List Styles

List Styles

List styles are a powerful mechanism that you rarely need. Like a fire insurance policy: you rarely need it, but when you need it, it’s the only way to do the job, and you need it very badly!

Continuing our description of Styles as “A collection of formatting, given a name so we can find and use it again” — a List Style is just another one of those.

The difference is the formatting it contains: bullets, numbers, and indents.

In this article:

  • When to use list styles

  • How to create a list style

  • How to apply a list style

  • How list styles work

Like driving a car, it is not necessary to know how list styles work in order to use them. But if you get a flat tyre, it is really handy to know how to fix it yourself so you do not have to wait for assistance.

When to Use List Styles

List style must be used whenever:

  • You want to copy numbered text between documents (especially, if you did not create one of the documents)

  • You want to set up standard list styles for use by others.

I think there is no point in making or using list styles for any other purpose.

How to Create a List Style

Before you start, decide whether you are going to add paragraph styles into your list styles. My vote is “Yes, always”. However, you don’t have to: a list style can contain its own character and paragraph formatting.

If you are using paragraph styles, you need as many styles as you will have levels in your list, and they need to exist in the document before you can define the list style. My suggestion would be to use the built-in Heading styles, and the built-in List- series of paragraph styles for the purpose.

Apply the highest of your paragraph styles to a paragraph, then click Multilevel List in the Paragraph chunk of the Home tab.

Image of the Paragraph group on the Microsoft Word home ribbon.
Image of Microsoft Words Style dialogue box.

That brings you to here:

Microsoft Words Define New Style Dialogue Box.

Then you will see this:


Follow the red numbers:

Red number 1 Icon

Define a name for your list style. A name you will recognise, and not confuse with other styles

Red number 2 Icon

The style will be of type “list”, you can’t change that.

Red number 3 Icon

If you are making a numbered level, you can choose a starting number here: almost always, this should be “1” for list styles.

Red number 4 Icon

Apply formatting to is the master control for the Define New List Style dialog; here you select, in turn, each level as you work on it. Take great care with your setting here: if you get it wrong, you will define or change the wrong level and things become very confusing. I always recommend that you use the Format button to jump into the Modify Multilevel List dialog, where you can work on all levels concurrently.

Red number 5 Icon

This row is where you set up your text formatting if you have chosen not to include paragraph styles in your definition. Normally, you would leave this all blank and include a paragraph style as part of your definition.

Red number 6 Icon

You can set up your number formatting (or bullet) for this level; I recommend using the Format button (10) to get to the Multilevel dialog where you can define the whole list more easily.

Red number 7 Icon

If you are not going to use the Multilevel dialog, set your indent for each level here.

Red number 8 Icon

This shows you a picture of what your result will be: keep an eye on it to guide you as you work.

Red number 9 Icon

Unless making a list style you want to re-use, set this to “Only in this document”. Ad your list style to a template if you want to re-use it or share it with others.

Red number 10 Icon

The Format button accesses extra options:

Image of the Format button access extra options in Microsoft Word

Use this to gain fine-grained control over your settings. The one you will normally use is “Numbering”. If you read the article on “Numbering That Doesn’t Go Wrong Part 2” you have seen this and its explanation before, repeated here for your convenience:

Image of the Define new Multilevel list dialogue box in Microsoft Word

The first control you need is number 20, down the bottom left corner! Click that until all the extra fields on the right of the dialog become visible: you are about to need them.

Red number 1 Icon

First you select the level in your list you are about to work on. You can select any of the numbers to adjust an existing list, but it’s important to work from 1 down in a new list.

Red number 2 Icon

The picture will give you a graphic that reveals what effect your control had, keep your eye on it as you work.

Red number 3 Icon

Make sure this is set to “Whole list”. The other settings can be used, but they are the equivalent of skydiving without a reserve parachute: exciting but often messy.

Red number 4 Icon

This is the most important control there is: this is what you use to associate your chosen style to your selected level.  If you selected Level 3 in item 1, here you select the style you want for that level; “Heading 3” if you are using the built-in heading series of styles. When numbering goes wrong, the error is often here.

Red number 5 Icon

I’m not certain what this control does: if you find out, please tell me!

