Word annoyance: Cross-referencing

May 28, 2009

Sometimes I wonder if Microsoft employees have ever used Word for a long document with multiple heading levels, hundreds of headings, figures and tables, and lots of cross-references to those headings, figures and tables. My experience with Word would suggest not. (I did hear that Microsoft employees use an internal XML system for their documentation, which if true, gives lie to ‘eating your own dog food!’)

So what’s my peeve this time? The Word 2003 Cross-reference dialog box (and, to an extent, the Word 2007 Cross-reference dialog box, though some things have been fixed).

What’s so annoying about it? Well, it just DOESN’T work well with long documents where you have to insert many cross-references. I’ve been working on hundreds of these types of documents since last September and there are some simple things that could improve the experience for those of us who have to use this function many times a day.

Here’s the Word 2003 dialog box, showing that there are many many headings in this document — the vertical scroll bar on the right indicates that Section 5.6 in this example is only about a quarter of the way into this document.

Word 2003 Cross reference dialog box

Word 2003 Cross reference dialog box

So how is this Word 2003 dialog box broken?

  • You cannot resize the dialog box any which way, which means that you have to continually scroll the list nine items at a time (Home and End work within it as do the page up/down keys, so that helps a little). This is sort of fixed in Word 2007 — the dialog is resizable for both height and width, but the resizing does not hold if you close the dialog box. As soon as you re-open it, it goes back to the default size.
  • The heading levels cannot be collapsed — they always open fully expanded, which makes it painful to get to Section 12 of 24 sections, for example. Again, you have to scroll to get there. This is the same in Word 2007. Surely it would be a simple thing to add expand/collapse icons for the Headings list??
  • If you select an item, then click Insert and leave the dialog open, then select another item and click Insert again, the next time you try to do this, you lose the scroll bar and end up at the top of the list. Now you either have to close the dialog and start again, or use the page up/down etc. keys to navigate to the next cross-reference (the scroll bar is inactive) OR — here’s a tip — click in the scroll bar BEFORE you select the second and subsequent items, then you won’t lose it. It’s an extra click but quicker than having to scroll using the keyboard or closing and re-opening the dialog box. This appears to be fixed in Word 2007, based on the little testing I did.
  • The Insert reference to option does not hold between various Reference types. For example, if I choose Only label and number for a Figure, then I insert some figure cross-references, everything is fine. But if I then insert switch reference type to a Table (perhaps also selecting Only label and number) then when I go back to inserting a Figure cross-reference, the default (Entire Caption) is displayed and I have to re-select Only label and number, even if I’m in the same session (i.e. I haven’t closed the dialog and I haven’t closed the Word document). What I would like is for the selection I made the last time I inserted a Figure in this session to hold for the next time I insert a Figure. This would save me hundreds of mouse clicks per document! This is not fixed in Word 2007, which exhibits the same behavior as Word 2003.

These are all little things that perhaps wouldn’t be noticed if you were only using this dialog occasionally. But I’ve had to open it and insert thousands of cross-references over the past six months or so, and it’s limitations are apparent. And annoying.

See also:


  1. Hear hear. Also, cross references can break when you add a paragraph by pressing Enter at the beginning of a referenced heading (in 2003 anyway). I have to try to remember to add the paragraph from the end of the previous item.

  2. Microsoft Word’s limitation with looooong documents is so frustrating, that I have started to break documents down into smaller documents. What was once a chapter or section in the long document, is now a separate document.

    Products like Adobe Framemaker are best-suited for long documents, but unfortunately, most organizations only invest in Microsoft Office (and therefore, Word) and I don’t expect this to change any time soon.

  3. Word 2007 has definitely fixed the bug where after you click ‘Insert’, the list scrolls back to the top. Thank god for that. Now if only the headings were collapsible. Grr…

  4. MS Word 2007 is still god awful at cross references with long documents. When documents get to a certain point, no matter how many times or ways you add a caption, it never shows up in the cross references dialog. Format paint, re-style, re-add caption, copy and paste… it doesn’t matter, the cross references don’t work. On top of that, when adding a figure, the text is right justified in the text box so you can’t even see what you are typing as the caption.

    Long story short, Microsoft Word 2007 is a steaming pile of flaming maggot sh*t coded by a bunch of monkeys typing random keys on their keyboard and hoping it compiles.

    Can’t stand using MS Word for any document over a couple of megabytes.

