Message to Microsoft: Fix Word’s cross-reference dialog box. Please.

August 16, 2010

I use Microsoft Word — a lot. I’ve been using Word since the heady days of Word 2.0, and I’ve been using Word 2003 and more recently Word 2007 day in/day out for the past two years on my current contract. I’ve been getting up close and personal with Word, as evidenced by the number of blog posts I’ve written on Word’s idiosyncrasies. While there have been many improvements in Word 2007, there are areas that still have a way to go.

Most of the documents I’ve been working on for the past two years are long scientific reports — a single document can have hundreds of cross-references to figures, tables, plates, sections, appendices etc.

As a result I’ve opened the Cross-reference dialog box more times than I can count. And that dialog box alone sucks as far as usability is concerned (‘sucks’ is a technical 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 it if someone using Word 2010 can report if any of these issues have been fixed.)

So, if you’re listening Microsoft, here are 10 productivity improvements I’d like to see made to this dialog box (numbers are used for reference only — they do not imply priority or sequential order):

Update August 2016: There’s now an add-in for Word for PCs that solves most (all?) of these issues. See https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/word-cross-reference-manager-add-in-review/

  1. Remember dialog box resizing. In Word 2007, this dialog box is resizable (yay!). But don’t get too excited… When you close the dialog, the size you’ve dragged it to is not ‘remembered’, so as soon as you re-open the dialog, it’s back to its default size and you have to resize it again. This gets ‘old’ very quickly. Yes, I know I can keep the dialog box open while I’m doing other things in the document, but sometimes I need the screen real estate and so I’ll close it only to re-open it again a few minutes later, and have to resize it again.
  2. Resize the drop-down selection lists to fit the available selections. The current situation is just bad design, in my opinion. Even the default Reference type list includes more selections than are visible in the drop-down list. And if you’ve added more (e.g. Plate, Equation, Photograph), then the list is even longer. But someone, somewhere at Microsoft decided that this drop-down list would only ever display 6 items! Which means if you have a list longer than that, you have to scroll. Oh, and for bonus points, someone at Microsoft decided not to list these selection options in alphabetical order!
  3. Increase the number of items displayed by default. The default size of the dialog box only displays 12 items in the list of available headings, figures, tables etc. Long documents can easily have hundreds of headings. If there are only a few items in a particular document, then keep the default at 12, but if there are many more than 12, make the default something like 30 items. Surely a simple if/then statement in the code could make this possible? Of course, if Word remembered the dimensions of my resized dialog box (see item 1 above), this point about the default number would become moot.
  4. Give me the option to expand/collapse headings. As mentioned in item 3 above, a long document can have hundreds of headings. Some documents I’ve worked on have 30+ subheadings (at various levels) within a major heading. If I need to set a ‘heading’ cross-reference to section, then I really don’t want to scroll through every heading in sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 as I do now. Yes, I know I can type the first character of the heading I want and skip to the beginning of that section quickly (e.g. type 8 to go to the 8.x headings if using an outline numbered list), but I still have to scroll to get further down to section If this list had expand/collapse functionality, then I could collapse all headings I didn’t want to see and just expand the section I was cross-referencing. Of course, ‘collapse all’/’expand all’ options should be available too. By the way, typing the first character only works effectively in the Heading and Numbered Item lists; however, if your table and figure lists start with the words Table or Figure, then typing a number or letter does nothing, and you have to scroll.
  5. Hide Reference Types not used in the document. This one is related to item 2 above. The documents I’ve been working on don’t use footnotes or endnotes, yet these are listed in the Reference type list. Why? If the document doesn’t use them, then they shouldn’t be available for selection. If I want to reference something in another document, then I can’t do it via this dialog box anyway.
