) would you offer to (post-)graduate students and new faculty as they try to become comfortable and competent for themselves in making progress concurrently on multiple writing projects?

Publish articles and present papers on the way to completing larger monographs. If there are key new works that you must engage to do your own research, target those (and only those) for book reviews. (This is essentially advice not to get involved in concurrent projects, but to get the most out of a single project.)

Don’t stress yourself out about the quality of what you’re writing. Just keep working at the level at which you were working as you successfully completed your dissertation.

What you did once, you can do again—and again. Your skills will naturally grow with use and exercise, particularly as you keep engaging the research of your peers.

What’s your biggest take away from this interview?

Header image provided by Freddie Marriage via Unsplash