  5. Couldn’t agree more, and thank you for the article – at least I know I’m not suffering alone! If the cross-referencing dialog is now resizable and remembers the last position in the list that may finally be enough to get me to change to Word 207!

  6. […] just like the Cross-reference dialog in Word 2003 , you can’t resize this dialog box, so there’s an awful lot of scrolling if you have a […]

  7. What about the problem when the inserted cross-ref inserts the entire item being referenced? Delete the extraneous bits, hit print, and Word decides to put them back in. wtf?

  8. Hi mcalex

    I’ve had this and the only solution I’ve found that works is to delete the entire cross-reference (with the extra stuff that came with it — page breaks, figures etc.), add a few extra spaces, then re-insert the cross reference correctly. Get rid of the extra spaces and update the cross reference (F9) to make sure the rest of the stuff doesn’t come back. If it does, check the figure (for example) for any line breaks (NOT paragraph breaks) between the figure and the caption in case these are the cause.


  9. […] term!). While there have been some improvements to this dialog box in Word 2007, there’s a lot about this dialog box that just doesn’t work efficiently. (NOTE: I have not used Word 2010 yet, so these comments are about Word 2007. I’d appreciate […]

  10. The only way I was able to fix this issue was by deleting the entire cross-reference. I’m going to write an article about this issue on my website. (Click my name to check out my website) Thank you.

  11. Annoying is at the root of all microsoft products. Word just happens to be the penultimate is confusing user interface and illogical design. Of course people at ms don’t use it. The best editor they ever made was notepad and they even screwed that up. Give it up microstuff, you just don’t know how to write applications and are barely sufficient in operating systems.

  12. Cross-referencing is one area where I prefer OpenOffice.org 3 over Word 2007. After dealing with some of the same issues as you, Word 2007 ate my 100-page document by apparently expanding the cross reference fields to random sections (creating duplicate content in random places).

  13. I think I may be having a Microsoft Word cross-reference problem which is noted in this conversation. When I hit Alt-F9 and toggle codes, all is good. I see the text I want to see which references native Heading1, Heading2 styles. However, when I go to print, for some reason, Word is inserting the follow-on information which is within the subsequent paragraphs. It doesn’t make sense to me because that subsequent text clearly has different styles applied. I tried to print to different printers and still have the issue.

    Back now. I discovered that the Heading with one cross-reference must have had a bug. So I made a change to the referenced information, and then deleted the cross-reference and added it back as new. Seems to have fixed it!

  14. FYI, here is an official MS response to some of these issues:


    “Hi Natalie,

    You can’t change the default, though a macro could be used to intercept the Insert|Cross-reference dialogue and automatically select both the ‘Figure’ and ‘Label and Number Only’ options. The code for such a macro would have to use a function called ‘Sendkeys’, which isn’t renowned for its reliability. Plus any code relying on Sendkeys is dependent on the Word version.

    In any event, in a given Word session, once you’ve used the Insert|Cross-reference dialogue to insert a ‘Figure’ reference with the ‘Label and Number Only’ option, the next use of the Insert|Cross-reference dialogue will default to those settings.

    As to why not, call it a design decision. Word has so many features that providing user-configurable defaults for all of them would require far more coding and would make supporting users with operational issues much more complex.
    Paul Edstein
    [MS MVP – Word]”

  15. What a ridiculous answer by Microsoft. Having to select away from Caption every single time is certainly one of the most annoying things about MSWORD. And I agree about the lack of resizing and collapsing of headings too. I also think that references should have their own separate “numbered item” listing, and that the default for numbered items should be paragraph number, not page number.

    It’s amazing that this has been going on for so many years and still hasn’t been fixed.

  16. MVP’s are not Microsoft Employees according to http://mvp.support.microsoft.com/gp/mvpbecoming

  17. I’ve just managed to use AutoHotKey (free) to automate the Insert Cross Reference dialog. In my case, I hate having to find the reference that I want to insert, be it a table or figure. So now, what I do is copy the caption I want to reference (“Figure 3” for example) to the clipboard and press WIN+SHIFT+F. The AutoHotKey script below opens the Insert Cross Reference dialog, selects “Figure” from the “Reference Type” drop down, locates “Figure 3” in the “For which caption” list, inserts the cross reference, and then closes the Insert Cross Reference dialog.

    Feel free to modify the script as you please.

