Word: Updating automated caption and cross-reference numbering

January 31, 2014

NOTE: You must be using automated caption numbering, Word’s heading styles (mostly), and automated cross-references (x-refs) for these steps to work.

If you have a document with several sections and automated table/figure captions and x-refs to these, you might wonder how you can update these numbers etc. to reflect any changes you make, such as inserting new tables/figures/sections, or moving existing ones to other places in the document, or deleting some of them.

It’s actually very easy to do, so here’s how:

  1. Turn off Track Changes if they are on.
  2. Press Ctrl+A to select the entire document.
  3. Right-click on the selection, and select Update Field. (This update can take several minutes on a very long or complex doc with lots of x-refs, so be patient…. You’ll see the ‘spinning wheel of death’ and possibly ‘Not Responding’ in the title bar while Word is updating your doc, so don’t touch the mouse or keyboard until the cursor turns back to a static arrow.)
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3. (Why? Because the first update seems to update the numbering and captions, and the second pass seems to updates the x-refs. Sometimes just a single pass will work, but I’ve had situations where I’ve needed to do the update a second time, so now I just do it twice anyway.)

Once you’ve updated the caption numbering and the x-refs, you may need to update the automated Table of Contents (TOC), List of Tables (LOT), and List of Figures (LOF) too. Sometimes these elements update as part of the steps above, but not always.

  1. Make sure Track Changes is still off.
  2. Click anywhere inside the TOC.
  3. Go to the References tab (#1 in the image below), Table of Contents group on the ribbon (far left), then click Update Table (#2 in the image below). If asked, select the option to Update entire table.
  4. Click anywhere inside the LOT.
  5. Go to the References tab, Captions group on the ribbon (middle), then click Update Table (#3 in the image below). If asked, select the option to Update entire table.
  6. Click anywhere inside the LOF.
  7. Go to the References tab, Captions group on the ribbon (middle), then click Update Table (#3 in the image below). If asked, select the option to Update entire table.


[based on a Writing Tip I wrote for my work colleagues]


  1. Hi Ronda, may I add that “Ctrl+A” and pressing “F9” does the same.

  2. Hi Oliver

    Yes, it does. As with many things in Word there are usually a couple of ways to do something — I chose to explain the right-click option as describing the three or more ways you can do this just confuses readers ;-)


  3. […] your table of contents, list of tables, list of figures, etc.—you have to do those separately using the applicable Update Table buttons on the References tab, or use the method […]

  4. I have followed the instructions and my captions update but my cross-reference list (when I got to ‘insert cross reference’ does not update the list. That is, I have removed figure 2 and updated the captions to get a new figure 2 (previously figure 3), but when I insert a cross-reference I get an option for either figure 1 or figure 3. How do I rectify this?

  5. Hi k

    Two things:
    * make sure you turn off track changes (if it’s on) before updating all the fields in the document
    * select the entire document (Ctrl+A),, right-click and select ‘Update Fields’. Do this TWICE.

    If that still doesn’t work, close Word and re-open it.


  6. Great tips and well written. Thank you Rhonda.

  7. In my document the (Figure 1), for example, when executing CTRL-A and F9, the actual figure is placed where I really want (Figure 1)???

  8. Hi Pete

    It sounds like your figure AND the caption have the Caption style applied to them. Only the caption should have the Caption style. See here for how to fix it: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/pictures-in-a-word-table-of-contents/. These instructions work for both TOCs and cross-references — just omit step 3 and update the cross-references using your Ctrl+A then F9 method.


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