Effective outlines are well-organized with enough space to go in detail. Unfortunately, Word’s default outline format inserts too much extra space and the auto-formatting prevents you from controlling the final product. To create tighter outlines in Word, all you need is the tab button.

Condensing Your Outline

Here’s one of Word’s default Multilevel List styles. It’s an outline with lots of extra space:

Here’s the same content in outline form, but using tabs (at the default .5″). You can see it’s already much tighter:

Here’s the outline with .2″ tabs, with much more space for content:

With .35″ tabs, it’s a bit easier to distinguish between levels:

Set Your New Default Tab

To create outlines similar to the examples above, all you need is the tab button for each new entry. The default tab is set to .5″ but you can set it lower and then add spaces or tabs if you want more indention for a particular entry. Choose the tab setting that works for you, and you may decided to make tweaks after finishing your outline.


To change your tabs, simply click to expand the Paragraph dialogue box.

Select Tabs at the bottom-right.

Set your new default tab and press OK.

Choose Your Style and Stick to It

When you use only tabs to create your outline, you need to designate your multilevel list format so that each level is distinguishable from the others. For instance, only one of your levels should be noted with capital letters (i.e. A, B, C). Here’s one way you could you designate levels #1-5:

Follow your formatting consistently to keep your outline organized and informative.

If You Need More Space..

The tighter the outline the more informative it can be. However, you may decide that you want to add more space to make it easier on the eyes.

To add more space, you can:

  • Reduce the margins
  • Expand your default tab
  • For entries that need more space, use more than one tab or simply more spaces between the entry heading (e.g. A, II, iii) and the text
  • Add spaces between lines, entries, or levels (you can also add lines and reduce the font for those lines so that they aren’t too spacious)
  • Put less content on each page

Convert to Tabs

If you have the right outline format, it can enhance your business meeting, academic presentation, or research paper. If you have the wrong format, it can make your outline a mess, detract from your project, and deter from even making an outline.


Consider ditching Word’s Multilevel List format to take control over your formatting and keep your outlines tight and efficient.