Red number 6 Icon

This field assigns the name you need to use in ListNum fields that become part of this list. Field-based numbering is beyond our scope here.

Red number 7 Icon

Enter formatting for number is profoundly misleading: what you enter here is effectively a “picture” of how you want the number to appear. The characters with grey background are the “tokens” Word uses to mark the place where it will generate or reference a number within this list. Text that you type before or after the token will appear along with the number. For example: 1.1.1 indicates that the left-most digit is being copied from level 1 of this list. The centre digit is being copied from level 2 of this list. The right-most digit is being generated by Word for this level of the list. Each of the numbers increments as paragraphs occur before them in the document, or decrement when you delete paragraphs.

Red number 8 Icon

Font” is fairly self-explanatory: leave it alone.  Just don’t! Yes, I used it here to set the red numbers in this list; but unless you want to spend the rest of your life fixing your co-worker’s busted documents, remember that restraint is a much higher virtue than brilliance!

Red number 9 Icon

This would normally be set to “1”. It can be used to set the starting point of heading numbers when you are printing multiple chapters of a book as separate files. These days, Word will print a 5,000 page single document, so there is little use for it.  When you get numbering that simply won’t go right, check the value in this field as part of your fault-finding: it’s capable of producing some seriously weird problems.

Red number 10 Icon

Arabic, Roman, Alphabetic? Take your pick. No, it “won’t” do a list that counts DOWN, just in case you asked (My co-author on one book, Cindy Meister, has a solution here.)

Red number 11 Icon

This field enables you to build your own number format (or get into just about all the trouble there is…). Each time you make a selection in this field, it places a token in the Enter formatting for number that calls in the number from the preceeding paragraph of the level you chose. For example, you are working in Level 4. You wipe everything in the 7 field, then you select Level 1 here, type a dot, select level 2, type a dot, select level 3, type a dot, then select a number style in field 10 to enter the level 4 number token. Sometimes, when fixing broken numbering, it is quicker to wipe the 11 field and do exactly this.

Red number 12 Icon

Field 12 is a “pair” of fields: If you check the “Restart list after” checkbox, you must then choose a list level from the drop-down box. For example: working in Level 3, you would choose “Level 2” here to have the Level 3 number restart at “1” after each Level 2 paragraph. This one can also produce some very weird numbering if it is set wrong.

Red number 13 Icon

The Legal style numbering checkbox forces this level into Arabic numbers.

Red number 14 Icon

This is a little tricky to explain! When making up a numbered list, Word first creates a “box” large enough to hold the highest number. It then “places” single digit numbers within this box according you your specification here: “Left” places the number to the left in the box, “Right” places the number at the right edge of the box, “Centre” puts it in the middle.

Red number 15 Icon

The Aligned At field sets the position of the left edge of the number box described in 14. This is the “position of the number” if you like.

Red number 16 Icon

Follow number with gives you the choice of adding a tab after the number, a space, or nothing. If you have set a hanging indent in your paragraph formatting, you need a tab here.

Red number 17 Icon

Text indent at sets the position of the text following the number. A typical value for a heading might be 2 centimetres (about ¾”). Normally you would set the tab position to the same value, so the first line of the paragraph and its subsequent lines align.

Red number 18 Icon

Set for all levels is a shorthand way of setting the text position to increment the same amount on all nine levels of your list.

Red number 19 Icon

Add tab stop at is the tab stop we were talking about in number 17: set this so that the left text position of the first line of the paragraph aligns with the indent applied to the subsequent lines.

Build All Levels

Build all the levels you are going to use with the above two dialogs. OK your way out and Save the document! Word is a little flaky about list definitions, especially in a long and complex document: it’s more likely to go bang when you are working on lists, especially right before you were about to save your work…

How to Apply a List Style


If the document or its template contains list styles, they will be listed in the List Styles segment of the Multilevel List dialog:

To apply one, either:

  • Apply the appropriate paragraph style (if your list style includes paragraph styles).

  • Or select all the paragraphs of the list, click the Multilevel List button, and click the list style. If your text is not already styled, the paragraphs will all be made members of the list and set to level 1. Adjust the subsequent paragraphs to their correct levels.

How List Styles Work

A list style effectively links together a set of linked styles with a list template.


  • A Character style contains only the font and colour formatting for a run of text.

