Alternative Heading Numbering in Word

Word offers many options for numbered headings, and working on a recent grant proposal forced me to delve a little more deeply into Word’s heading numbering mechanisms. My experience is working with Word 2011 for Mac, but the online documentation I’ve found for Word 2010 (for Windows) has described very similar behavior.

The format that I wanted was as follows, a pretty standard outline for an NSF grant:

1. Intro
2. Background
Aspect I: Foo
  Question I.1: Why?
  Task I.2: Find a task
  Task I.3: Complete task
  Question I.4: Why not?
Aspect II: Bar
  Task II.1: Finish tasks
  Task II.2: Enjoy life
Aspect III: Baz
3. Schedule

The first thing we need to do is to setup a new list style (more on list styles and why they’re awesome). List styles are great because they let us apply and update numbering for all of a document’s headings from a single place. List styles can also be reused across documents,

Excellent instructions for creating new list styles are available from Shauna Kelly’s fantastic Word site: the original page is down but I found this backup at the Internet Archive. Basically, we want a new list style and we want each level of the list style to be linked to the appropriate heading paragraph style. As she says, “The list style doesn’t format your text: paragraph styles do that. And you won’t find the list style in the Styles pane. Apply your paragraph styles to text. We don’t ever actually use the list style.”

(Un)numbered Headings

Now to try to create my desired heading numbering. I wanted to have some headings numbered (Intro, Background, Schedule) and some unnumbered (References). This isn’t hard to do: unnumbered headings can be created by setting their list style to No List (right-click on the heading text, click Bullets and Numbering, select No List for the style and hit Ok).

Note: unnumbered headings will not increment the number of other headings. If I added another numbered top-level heading after References called Appendix, it would be numbered 4.

Numbered Aspects

I struggled for awhile trying to have two top-level heading formats: the “basic” arabic numbered format (e.g., 1. Introduction) and the aspect format (e.g., Aspect I: Foo) within the same heading paragraph style. Getting the numbers to restart for aspects (and resume where they left off for subsequent basic headings) also didn’t work. I was seriously contemplating doing the numbering manually (ugh!) but the thought of having to also do all the cross-references deterred me. Isn’t this the kind of stuff computers are supposed to be good at?

Eventually, I realized that Word was just not going to do what I wanted, but that I could bend to its will by creating the aspect format as a 2nd-level heading that just happened to look exactly like a top-level heading. Because aspects are the 2nd level of the list, they get their own “numbering space”. By changing the number format for a list level to include text like “aspect”, cross-references to the heading number display as Aspect I. Perfect!

Numbered Tasks and Questions

Unfortunately I wasn’t quite out of the woods. I wanted to employ a similar trick to get the right numbering within aspects: tasks would be the 3rd-level heading and questions the 4th-level, but they would look the same. The issue is that question numbering cannot be made contiguous with task numbering, i.e., if I have 4 tasks and then 1 question the question will be labeled as 1, not 5. This is basically the same problem I encountered with numbering aspects: I want to have two different number formats for the same heading. Not possible!

As a partial workaround, it is useful that numbering for a particular list level can reset based on any particular higher level of the list, not just the immediately-higher level. So I set the question numbering to reset whenever a new aspect occurs. Normally, question numbering would reset whenever a task occurs (since tasks are the immediately-higher list level). With this workaround, we get output like:

Aspect I
  Task I.1
  Task I.2
  Question I.1   <-- wish this were Question I.3!!!!
  Task I.3       <- should be Task I.4
  Question I.2   <- should be Question I.5

Each task/question is numbered uniquely (which is the bare minimum) but the numbers don’t always increase which is kind of confusing.  I played around a bit with VBA trying to change the numbering but since all these headings are part of the same list style it seems like formatting is forced to be consistent.

One potential workaround/hideous hack is to add a hidden task for each question, and a similar hidden question for each task. This keeps the task/question numbering ticking contiguously. Hidden text (even headings) doesn’t show up in the document or affect layout at all (you can reveal it via the Show all nonprinting character button). Helpfully, hidden headings can’t be cross-referenced and don’t show up in the table of contents either :-). Using a sentinel name for these fake headings (like “fake”) would allow a VBA macro to automatically make these headings hidden (or, more dangerously, automatically insert the hidden headings as well), and also verify that every task/question has an appropriate fake question/task after it. This is definitely kludgy but it does produce the desired output and can at least be automatically checked for mistakes.

In Conclusion

As a general principle, list styles are nice because they keep formatting consistent and integrate well with headings. However, numbering within a list style is a bit rigid. If you want to change the number format within a given heading (e.g., to go from 1. Introduction to Aspect I: Foo) then use the lower-level heading and make the two headings look identical. The lower-level heading has its own numbering, so if you want contiguous numbering across the two headings then add some hidden headings to bring the lower-level heading’s numbering back in sync.

Word’s list styles only have 9 levels, which at first seemed practically infinite to me but, if you burn through a list level with each heading number format change, 9 might actually be a limiting factor. I used four already to achieve just 2 logical levels of headings. Planning this structure in advance helps a lot: with a list style in place tweaking the look afterwards is straightforward.


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