  6. Remember my ‘Insert reference to’ preference for each Reference Type. This one is REALLY annoying. Because I switch between inserting cross-references to figures, tables, sections etc. within a section of text, I’d like Word to remember my Insert reference to preference FOR EACH TYPE while I’m in the current session. It can forget my preferences after I close Word, but while I’m working I’d like it to remember each insert preference for each Reference Type. Let me give you an example of how it works now:
    1. I select Table as my Reference type, then Heading number (no context) as my Insert preference, then I select the table.
    2. Let’s say the next item I have to insert a cross-reference to is another table. I can leave the dialog open, select another table and the Heading number (no context) selection also applied. So far, so good.
    3. The next cross-reference is a Figure, so I select Figure as my Reference type, then Heading number (no context) as my Insert preference, then I select the figure.
    4. Now I have to cross-reference another table. You’d think that Word would remember my previous table insert preference, but it doesn’t. I have to select Table and Heading number (no context) as my Insert preference AGAIN.
    5. And if the next one is a figure, I have to repeat that.
    6. Repeat for all the other Reference type/insert combinations. With potentially hundreds of cross-references in a single document, and hundreds of documents, this one gets old real fast.
  7. Let me set default Reference type/Insert combinations. Perhaps a better option than ‘remembering’ my most recently used Reference Type/Insert combination (see item 6 above) would be a setting where I could set my default Insert preferences for each Reference Type — that way, I could set it up once and not have to bother with it again. I’d still have the option for changing the insert options for an individual cross-reference, but the defaults would apply otherwise. This setting could go under Word Options > Display settings, or Word Options > Advanced where everything else seems to get dumped. Update for Word 2013: This aspect has been improved a little — when you set, say Table > Only label and number, then close the dialog, when you reopen it in the same document or another document in the same Word session (yes, even a new document created after you set that x-ref combination), that setting holds the next time you open the dialog box.
  8. Provide an option to list Level 1 paragraph styles in the Heading list. My client uses a special style for Appendix headings. This style has its Outline Level paragraph setting set to Level 1 so that it gets picked up and displayed in the automatic Table of Contents. However, these appendices do not use a standard Heading 1 to 9 style so are not listed in the Reference Type list for Heading — to find the appendices, I have to select Numbered Item and scroll to the bottom of that list. The writers on my team are scientists, not Word experts — they invariably cannot find the appendices when inserting cross-references, so they have to ask me to fix them.
  9. Let me assign ‘preserve formatting’ to the inserted cross-reference field from within this dialog box. Occasionally, and for no reason I can discover, the ‘preserve formatting’ option for an inserted cross-reference field goes missing. I don’t know whether it’s on insertion or something that an author does with it later (which is hard to believe as most of the authors I’m dealing with have no clue that these are fields, let alone how to fiddle with them). So a check box on this dialog to ‘preserve formatting’ might be useful as long as it didn’t mess up anything else with these fields (like become a toggle switch).
  10. Provide a double-click option to insert the cross-reference. When I find the correct table, figure, section cross-reference etc. to insert, I have to select it from the list, then click Insert; or select it then press the Tab key to go to the Insert button, then press Enter; or select it and press Enter. Another option I’d like for inserting a cross-reference is the ability to double-click the selection. With the existing options, you have to select the item (usually with the mouse), then do another one or two different actions (press a key, move and click the mouse) before you get the selection inserted. With a double-click option, double-clicking a selection would save mouse movements and prevent you having to switch from mouse to keyboard etc.

As I mentioned in my earlier blog post about the annoyances on this dialog box, these things would probably not bother someone doing the occasional insertion of a cross-reference. But for writers and editors working with long documents, reports, proposals, etc. who have to insert many cross-references, streamlining the functions of this dialog box would save many mouse movements and a LOT of frustration.

Does anyone know how to make suggestions to Microsoft? There used to be a ‘wish list’ address that was monitored, but I no longer know what that email or web address is, nor whether suggestions such as those above even get considered. If you know how to contact Microsoft, please comment below.