  • A Paragraph style contains the indents and spacing and line height for the text.

  • A List Template contains the appearance and incrementing behaviour for generated bullets and numbering of a paragraph.

  • A List Style links the list template formatting with the character and paragraph formatting.


I hate it when I draw pictures that I then have to EXPLAIN!!  Starting from the top:

  • The Character style controls the font formatting for the text.

  • The Paragraph style controls the line height, indents, and spacing.

  • The Linked style joins the Character and Paragraph styles into a single style.

  • The List Templates control the bullet or number appearance (in the picture, there are two, with three levels each. I could have done this with a single list template of six levels.

  • The List Style joins the Linked Style with a List Template.

Now, I simplified that a little: there are more details you need to understand so you can see WHY list templates are needed:

  • In Word, all formatting is in styles.

  • The styles are stored at the bottom of the document (beyond the last paragraph mark) in tables that looks like Excel spreadsheets.

  • Each style is a row in its appropriate table.

  • The List Templates table contains all the list templates that have ever been used in the document, in the order in which they were created. You cannot delete one, or overwrite one: if you try, you instantly break the document.

Copying Text

Being unable to change or delete list templates is not usually a problem. A document can contain a huge number, and it makes no difference whether they are still applied to text or not: until you come to copy numbered text from one document to another.

What you start out with is some text, to which a set of styles and a list template are applied. When you get to the destination document, you may find that the styles have different formatting, and the list template is in use. Instant spaghetti-numbering.

The List Style is a rather laborious cure: When a List Style is applied, there is a separate outer structure that does not contain styles or list templates, it contains the instructions for making them!

So when you paste, Word reads the List Style, builds a set of styles and the List Template specified in the List Style, then applies them to the text.

You get a perfect copy every time, even though the list template attached in the destination document may be number 128, the one in the source may be 35.

Not the Ideal Solution

Microsoft has coped a fair bit of “input” and “feedback” on this subject over the past 20 years. The Microsoft Valued Professionals (MVPs) have been particularly vociferous on the subject. The principal protagonists have been myself, the late Shauna Kelly, Margaret Aldis, Bill Coan, Cindy Meister, Greg Maxey (listed in no particular order, although I may actually have been the loudest…).

Each time we yelled at them, Microsoft produced a solution that made things “better”, but we still do not have what we need. 

What we wanted, what we have wanted for 20 or 30 years, was stable robust numbering that would be correct and not break. There are a few other things documentation professionals need:

  1. Number formats that can be referred to by name.

  2. Number formats that stay the same, on any kind of device, on any users’ machine, anywhere in the world.

  3. A numbering mechanism that users can easily understand and use.

  4. Numbering schemes that can be exactly customised to the corporate style guide, then stay that way forever.

List styles are simply the latest attempt, and have not been very successful, largely because they have never been properly documented. List styles provide a good answer to Number 1 above, and improve Word’s ability to perform 2 and 4.

Those of us who work with corporate style guides will flinch at the thought that a style may be one point different to what the style guide requires, or a colour one digit wrong in RGB. We need the Branding Department to be able to specify these formats exactly, and publish them somewhere where everyone can use them. Microsoft Word is becoming less and less capable of supporting this exacting professional use-case.

Standard lists for a company

To create standard lists for a company or organisation, you create each list as a list style, but ensure that each one is copied to a template everyone can use.

Going back to our picture of Define New List Style, you check “New documents based on this template” at the bottom to write the list style definition to the document’s attached template.

For most documents, the attached template is Normal.dotm. However, you can attach any other template to a document by using Developer tab, Document Template, Attach.

If you do, then create or make a change to a List Style, the changed style will be written back to the template.

Place the template on your network, in a folder accessible to all, and populate the Workgroup Templates file location on each user’s machine with the location.

There’s a bit of work to do there and a lot of concepts to cover: if I get enough requests, I will update this article for Word 2016.

Most of what is in that article is still current, although the access to controls has changed with the advent of the Ribbon.

This blog post has been graciously provided by our Contributor at Large:

John McGhie

Among other fine accomplishments, including his work as a Microsoft MVP (Word, Mac Word) John is a Consultant Technical Writer at McGhie Information Engineering Pty Ltd in Sydney, Australia.

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