How to Create a Thumb Index for a Word Document

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If you are old enough to remember using a physical dictionary or encyclopedia when you were a kid you may be familiar with the concept of thumb indexes. They are small round sections of the book that are cut out to make it easy for you to navigate the different sections. In Microsoft Office word, you can also create a digital thumb index for longer documents to make navigation easy.

Let’s say that you would like one tab for each division in your Word document (such as chapters or alphabetized sections). You want a tab for the first page of the section, and it will appear on the right-hand side. Finally, let’s imagine that you would like these tabs to be black or some other dark color, with white text.

You can create these tabs as a tall, thin (single-column, multi-row) table that is attached to the Header. This table will be identical in all the sections, but in each particular section, there will be a different highlighted row with text.

Preparing Your Document

  1. First, double-click the Header, which will open the Header pane. Go to Header & Footer Tools then Design, where you will see check boxes for Different First Page and Different Odd and Even. If you want the tabs to be just on the first page of each section, check the former option. For tabs on all the right-hand pages, choose the latter. You might have to check both boxes in certain cases. For instance, you may have different running heads on odd and even pages, but no running head on the first page of the sections.

  2. Double-click the text body to close the Header pane.

  3. Go to the Layout tab. At the start of each division where you will put a tab, go to Page Setup then Breaks then Odd Page.

Inserting the Table

Word 2000 and later editions feature “wrapped” tables. These are tables that are not In Line With Text, so you can put them anywhere on the page. You may assume we could use a wrapped table in our example here, but we can’t. That’s right, putting a wrapped table in the Header will not allow you to extend it past the vertical midpoint of the page. This is no good because you want the tabs to extend the length of the page. Instead of a wrapped table, we will insert a table in a text box or frame. Most people are aware of how to use text boxes, although frames are a bit easier. We will show you how to use both.

Inserting a Text Box

  1. Double-click on the Header to open the Header pane. Ensure that it is the correct Header. Go to Header and Footer then Show Next or Show Previous. You can also go to Header & Footer Tools then Design then Navigation then Next or Previous. This will get you to the First Page Header or Odd Page Header.

  2. Now draw a text box that is attached to the Header. The size does not matter because you can alter it later. Go to insert then Text Box gallery then Draw Text Box.

  3. Next, you will want to get some tools for formatting. Go to Drawing Tools then Format, and then choose Shape Styles in the bottom right-hand corner. You will then see the Format Shape menu box, which contains more control options. To remove the lined border from your text box, go to Shape Styles then Shape Outline then No Outline. You may also go to Shape Fill then No Fill.

  4. Then you will decide the height and width of the tabs. In our image, the measurements are 0.5” width and 0.75” height. You can figure out the required height for your tabs by deciding how much space your tabs will take up on the page. Divide that space by the number of tabs you need. You can add on a bit more for the empty paragraph that Word will automatically create under the table.

  5. The next step is to set the internal box margins to 0”. Do this by going to Shape Styles then Shape then Text Box.

  6. Make sure that wrapping is set to Square. Go to Drawing Tools then Format, Arrange, Wrap Text.

  7. Now you should set the correct location of the text box. It may take a few tries to get it just right to ensure that the horizontal and vertical settings are Relative to Page. In the case that your tabs are extending the full length of the page, you can go to Alignment and choose Top Relative to Page. If not, you will choose Absolute Position. The horizontal setting is the width of the page minus the width of the text box. Note: Right Relative to Page puts the text box outside the right margin. Go to Arrange then Position à More Layout Options or Text Box Tools then Design or Drawing Tools then Design.

  8. Finally, hit OK to close the menu boxes.