Update Nov 2013: Some information on merging cross-references, such as ‘Tables 4 to 8’ instead of ‘Table 4 to Table 8’:

Update September 2015: Five years and at least two versions of Word later and most of these issues remain… And there’s another one — if you have track changes on and delete the first character of a heading, then that heading isn’t shown in the list of Headings in the Cross Reference dialog box. It’s still listed in the Numbered Headings list, but that’s only applicable if you use outline numbered headings. See this post for the circumstances under which this occurs, and some workarounds: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/word-cross-reference-dialog-box-doesnt-show-some-headings/

[Links last checked September 2015]


  1. THANK YOU!! I’ve been complaining about this for years, but have never come up with such a comprehensive list. You’ve hit all of the key points – the one that really bugs me is that in the drop-down menu to select the Reference Type, not only do you have to scroll, but the middle mouse scroll wheel doesn’t even work! And of course, Figures and Tables are always at the bottom…

    Personally, I think that Cross References should be configured like the “Styles” window, where I can just click on an item in the list and insert the reference in a user-defined default format. I keep thinking about doing something like that in VBA, but convince myself that as soon as I put any time into it, Microsoft will fix this problem by the next version of Office…BUT it looks like it’s STILL the same dialog box in Word 2010! It’s been mostly the same for at least 10 years now Microsoft, time for a new dialog box, or better yet, integration without relying on a dialog box.

  2. wow, is your article ever timely. I’ve been working on a 71-some page purchase agreement for hours tonight (I work for a law firm) just trying to get the cross-references all automatic. THIS IS TAKING ME FOREVER because of all this clicking. Why can’t the dialog box just stay open to what you last inserted in case you have to insert it again or a the section that follows it instead of resetting itself back to the beginning which requires me to arrow all the way down and find what I need again (I’m using Word 2003). This has to be the worst feature in Word. Hopefully my cat won’t have starved to death by the time I get home.

  3. Hi Carl

    In Word 2007, there has been a minor improvement to one of your annoyances. You don’t lose the ability to put in multiple cross-references one after the other, as you do in Word 2003 if you don’t do the selection sequence in the right. And the list doesn’t jump back to the beginning while you still have it open.

    However, all the other pain points from earlier versions of Word still apply.

    It’s a real mess and a serious occupational health issue for anyone who needs to insert many cross-references as my poor wrist can attest.


  4. At least the Windows version cross-references correctly! Spare a thought for us poor Mac people… The cross-referencing does not work correctly or display the correct heading information!! Grrr.

  5. Ouch! That’s not fair, Chris.

  6. I agree, Microsoft needs to fix this issue. Join me on my adventure to Fix Microsoft. http://www.FixMicrosoft.com

  7. […] — it doesn’t look as though 5 seconds were spent on this incredibly clunky window (see my blog post on my suggested ways to fix this window). Most of the documents I work on have hundreds of […]

  8. As a software developer, I know how easy this would be to fix if they could be bothered. Remembering the dialog size is trivial, and they could add a Headings tree view in the window, and do a custom option for on p. or similar without much hassle, too. Maybe there is an add-in for this somewhere?

  9. […] 10 suggestions to fix the Cross Reference window: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/message-to-microsoft-fix-words-cross-reference-dialog-box/… […]

  10. […] dialog box has not been touched. I’ve blogged about the limitations of this dialog box before, so I won’t repeat them […]

  11. I use the “document map” feature a lot. It would be so much more convenient to have the ability to generate a reference from that map, without having to open the cross-reference dialog box. For example right-click in the document map, and selecting “insert reference to heading number”.

  12. That’s a great idea! And in Word 2010, Document Map has been replaced by the Navigation Pane, which has more features…. but not that one.


  13. How about adding a feature for listing all broken xrefs in the doc!

  14. Hi Joan

    Good idea. However, there are a couple of ways for searching for broken fields that you can use right now — these methods aren’t perfect, but they will catch many:

    • Do a search (Ctrl+F) for the word Error! — that will pick up all those Error! Reference not found messages.
    • If you use the word Section in front of an outline heading number cross-reference, then also do a search for Section 0 (that’s a zero, not an O for orange).


  15. Hi Rhonda,

    I tried searching for Error! but Word didn’t search into the field…later I tried Reference not found and that worked so I created a macro to do the search and added that step as a pre-release doc step.

