Microsoft Word Page Numbering: 4 Steps To Perfection

MS Word Page Numbering Blog Header

For anyone who has self-published, you understand the pain and frustration of laying out your manuscript as a file that translates into book form. Laying out a book is an art unto itself. Perhaps most frustrating for book designers working out of MS Word is the seemingly mundane addition of page numbering. A necessary evil, page numbering is a given for most (if not all) print books. So how can we make the task less painful?

Well, I’ve got this 4 step guide to adding page numbering. I hesitate to call this a comprehensive guide because Word has so many little variations and small formatting options that can cause major changes in your file. Not to mention inconsistencies between different versions of Word.

But it gets straight to the point without a lot of frills.

I’ll call this a quick guide because it assumes you are starting from scratch and just need to get your page numbering inserted into an otherwise finished file.

Let’s dive in.

Step 1: Finish Your File

Do not, under any circumstances that I can think of, add page numbering before you have finished the editing and revising process. It’s a waste of time and energy. Book formatting is best approached in a thoughtful order; page numbering falls last in this approach.

Every little change in your file can shift or reposition other content, which in turn can impact your Breaks and throw off your page numbers. Don’t make more work for yourself by adding page numbering too soon.

In fact, before you do any formatting for your book, complete the content.

Get all your content into the file. All of it! That includes front matter (title and copyright page), back matter, everything. Set the fonts. Add Drop Caps. Apply Heading styles. Add images and position them.

And as much as possible, do this from the first page to the last in this order. If you leap ahead and make a change, then go back and insert an image, the content will shift.

Pro Tip: it’s helpful while formatting to turn on Reveal Non-Printing Characters.

Turn on reveal non-printing characters

Non-Printing Characters include spaces, returns, and breaks. You’ll want these revealed so you can properly design and format.

2. Add Breaks

Alright, we’ve got the file formatted to look the way we want. Next step is to add all the Breaks to separate content. For the most part, this will be at the end of chapters or sections in your book. You want the writing to end and the next section to start on a new page—to do so you Insert a Page or Section Break.

Please, do not EVER use hard returns to create space on the page.

Using a Page Break in Word
Proper use of a Page Break
Using Hard Returns in Word
Using Hard Returns – a mistake

You’ll be using two kinds of Breaks: Section Breaks and Page Breaks

Understanding Breaks

Breaks live in the ‘Insert’ tab or under the ‘Insert’ menu (for Mac users). They are unique formatting that will appear on the pages of your document as non-printing characters. Most importantly, Breaks will allow you to segment and section your file.

Sections give you the ability to define overall formatting within the file for specific pages only. Most importantly, breaking your file into sections allows you to control which pages have page numbers. Think about it; have you ever bought a book that has a page number on the very first page (the title or half-title usually)? Go grab a couple books off your shelf and have a look. I’ll wait.

gif of fingers tapping

Okay. I’m guessing you found that the front matter didn’t have any page numbering. If there was an introduction or other content before the book really begins, it probably has Roman Numerals for numbering. Then you get to the first official page of the book and it’s numbered “1”. In MS Word, you control how pages are numbered with the Section Breaks.

Page Break

Inserting a Page Break tells Word to stop adding content and move to the next page. Simple as that.

Using the Author in your Headers

At the end of every chapter, add a Page Break to start the next chapter on a new page. You can use Page Breaks to add blank pages if you desire as well.

But, if you are going to add the chapter title to the header for each chapter, you’ll need to divide the file with Section Breaks.

Section Break

I advise using only the ‘Next Page’ Section Break until you’re very comfortable with Word formatting. A Section Break (Next Page) works exactly like a Page Break with one addition—the file will be broken into a new ‘section’ on either side of the Break.

Using Chapter titles in your Headers

Instead of Page Breaks, use a Section Break (Next Page). Now each chapter will be a unique section of the document and you’ll have the control to add unique content for the Header (like chapter titles).

3. Format Your Header and Footer

Last step before we add the page numbering! Word offers a lot of control over how the Header and Footer are formatted. Which is great.

