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.


  9. Hey Rhonda
    Sorry for opening this discussion up again, I seem to have a problem updating all at once. Word will let me update each caption and cross reference individually but not via CTRL+A. I’ve tried closing and reopening word, but it doesn’t help. Any ideas?

  10. I figured it out. Word didn’t know what to do with reference fields which were inputted by a reference manager add-in. Deselecting those enabled the update all field.

  11. If i have 8 fig. I do labling of it with insert caption… Figure 1, figure 2….like that… And insert a table of that figure….
    Now i want to delete figure 4… Then i click on update table…. It shows there is no figure 4….. But i want figure 5 could take the name of figure 4 and figure 6 take the name of figure 5 in the table of figure….. So tell me what should i do?

  12. Hi Vikky

    Assuming you’ve used auto caption numbering, the numbers SHOULD auto update. However, if they don’t select the entire document (save it first!) with Ctrl+A, then right-click and select Update Fields. If asked to update the table of contents etc. too, choose ‘update entire table’. You may get asked this several times. That should sort out the caption numbering.


  13. Thanku so much mam….. U made my day🤗🤗🤗

  14. Sorry to disturb you mam….
    Like wise i have figure 1 figure 2……etc
    Now i want to add a figure in between figure 3 and figure 4…
    So i want that added figure as name of figure 2…. And figure 3
    Will change it name to figure 4….and figure 4 will be the figure 5
    How can i do this?

  15. Hi Vikky

    If you add a new auto numbered caption, the others numbers should adjust automatically. If they don’t, then do the update all fields thing again, as per my previous response.

    Full instructions are here (follow the Word 2007 instructions for later versions of Word): https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2008/04/27/word-2003-automated-tables-of-figures/

    And this too: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/word-updating-automated-caption-and-cross-reference-numbering/


  16. Thanks mam

  17. Wow, I really hope you’re still paying attention to this page!

    I have multiple authors updating a document. They are all knowledgeable about Word, Styles, cross referencing, etc. They all make edits to their sections using the whole document and then I copy and past their updated sections into the master (which again, is the same version of the document they updated). Half the cross references work, the other half take you to the TOC instead of the sec., fig., or table. If I do an update of the cross references (which I’ve always done with your method 1, and now do twice in a row), the refs that go to the TOC change to the dreaded “not found” litany. It’s a big doc and this is very costly and *madenning.* Any ideas?

  18. Hi Rod

    I haven’t encountered your exact scenario, but I’ve often transferred big docs (with lots of x-refs) to another template (clean doc, not merging one doc with another existing doc).

    Here’s what I do to make sure the x-refs are preserved:
    1. Turn OFF track changes in both docs.
    2. Copy all the content in a section (but NOT the section breaks) and paste into the new doc.
    3. If required, insert new section breaks into the new doc, then transfer anything within a section break in the old doc to that new section.
    4. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until ALL the doc is copied over.
    5. Only once it’s transferred do I update the TOC, list of tables etc.

    If I get ‘Error! Reference not found’ errors, then I need to find where they are and fix them, but before I do that I make a COPY of the original source doc, then I update all the fields in that copy and search for ‘error!’ — often the errors I get in the new doc were already in the original doc, but because the fields hadn’t been updated those errors were hidden. If the original source doc is error free, I rarely, if ever, get errors in the new doc. Most of the errors are already hiding in the original doc.

    One other thing, make sure you have field shading turned on so you can confirm that what you think are x-ref fields are actually fields and not just plain text.


  19. @ Rod it seems to me, that some of your writers use relative links and others use abolute links.
    I would first inspect the documents your writers deliver. Just check the links within the documents.for simmilarities (ALT+F9). hth

  20. Thanks folks. I’ll have to look up ‘relative’ vs ‘absolute’ links.

    In the same sentence with multiple refs., some update correctly, others go to “error”—in the same damn sentence. Oh brother.

  21. Thanks, folks! Your service is greatly appreciated.

    Not sure if this sheds additional light on my predicament, but:

    – In some of what I cut & paste into the master doc, some single sentences have multiple refs, some of which are fine and others broken (they convert to the ref error msg when updated).

    – If I ctrl+click on the bad refs prior to updating (so, before they become an error msg) they all take me to the same place, to the *top* of the TOC, literally to the “Table of Contents” header.

    – The ‘bad’ refs work fine in the originating doc.

    Note: Oliver, I’m going to have to look up relative vs absolute links. How do they display differently in the meta data?

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