How to Do a Hanging Indent in Word

You'll love this trick!

Text configured with a hanging indent
Example of text with a hanging indent.

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You're probably familiar with indenting the first line of a paragraph in Microsoft Word. It's a common style for fiction, academic papers, etc. But have you ever seen the opposite, where the first line is outdented? This is called a hanging indent, and it's used for bibliographical references and other citations. It's also set automatically for bulleted or numbered lists 

A common method to indent the first line is to press the Tab key at the start of each paragraph. Not only is this a tedious, manual process, it doesn't work for the hanging indent. In this article, we'll examine how to make a hanging indent the right way, and as a bonus, you can use similar steps for first-line indents, too!

Although the apps look slightly different from an aesthetic perspective, you can use the below steps in versions of Word including 2010, 2013, and 2016 for Windows, Word for Mac, and Word Online.

Setting Paragraphs to Use a Hanging Indent

Configuration for the hanging indent is located near the controls for standard indents. Learn more about layout options in this guide to indents, tabs, and other spacing.

The paragraph options in MS Word
Select this to open the Paragraph options.  Aaron Peters 

You can find these settings among the tools accessible from the ribbon, or the large toolbar of buttons just below the main menu (as shown in the above image). Set up your hanging indent as follows:

  1. From the Home tab, select the small arrow on the Paragraph section.
  2. In the resulting Paragraph dialog, switch to the Indents and Spacing tab.
  3. Go to the Indentation section, select the Hanging option from the Special drop-down, then enter a positive value (conventionally in quarter-inch increments).
  4. You can confirm the result in the Preview section at the bottom of the dialog box.
Paragraph dialog, indents and spacing tab, indentation section
Word's Paragraph options.  Aaron Peters 

You can also set a hanging indent using the ruler just under the ribbon. Indents are controlled by three sliders: two arrow-shaped ones pointing up or down, and one rectangular one. To set a hanging indent, grab the upward-pointing arrow, and drag it to the right. Watch the first line stay put while the others shift right beneath it.

The ruler's hanging indent slider in Microsoft Word
Use this slider to set the hanging indent.  Aaron Peters 

That's all there is to it. The current paragraph, as well as all the subsequent ones, will use this same configuration. But if, for example, you insert a Heading into your document, you might notice that you lose your hanging indent.

Applying the Hanging Indent to a Style

A Style is just a collection of all the same properties (like bold/italics, single/double spacing, etc.) you can set with a single mouse click. Consider the Heading 1 we've seen already; in addition to making the text larger, it's also a different font, a different color, has more space above and below, and may have a number attached. All these settings are defined as part of the style.

Some properties of the heading 1 and normal styles
Each Style can define its own font, color, size, and more. Aaron Peters  

With this in mind, the reason for the lost formatting described above is easy to explain. Put simply, the text style for normal paragraphs doesn't contain your changes. This can happen for a few reasons:

  • You were using the default text style (called Normal), but then you made a custom change to it.
  • You didn't change the style in subsequent paragraphs, so the custom change remained intact.
  • When you insert a Heading, you insert text that uses the Heading 1 style.
  • After pressing Return/Enter at the end of that Heading, the next paragraph uses the standard Normal style, not your customized version.

One way to restore that hanging indent is to use the Format Painter tool on your new, non-hanging paragraph, but you'd need to do this after every Heading. Applying a hanging indent to your Normal paragraph style is a better way to accomplish this goal.

Demonstrating the reset of styles after a change
When you return to the Normal Style, your changes are gone.  Aaron Peters 

Add the Hanging Indent to the Style Directly

The most straightforward way to get a hanging indent by default is to configure a text style with it.

  1. Go to the Styles section of the ribbon.
  2. Right-click the Normal text style.
  3. Select the Modify option.
Right-clicking to modify a style in the ribbon
You can make changes to a Style just like a paragraph. Aaron Peters 

At the bottom-left of the Modify menu, there's a list called Format. Select this, and you'll see the Paragraph option. Selecting this will present you with another set of options that look suspiciously like the one we already saw. The difference here is when you create your hanging indent, you're setting it for all text using the selected style. Now all your post-Heading 1 paragraphs will pick up that sweet hanging indent.

The paragraph format option in the modify style dialog
You can apply most of the same properties to a Style that you can regular text. Aaron Peters 

Updating the Default Style with a Hanging Indent

If you've already done all that work on some paragraphs, there's a clever trick to save you some time. Place the cursor somewhere that's formatted the way you want, then right-click on the Default text style. This time, select Update [Your Style Name] to Match Selection.

Updating a style to use the properties of your selection
You can update a Style to use all the settings of your currently-selected text.  Aaron Peters 

This will ensure not only your subsequent paragraphs pick up this change, but all the earlier ones as well. Remember, a Style is a package of settings. Here you're telling Word to ensure all paragraphs set with the Normal style have a hanging indent.