Unfortunately, Word defaults to some annoying settings that we have to manually update. Again, I strongly recommend starting with the first section and working sequentially to update the settings for the Header/Footer in each section.

Controlling your Header and Footer
  1. Link to Previous – This setting is always defaulted to being ‘ON’ so you have to check it for all your sections. If selected, the Header and Footer will link to the Header and Footer in the previous section. To make page numbering sequential, Linking is helpful. But if you plan to add unique content for each section, the Link to Previous option must be turned off.
  2. Different First Page – Does the first page of a new chapter have an oversized chapter title? Or an image? A lot of authors who do this like to leave off the Header and/or Footer on the first page of a section. Check this box and the first page of the section will be completely unique.
  3. Different Odd & Even Pages – Okay, this one is important. If this option is not checked, adding anything to the Header or Footer will show up in all the following Headers or Footers in the section. If you want to have different content on the Odd and Even pages (like a title on one side and author on the other) you need to check this option.

4. Insert Page Numbers

This is it!

If you just used Page Breaks to separate chapters, you’ve got it easy. So let’s cover that one first.

Head to the first page you want your numbers to appear on (probably the first page of the first chapter) and double-click on the footer. While in the Footer, the ribbon should swap to the Header/Footer menu and you’ll see the ‘Insert Page Numbers’ button. Go ahead and click that.

Setting up the initial page numbers

Here we see the Page Number menu and the Format… menu opened beside it. I opted for ‘Outside’ as the alignment so the numbering will appear on the outside edge of the page. ‘Center’ is pretty common as well for a book, but outside is the norm for most.

In the Format menu, I set the ‘Start at’ to 1 so that the page I’m currently on will show ‘1’ in the footer. Click ‘OK’ for both menus and your numbering should fill in for the Footer in the entire section!

This is the simple means of adding page numbering if the body of your book is all one section. If you’re using individual sections for each chapter, there’s a little bit more work to do.

Remember in Step 3 that option for Link to Previous? I said we should go through and turn that off for all your Sections. Now that we’re adding page numbers, we need to link the page numbering. But we’re not going to use the Link to Previous command to do so.

This seems horribly counter-intuitive, but leaving the Link to Previous on when you add content to the Header or Footer can cause some truly infuriating shifts in content as you try to make adjustments. It should be possible to simply leaving the Linking on and turn it off as needed (say, as you add chapter titles to the Header) but in my experience, that creates a chain reaction of incorrectly placed content 9 times out of 10.

So I advocate for simply turning off all Link to Previous in your Footers.

With that done, you’ll notice that each Section in your document starts over with the page numbering set to 1. Click into that first page Footer of the new Section. Then click the Insert Page Number command in the Ribbon again and select the Format… option.

Formatting continuous page numbers

Instead of selecting ‘Start at’ you’ll check ‘Continue from previous section’ and the page numbering will follow from the prior section. This will link the page numbering independent of the Footer linking, allowing us to freely edit the Header/Footer for other content without breaking the page numbering.

Simplifying the Complex

Four steps to adding page numbering to your Word document. Seems like it should be simple, right?

  1. Finish all content design and add all images
  2. Insert Breaks for Page and Section – be sure the breaks are consistent
  3. Format Header and Footer to define where Page Numbers and other Header content will appear
  4. Insert the Page Numbers and link them properly to ensure continuous numbering.

Taken as individual tasks, this actually looks pretty easy. Okay, finishing your content is a ton of work, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. The complexity sets in when you have a book with tables, graphics, or stylized text that needs to be included and managed.

The one thing I’ve learned from over a decade working with MS Word is that designing your file in the right order is absolutely vital.

With that in mind, the best way to keep page numbering simple is to do it last. This gives you the freedom to design the pages of your file without having to worry about linking pages for numbering, without having to set up a section, and ensures once you do get to that step, there won’t be any additional changes to disrupt the page numbering.

Bringing it all Together

I don’t love Microsoft Word. Never had any problem being honest about that either. It does a specific job (page layout) rather poorly and with many limitations. In my personal and professional life, I have done my best to get away from using Word at all. If you asked me for word processors, I would point you to Scrivener, Google Docs, or (my current favorite) Wavemaker. For page layout, I would say InDesign or Affinity Publisher.