    Insert the copied reference
    spaceIndex := InStr( clipboard, ” “)
    type := SubStr(clipboard, 1, spaceIndex)
    Send, {ALT}SRF
    WinWait, Cross-reference,
    IfWinNotActive, Cross-reference, , WinActivate, Cross-reference,
    WinWaitActive, Cross-reference,
    Loop, parse, type
    Send, %A_LoopField%
    Send, {TAB}{ALTDOWN}w{ALTUP}
    Sleep 500
    Loop, parse, clipboard
    SendPlay, %A_LoopField%

  18. Another feature that should be included, and that I’ve requested numerous times, is that there should be an option to insert a cross reference to the figure/table number ONLY. That way, you can add references like “Figs. XX-YY”, instead of having to have it say “Figure XX – Figure YY”. I so wish my employer would allow us to use LaTex for work documents. Aaargh!

  19. I’ve just noticed that a poster named ‘Dan’, claimed on December 2, 2011 a response I had written to a query in MS Answers was:
    “an official MS response to some of these issues”.
    Please note that I do not and never have worked for Microsoft. I am a Microsoft MVP, though, but all that means is that Microsoft considers my contributions to helping people solve their problems with Word are worthy of special recognition.

    As for the figure referencing mentioned by Steve on April 30, 2012, see: http://wordfaqs.mvps.org/CombineXrefs.htm

    Paul Edstein
    [MS MVP – Word]

  20. In response to Steve (Apr 30, 2012) – there is a way to combine cross-references as you say, but you have to do it manually using field switches. See http://wordfaqs.mvps.org/CombineXrefs.htm. (I use the first, easier method and it works every time – very quick and easy once you get the hang of it.)

  21. In response to Jen (April 10, 2013): I mentioned that in my last reply (immediately before your’s) – it’s a solution I developed.

  22. This is a little late to the discussion, but using Word 2013 cross referencing is just as painful (amongst other things). It seems that over the years, Microsoft just doesn’t work on the things that matter with their products (the user experience). Cross referencing is just as broken now as it was back in 2003.

    For example, cross references get confused and end up referencing the incorrect paragraph/heading if somebody inserts a paragraph before the referenced heading by clicking at the beginning of the heading and pressing enter. The cross reference ends up referencing the ‘new’ paragraph, not the previous one – I can understand how this happens, but MS should recognise this is a common way for users to insert new paragraphs before an existing one, especially new paragraphs of the same style.

    Also, it would be great (and obvious) if cross references should be able to be created by clicking and dragging the number from a numbered heading to where you want the cross reference (and then change the style by double clicking on it or something), rather than having to navigate the still-awful (i.e. almost exactly the same as the 2003 version from 10 years earlier) cross reference dialog box.

    The user experience with MS Word is just plain bad, and it hasn’t improved at all across subsequent versions. Performance of relatively large (but otherwise simple) documents, especially those with tracked changes, grind to a halt very easily on more-or-less modern hardware.

    Clicking multiple times in the scroll bar area just to get the scroll bar to show up (it’s an Office 2013 ‘feature’ apparently) is frustrating. Tables are finicky and unresponsive (that widget to insert rows shows up sometimes but not others, it gets in the way when clicking in a cell when it doesn’t go away quickly enough, moving table borders sometimes works and other times has a mind of its own etc). Styles are still highly corruptible and break simply by sending a document to someone else to edit (invariably, they send it back with all the numbering destroyed).

    Microsoft really need to get their game together here, get back to grass roots and focus on the important things, not just perpetuate bad design, bloat and bugs from earlier versions while tinkering around with ribbon layouts, colour schemes, integration with SkyDrive, yearly subscription models etc. While Word is fairly flexible and powerful, it shouldn’t come at the cost to the user experience it currently does.

    The comments above reflect my experience with Word over the years, which remain unresolved despite progressive versions, updates and progressively more powerful hardware. Some things never change (at least, not in the ways that count), and Word apparently is one of them.

  23. I’ve just been reading through these posts and wanted to let you know of a couple of add-ins I’ve created. One fixes cross references broken/confused because a paragraph has been inserted before the referenced heading. The other automatically inserts a cross reference either as you type the number or it can be run on a document with static cross references. This is currently being tested.

    If you’d like more information let me know.

  24. Tammy please let us know! Also, my particular brand of pain is the woefully small size of the window. I always have to make it enormous to easily find/scroll to the subject cross reference. You would think something like that would easily remain in the MS Word memory bank and stay static until further changed by the user but no such luck unfortunately. Anybody have any ideas on how to modify that characteristic?

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