Anatomy of Word: Use the Outline View to build complete and persuasive documents

This article shows you how to use Microsoft Word's outlining feature to build your documents in a planned, but piecemeal, way.

Have you been tasked with writing a lengthy report from scratch for your boss? Are you not sure where to begin? Consider this: Attack this writing project as if it were any project and start with a plan. For most writing projects, development of an outline satisfies the planning process. Use Word's outlining feature to very quickly and easily development your outline. At the same time, begin to populate your outline with text in the sections where you can.

In this article, I will show you how to use Word's outlining feature to build your document in a planned, but piecemeal, way.

The Outline View

To support its outlining capability, Word provides you with the "Outline View", which, as you might expect, shows you your entire document as an outline. Be warned: Upon first use, the outline view is pretty confusing� that is, until you start to use it and realize that everything is really working the way it should. Take a look at Figure A below. This is a screenshot from the previous article in this series.

Figure A

This is the Word Styles article in Outline view mode.

In Figure A, notice the indentation and symbols in front of each section of text. First off, it's fairly obvious that the pattern of the indentation down the page indicates an outline of some sort. The symbols (the plus signs and the small squares and, if you have headings with no text underneath, minus signs) each have a meaning, too. The plus sign starts a new part of the outline. If you were to take just the lines of text with plus signs next to them, and you keep the indentation, you get a document that looks a whole lot like an outline. Figure B shows you an example.

Figure B

The lines with the plus signs form the beginnings of an outline.

In this outline-only view, the plus signs are still visible and even serve a purpose. Double-clicking on one of the plus signs expands that particular section of the outline to include all of the information below the selected section, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C

The "What are Styles?" section is expanded and highlighted.

So why is this view somewhat useful? First off, you get a high-level overview of your work and can expand any section you want. This saves pointless navigation through the document while you try to locate a specific section. Second, the outline functionality opens up some other interesting possibilities. Before I get to those, I'll explain how to enable outline view and go over the Outlining toolbar.

Enabling Outline View

There are two ways you can enable Outline view in Word. First, from the View menu, select Outline, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D

Enable Outline View from the menu bar.

Or, take a look a Figure E, which shows you the alternative method achieved by clicking the Outline View button on the status bar that runs along the bottom of the Word window.

Figure E

Click the Outline View button on Word's Status Bar.

The Outlining Toolbar

Besides Outline View, the brunt of your outlining tasks will take place using Word's Outlining toolbar, which is activated by going to View | Toolbars | Outlining. Figure F shows you the Outlining toolbar.

Figure F

The Outlining toolbar provides access to all of Word's outlining features.

Let's go over each of the buttons on the Outlining toolbar:

  • Double-arrow pointing left: Promote to Heading 1. Promotes the current outline topic to a top-level heading style.
  • Single-arrow pointing left: Promote the current topic to the next highest level. If the current selection is body text, it is promoted to the level of the current selection's heading.
  • Outline level box: Gives you quick access to all of the various outlining levels (Level 1 [which equates to Heading 1] to Level 9 and Body Text).
  • Single-arrow pointing right: Demote the current topic to the next lowest level. If the selection is body text, it is demoted to the next lowest heading level.
  • Double-arrow pointing right: Demote the current selection to Body Text at the current level.
  • Up arrow: Moves the selected text (which can include headings and body text) up in the outline.
  • Down arrow: Moves the selected text down in the outline.
  • Plus sign: Expand the selected heading.
  • Minus sign: Collapse the selected heading. Does not delete the body text, but hides it for easier outline viewing.
  • Show Level box: Shows you all of the headings at or above the selected level. This is useful if, for example, you want to see only the major sections/headings in your document.
  • Show First Line Only (Two sets of lines): Sometimes, when you're looking at an outline, it helps if you can see at least part of your body text. Click this button to show just the first line of each body text element. Figure G gives you a look at this option.

Figure G

Show First Line Only does what you would expect. It shows you the heading plus the first line of each body text element.
  • Show Formatting: In Figure G notice that each heading element matches the heading style for that outline level (i.e. Level 1 headings use the Heading 1 style). If you want to eliminate the heading formatting, deselect the Show Formatting button. Figure H shows you what an outline might look like with no formatting.

Figure H

This is the same shot as Figure G, but the formatting has been removed.
  • Update TOC: If present, updates the document's table of contents (MARK: Maybe link to the TOC article I wrote?).
  • Go To TOC: If present, jump to the document's table of contents.

The rest of the buttons have more to do with master and subdocuments and are beyond the scope of this article.

Using outlining features

Now that you know how to get into Word's outline view and have been introduced to the Outlining toolbar, let's take a look at outlining in action. As a sample document, we'll create a very short (and very abbreviated!) project document that contains the details for building a Web site. Let's break the project down into the following main steps:

  • Choose Web server platform
  • Identify content authors
  • Identify designers
  • Mock up site design
  • Provide content
  • Launch

To get started, open Word and go into Outline view and turn on the Outlining toolbar. Enter the items from the above list as "Level 1" outline items (or, apply the Heading 1 style to these items while in Outline view). You'll get a document similar to the one show in Figure I.

Figure I

This is the beginning of a project plan for a Web site.

There is one important item to note in this sample: The minus sign next to each item indicates that this outline item does not contain any lower level items or body text. As soon as you add a sublevel outline item or body text to one of these topics, the minus sign will become a plus sign.

The shot in Figure I is a rough outline and needs some refinement. For example, for this project, suppose upper management decides it's important to get people identified and working before choosing a Web server platform. Now, you could just cut and paste things to move them around, or you can use the up and down arrows on the outlining toolbar to get the job done. In this example, let's move the "Choose Web server platform" task underneath "Mock up site design". To do this, click the "Choose a Web server platform" heading and click the down arrow three times.

Figure J

Moving outline items around is very easy.

Another change: You know that the designers you choose are going to be responsible for mocking up the new design of your site, so the "Mock up site design" item should really be part of "Identify designers". The best way to do this is to make "Mock up site design" a second level outline item under "Identify designers". To accomplish this, select the "Mock up site design" item and click the Demote button (a single arrow pointing to the right). (See Figure K.)

Figure K

Demote a heading to the next lowest level.

Of course, the purpose of your outline is to provide the framework for your document which, ultimately, will include a lot of text supporting each heading. I'm not going to go through and explain how to add text to each and every heading, but will add some text to one of the headings to provide you with an example. To add body text to a particular heading (at any level), insert a new line after the desired heading and click the Demote to Body Text button (double right arrow) and type your text, as shown in Figure L.

Figure L

Body text can go under any heading level.

Notice that the addition of headings and body text has changed the minus signs at those levels to plus signs. This indicates that there is content beneath that particular heading. Click the plus sign to select that heading and all of the subheadings and all of the body text residing below it. Double-click a plus sign to collapse or expand that part of the outline.

Another benefit of outlines

Since outlines are based on the heading styles already used in Word, you are able to very quickly and automatically build a table of contents using your existing document. You can read the previous article in this series to learn how to build a TOC.


Outlines can be a powerful way to organize your documents and build in a piecemeal way. At first, the concept is a little confusing, but, after some practice, you'll find that using an outline makes other tasks, such as creating a table of contents, much easier down the line.

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