But that doesn’t change the fact that most of the self-published authors using Lulu still work from a Word DOCX. If you’re one of those Word holdouts, know that despite not loving MS Word, I’ll keep publishing guides and instructions for you to help make the process easier.

We also love to hear feedback about what information is useful for authors working on putting together their book. Stay tuned, in the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at one of the most important tasks Word users face: exporting a print-ready PDF from MS Word.

Keep writing!

12 thoughts on “Microsoft Word Page Numbering: 4 Steps To Perfection”

  1. Perhaps worth noting: a few years ago I created a book template for typical 6×9 books, refined it working with a professional book designer (this was part of The Librarian’s Guide to Micropublishing, published in paperback by Information Today, Inc–and in hardbound at Lulu, using the template and the same body PDF for both) and made it freely available. The template’s at waltcrawford.name/bk6pvex.dotx, and links to it and an “example template” version are at waltcrawford.name/lgm. Entirely free for use. Feel free to copy, modify, rename, post elsewhere. Easy to modify for your preferred typefaces, etc. The template uses Palatino Linotype as a body type and Verdana for most headings. [I’ve published more than a dozen Lulu books, most using a variant of this template.)

  2. Robert Bramel

    Great article on page numbering! Thanks! Question: since my author and I are currently using Word 365 with all the continuing problems, and since we are about half way through revising a 300 page book with lots of charts, pictures, and checklists, would I be better off switching later on to Scrivener or Google Docs? I suspect the author, 80, won’t be up to learning a new bit of software (so I’ll have to keep going with Word for a while), but I would switch if it makes sense to do so.

    1. Thank you Robert, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
      Unfortunately, for a work with charts/images and the like, Docs and Scrivener aren’t much better than Word. I actually recommend either InDesign or Affinity Publisher to do more dedicated page layout involving so many elements.
      But if you’re comfortable with Word, you may be best served sticking with it.

  3. Great rundown! Long ago I learned a hard lesson in using returns instead of a page break. I never made that mistake again.
    Also, I use a new Word file for every part of the book: the first pages with title and copyright info, the introduction (if any; pagination in Roman numerlas), the body of the text, then a final section with “about the author” and – if I have extra pages – promos for other books. This way if I find an error in the final completed PDF made at the LULU site, I need only slug in the replacement section. This rarely interferes with the pagination which I continue from one file to the next if needed. If it does, and it creates a new page, I will just edit that section more to tighten it up. Saves plenty of trouble!
    When I reproduce an old book in facsimile form, such as the King Curio Catalog #81 I don’t use Word. I make hi-res scans of the pages then I slug them into the pages using an InDesign or VivaDesigner template that I have devised. These design programs have the advantage of easily allowing for digitally cleaning up the files as well. This is important with a book that may be 80 years old.

  4. thanks for your post…much clearer than the Word manual. I never thought about waiting until you finish before inserting numbers but I can see why you are so emphatic about that point and will heed your advice.

  5. Everything I have read on various web sites seems to think that appendices need to have page numbers. This is fine if your appendix has content in it. However I write documents that have appendices that do not have any content in the Word file. I take the Word file and print it to PDF where I then use Adobe DC to insert other information like a manual on a boiler or pump etc. These may have over 50 to 60 pages in. This is why I am not numbering the appendices but am book marking them separately and creating two contents sections on the first page.

    1. Hi Andrew,
      I was surprised to see writers and experts advocating for page numbering appendices as well. For the design you mentioned, I think it makes perfect sense to leave off the numbering and construct the file your own way. Luckily, when you create the book entirely on your own and use print-on-demand, you’re the boss and can make the book however you’d like!

    1. Hi Hans,
      Sadly, that’s not an error I’m familiar with. I think the best thing to do would be to delete the page numbers entirely and insert them again. If that doesn’t work, you may want to contact Microsoft Support to see if they have any advice (the contact link is way down the bottom of the page).
      Absolute worst case scenario, you can reformat the entire document by removing all breaks and formatting, copying the text into a clean/new doc, and starting over with the formatting.

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