    The second option I would need to know the reference#..seems like work – I don’t understand what the “Outline” search is used for. :-) thanks!

  16. Hi Joan

    When I mentioned outline numbering, I meant numbered headings — e.g. 1, 1.1, 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.2, 1.2.1, 2, 2.1, etc.

    With these sort of headings, you can create a heading cross-reference to just the heading number. So you’d type something like ‘see Section’ and then after the word ‘Section’ you’d insert the x-ref to the heading number, resulting in ‘see Section 1.2.1’, for example. With those sorts of headings, if someone deletes a heading but forgets there’s a x-ref to that heading, then when you update the fields in the document, the x-ref now displays as ‘see Section 0’.

    Which has brought up another function I’d like to see related to x-refs — some sort of alert to let you know that what you’re about to delete has links to somewhere else in the document. Or some sort of map that shows the links throughout the document.


  17. I’m using Word 2010 and have noticed when cross-referencing the check box Above/Below is available with using the Page number choice. However, when using this, it puts in “on page 0.” in this example it should say 1. If I don’t check the box, it puts in 1 but doesn’t include “on page”.

    Also if I choose the choice Above/below in the Insert reference to dropdown, it only puts in the label and number only. Never had this issue in Word 2003.

  18. Another thing that would be nice in cross-referencing is to be able to merge cross-references, so that when you reference tables in the text you don’t have to say, ‘In Table 4 and Table 5’, you can just say, ‘In Tables 4 and 5’ or ‘In Figures 5 to 8’ or something similar.

    I would add that to a wishlist to send to Microsoft about Word’s cross referencing…

  19. Hit the nail on the head. One thing I would add is: always use a _current_ list of items. As it is, there are times when you have to update references and/or accept all changes (if track changes is on) in order to eliminate duplicate entries and/or force all items to be listed.

    Here’s hoping Word 2012 (or whatever the next version is) focuses more on improvements to existing features rather than adding features.

  20. Hi Michael

    You can accept field track changes using a macro. It doesn’t affect any other track changes. See this other blog post of mine for details:


  21. +1

  22. How about an easy way (is there even a difficult way?) to return to the source (departure) end of the link / cross reference from which you arrived at the destination end, that you followed the link / cross reference to, when you’ve finished reading the destination end? (E.g., I read something and then click on a link labeled: “See also…” I read that supplemental material and now I want to go back to what I had been reading before going to the supplemental material.)
    It would also be nice if the row(s) at the top of a table that you might have repeating at the top of every page if it’s a multipage table could contain hyperlinks that worked beyond the first page.
    Lastly, have they fixed the fact that hyperlinks / cross references stop working if you protect the document from being edited? Yes, I know there is a work around involving macros, but in my networked, secured, technologically illiterate, fearful of viruses (well, okay to that last one) workplace, macros are going to cause more problems than they might prevent.

  23. Hi RiCo

    Great suggestions! Thanks for sharing.

    As far as the first one goes, a back button should accomplish what you’re trying to do. See this blog post about adding one to the Quick Access Toolbar (Word 2007/2010) or the toolbar (Word 2003): https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/word-add-a-back-button-to-the-toolbar/.


  24. In addition to #8, I might add that users (I’m using Word 2010) are not allowed to cross-reference or insert hyperlinks to headings with unnumbered styles.

    In other words, user-defined styles don’t yield any headings in the cross-references window. For instance, I have Heading 1 and Heading 2 numbered but I have a use for their unnumbered counterparts so I’ll create UnHeading1 and UnHeading 2 based on Heading 1 and Heading 2, only changing the numbering to None. Well, too bad for me, I won’t be able to insert any hyperlinks to text that has one of these custom styles. Isn’t that great!?

