How to Format and Manage Lists in Microsoft Word

Checklists and lists have become the staple of everything from grocery shopping to NASA launches. But they are boring.

Still, lists and checklists are also the simplest tools to reduce the complexity of information that assaults us every day. They are also the perfect antidote against forgetfulness. So, even as we swear to make perfect lists for productivity, let’s also get down to the basics with Microsoft Word and check off one daily office function—how to make those visually appealing lists and manage them.

1. Create Your First List

Most of the list-making tricks and tips lie within the Ribbon’s Paragraph group on the Home tab.

Select the text to which you want to add the numbered list and click the down arrows next to the Bullet Lists icon or the Numbered List icon to access the libraries for both. Preview each list format by hovering over the selections available.

Word List Types on Ribbon

Microsoft Word also automatically creates a list for you when you start a paragraph with an asterisk or a number 1, period, and space followed by a press on the Enter key. With an asterisk, Word creates a bulleted list. Word senses that you are trying to create a numbered list with a number.

If you don’t want your text turned into a list, you can click the AutoCorrect options button picture that appears. To disable or enable this option, go to File > Options > Proofing > AutoCorrect Options > AutoFormat As You Type.

Word AutoFormatted List

To quickly change the style of a bulleted or numbered list, just click the style you want in the list that appears when you click the arrow next to Bullets or Numbering.

Word Bullet Library

General Tip: You can change the format of just one or some of the bullet or number styles in a list. Place the cursor at the start of the line that you want to change before opening the Bullets and Numbering dialog box. Your changes will apply only to the selected lines.

2. Use Just the Keyboard to Create a List

Use a handy Microsoft Word shortcut to create numbered lists quickly with the keyboard alone.

The keyboard shortcut for a bulleted list: Press Ctrl + Shift + L to apply the default bullets to a list. Press Ctrl + Shift + N to remove the bullets.

To personalize a keyboard shortcut for a numbered list, right-click anywhere on the Ribbon and select Customize the Ribbon from the popup menu. You can also open Word Options from File > Options > Customize Ribbon.

Word Customize Ribbon

Click on the Customize button for Keyboard shortcuts.

Select All Commands in the Categories list. Scroll down the list on the left, and select FormatNumberDefault.

Customize keyboard shortcut for list

Place the cursor in the Press new shortcut key box and press the shortcut key combination you want to use to create a numbered list. For example, you could use Alt + N because it’s not assigned to anything else in Word. Click Assign.

The new keyboard shortcut is added to the Current keys list.

Click OK to exit the dialog box and test the new shortcut. Pressing “Alt + N” creates a numbered list. Pressing it again reverts it back to paragraph text.

General Tip: Do you want to skip numbering for a list item and convert it into a paragraph in the middle of a list? Select the specific list item and use the Alt + N shortcut to turn off the numbering.

3. Change the Default Numbered List Format

You can change, edit, or create a new numbered list. You have four Numbered List formats to choose from. But what if you want to use your own format other than the letters or Roman numerals, and it’s not available?

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Go to Home > Paragraph group > Numbering. Click the down arrow. Choose Define New Number Format.

Word Define Number Format

Choose any chronological format. To change the font size, style, and color, click Font and choose a setting on the Font or Advanced tab.

When you want to add a dash, parentheses, or another value like a pound sign to the number, enter it in the Number format field. The little preview displays the changes. You can see the square brackets for a list you can tick off in the screenshot below.

Define New Number Format in Word

Choose Left, Centered, or Right under Alignment to change the number alignment. The default is Left-Aligned.

Click OK.

The new number format is applied to any selected text on your document.

General Tip: You can even prefix the numbered lists with descriptive text, e.g., Attendee 1, Attendee 2, Attendee 3…and so on.

4. Change the Default Bullet List Format

Just like the numbered list, you can also change the default look of any bulleted list. Again, visually appealing bullets (other than the boring black solid dots) help your documents stand out from the mundane.

A Beautiful Bullet List

Select the text you want the bulleted list for and follow these steps.

Go to Home > Paragraph group. Click the arrow next to Bullets.

When the bullet you want isn’t in the library, click Define New Bullet.

The Define New Bullet dialog box opens. Under Bullet Character, choose Symbol.

Another dialog opens, which lets you choose appropriate symbols from your installed fonts.

Define New Bullet in Word

The Wingdings fonts have the best variety that makes for stylized bullet lists. Like any other font, you can change the color, size, style, and other characteristics of your chosen bullet font. Click the Font button in the Bullet character section to enter the Font dialog box.

General Tip: Use an open box (Open box) or a three-dimensional box (3D box) from the Wingdings character palette to create a Word document with neat checkboxes.

5. Use a Picture Instead of a Bullet

Sometimes all the mystic symbols in Webdings might not be enough. You can also use your own reusable graphics for bullet points. Though picture and SmartArt bullets look better on a PowerPoint slide, they work just as well in Word.

Picture Bullet List

Select the bulleted list for which you want to change the bullets to pictures. Next, go to the Home tab > Paragraph group, click on the Bullets button, and select Define New Bullet from the dropdown menu. On the Define New Bullet dialog box, click Picture.