  25. Just a thought; while I agree with all your angst its always struck me that I should be able to select cross references from the document map for anything that is outlined/outline-able, including, I should be able to add certain styles to the document map (need Appendices in the Doc Map and as a cross reference but do not want it to be a Header 1 – 9… tell Doc Map what styles to ALSO include). That would probably work and in my book since Doc Map allows collapsing as you suggest… allows me to get the level of granularity I wish. Give me some options on setting up different cross-ref formats on if its a table, a figure, etc. and I can do exactly what you suggest. Only missing option would be footnotes and end notes… but then again, why can’t they let me show them in the doc map? At that point I believe I could see my/our way clear to get rid of the cross ref dialogue box and all its limitations all together.

    Why am I here? I’m looking for a solution to why when I select cross refs for tables and figures (created in the standard MS way) I can NOT have the cross ref also show “before/after” which is greyed out…. but is available when I cross refs to headings, footnotes, and/or end notes. Why I can’t have access to the before/after check box… I don’t know. I can select the table/figure and insert it and then go back and select before/after from the drop down menu… but that two trip through the difficult dialogue box is … painful at about the 716th trip and I don’t have to do it for 3 out of 5 selections…. whats the diff?


  26. After once again going mad about having to enter a lot of cross references in a large Word document I have googled for some help and found this thread. And no – nothing has changed even with the 2013 version of the software. Obviously nobody at Microsoft is using this function, otherwise they would have fixed this years ago. I support all your points although for me it would already help me a lot if I could only sort the list in descending order so the latest entries would show up first. Anybody at Microsoft read this? The function itself works well for me – but using it is a perfect pain in the…

  27. I’ve been working with documents of around 1,000 pages, with approximately 800 headings. Trying to find your target heading in a list that is sorted by position in document as opposed to sorted alphabetically is impossible. Yes, you can use a hyperlink instead (which is what I did), but then you can’t insert a page number. And this is in Word 2013.

  28. How about a feature that lets you cross reference something by clicking the field in your document. I have a test procedures document with lots of lists of numbered steps and occasionally need to reference back to a previous step within a procedure. Cross references are perfect for this as they will automatically update if you subsequently insert additional or delete steps. But trying to find the right number from the very long list of numbers in the cross reference dialog is nigh on impossible. What I want to do is insert a cross reference and then simply click on the numbered field I want to cross reference to. Surely this would be an obvious and relatively easy feature to implement?

  29. Another thing that drives me mad about this dialog is that whenever I insert a reference the Word main-window scrolls about half a screen! I see absolutely no reason for this behaviour. It forces my eyes to search for the cursor on the whole screen before I can continue with my work. This is not augmenting productivity. Please fix it!

  30. Wonderful observations! Sad that these problematic observations persist with Microsoft Word for Windows. The observations about problems related to resizing the cross-reference dialog box and the small number of displayed references are particular relevant. I also need to see more of the caption. A user should be able to change the width of the caption display.

  31. Way late to the party here… I have a question on a comment that you made. Now, I know this was possible, or used to be possible, but you mentioned that you can add items to the list of potential xreference-able items. In your article the examples given were Plate, Equation, Photograph, but what I really want to add is Appendix, so that when you reorder the Appendices, the references can automatically update. How do you accomplish this? I would desperately like to know!

  32. Not sure if this will post twice… I realize that I am way late to the party, but I am desperately trying to figure out how to add items to the list of possible xreference-able things. In 2. of your list, you mentioned the length of the options being annoyingly short, particularly after adding additional items such as plate and photograph. How did you do this and is this still an available feature in Word 2013?

  33. Hi Monica

    Yes, you can still add new caption labels in Word 2013. Reference tab > Insert Caption > New Label.

    For appendices, I’d suggest NOT using captions; instead use a Heading style you don’t already use (e.g. Heading 6) and style it with similar attributes to Heading 1. Search this blog for ‘Appendix’ – you’ll find several posts on Appendix heading styles and multilevel numbering for Appendices. And cross-referencing them.


  34. […] in 2010, I wrote a blog post pleading with Microsoft to fix/enhance the cross-reference functionality in Word. Others commented on that post, offering their own suggestions and venting their frustrations with […]

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