The Insert Pictures dialog box is displayed with different choices for your source file. You can insert a picture From a file on your PC or local network, from a Bing Image Search, or your OneDrive account.

Picture Bullets

Navigate to the location of your source file and click on Insert. The Preview window shows the selection.

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General Tip: You can choose a graphic that matches the “theme” of your list. For instance, display a banana as a picture bullet for a list of fruits. Make sure images are transparent and have a good background. In my experience, simple graphics work best.

6. Line Up the Numbers in a List

Sometimes, the smallest of tweaks can make a big visual difference. For example, note the screenshot below, which shows a numbered list with Word’s default Left alignment. As soon as the list reaches double digits, the default left alignment seems skewed as the decimal points do not line up neatly. Microsoft Word allows you to control this alignment and flush the double-digit numbers to the right.

Line Up Numbered Bullets

Create your numbered list. Select the list items. Word can also control the alignment of a few selected items.

Go to Home > Paragraph. Then, click the dropdown arrow on Numbered list button.

Click on Define New Number Format. Choose Right alignment from the dropdown. Click OK.

Right Align a Numbered List

General Tip: Even if there is no decimal, it is preferable to have them aligned on the right edge of the number. Try it with brackets.

7. Adjust Microsoft Word’s Automatic List Indent

Every Word list comes with an automatic indent. Depending on the visual look you want, you may want to adjust the space.

Double-click any number in the list to select all of the numbers in the list.

Right-click the selection and choose Adjust List Indents from the context menu.

Adjust List Indent

Change the distance of the bullet indent from the margin with the Number position box. Change the distance between the bullet and the text with the Text indent box.

Click OK.

8. Apply Formatting to a Single Number or Bullet on a List

You may want to format (changing the bullet style, color, or the size) a single bullet or number on a list without affecting any text on the list or any other succeeding bullets or numbers. Here’s an easy way.

Show formatting marks by clicking Home > Show/Hide.

Formatting Single Number or Bullet in a list

Select just the paragraph marker (pilcrow) at the end for the list item whose bullet or number you want to change. Apply any formatting. The formatting affects only the bullet or number; the text in the list item retains its original format.

New bulleted or numbered items on the list coming after this will reflect this too. The text in the new list item will have the same font characteristics as the previous text, and the new bullet/number will have the same font characteristics as the previous bullet/number.

9. Create a Multilevel Numbered List

A multilevel list can be a mix of numbers, alphabets, and bullets arranged on different levels, as shown below. You can use multilevel lists to break down a list into its hierarchies or sub-points. Such an alignment is also used to create outlines. Word 2016 gives us a dedicated button on the Ribbon to create a multilevel list.

Word-Multilevel List

Click the Multilevel List button and type the list.

Press the Tab key to indent and create a sublevel. Press Shift + Tab to unindent and promote an item to a higher level.

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General Tip: You can also write the entire list in advance. Select it, and click the Multilevel List button to align it using the Tab and Shift + Tab keys to organize the topics. You can also use the Increase or Decrease Indent commands on the Ribbon.

10. Create Reusable Styles for Multilevel Lists

You can change the bullets, letters, or numbers’ style, color, and alignment like any other list type. Save these changes as a new style and use it again and again.

Go to Ribbon > Home > click the arrow next to Multilevel List > Define New Multilevel List.

Define New Multilevel List

Click on More to expand the options.

Define New Multilevel List Style

For customizing any of the levels, click the level number you want to modify. 1 is the default.

Use the options provided to change the appearance of the list. For example:

  • In Number style for this level, type (1) if you want to style the numbers with parentheses or (A) to style the letters with parentheses.
  • In Start at, choose the number, letter, or bullet where you want to start the list.

When you’ve finished the customizations, give the list a name under the ListNum field list name. This name will appear wherever you see the ListNum field.

Choose a style under Link level to style. This lets you use an existing style in Word for each level in the list.

Choose where you would like to apply your changes by clicking on Apply changes to and selecting from Selected text, Whole list, or This point forward.

11. Convert a List to a Table

First, select the list. Next, go to Home > Insert. Click the Table option in the Tables group.

Choose Convert Text to Table from the dropdown list.

Convert Text to Table in Word

Microsoft Word estimates the table structure based on the list’s contents. Word creates the columns based on the separators between the items on the list.

Convert Text to Table Options

When Word doesn’t get it right, you have to modify the configurations and make it easier for Word to convert the list. Once the table has been created, you can use the Table design tools to format the appearance.

General Tip: In most cases, the results aren’t perfect. The best way is to remove the numbering or the bullets and then create the table from the list of items. The serial numbers can easily be added to the table later.

12. Continue Your Numbering When a Paragraph Cuts It Short

Sometimes, a paragraph of text needs to interrupt the sequence of the list. Follow these steps to continue the list after the paragraph with the same number format.

Enter the rest of your numbered list after the paragraph and format it. The list begins with 1 again. Right-click on the list that comes after the paragraph. Choose Continue Numbering from the Context menu. The list is modified instantly.

Continue Numbering Word List

The list numbering continues from where the paragraph broke it off.

The Importance of Lists as Timesavers

Lists are time savers when a document has to be an exercise in economy. They instantly become a little less boring than blocks of text. Use them as the organizational backbone of a document and see your document better organized.

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