Managing the Woes of Word’s Numbering

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Robert N. Phillips
CEO, Lasotell Pty Ltd.

Have you been losing too much time to the apparent vagaries of Word’s list numbering? This problem is easily managed at an organisational level using a Word template, and it can save several work days of effort per week in a busy office.

The problem is well known: all of a sudden the number streams go on a holiday and they refuse to behave in a rational manner. The problem arises because Microsoft wanted people to easily use the same numbers and bullets created on one PC when editing the file on another PC. Microsoft implemented bullets and numbering by storing formatting information for the bullet and number streams in the Registry of the PC. When you open a file, the Registry is updated with the formatting information and everything works fine until you either exceed a secret, err… predetermined number of slots in the Registry. Or you overwrite slots you have already used in your documents. The laborious fix is to go to each item in the Bullets and Numbering gallery, press the Reset button, and then reformat every list in the file. The smart fix is to use a template and distribute that template across the whole company to prevent the problem in the first place.

In our organisation, we have two standard templates for all draft work. One template has a full-width text line, and the other template has a one-inch left indent. (The publishing people apply a publishing template for the final version of the deliverable.) Each template has a range of predetermined styles and a toolbar with a button for each style so with only one click users can apply the style. The toolbar also includes a default table formatter, table and figure captions, and a graphic placeholder style. The secret to the success is a Visual Basic script that defines all the relevant styles and, most important, all the number streams used in all the predefined list styles. When the templates are put on a new machine for the first time, the full-width template is opened and an Initialise script is run on the PC. From that point on, files from any PC that have been similarly initialised can be swapped and inserted without risk of number stream corruption. If someone needs to use the narrow-width template, they execute the Initialise script from that template, and away they go.

If files are received from third parties that are not using one of the standard templates, the file is opened, one of the standards attached (using the Automatically Update Files setting), and resaved before making any attempt to edit the file. This procedure works 98% of the time. In the rare case that the procedure doesn’t work, the Template User Guide describes one or two other procedures to fix the problem. Once in every four or five work months of effort one file will seem to work only with the old hard slog procedure. Typically, the author of this file has neither understood nor used styles in a sensible manner, and the file is a nightmare to begin with. Our publications people fix those files.

The basic rules distributed with the template are quite simple.

  1. Thou shalt use only the preset styles on the toolbar when creating a deliverable document—with one exception (see rule 2).
  2. If thou absolutely must make one or more variant styles, thou shalt add thine initials to the prefix or suffix of the new style name.
  3. If the number streams go on holiday, thou shalt open a new document based on this template and press the Initialise button. When initialisation is finished, close and discard the un-named file. Return to the original file and reapply the default style again. If that procedure does not work, thou shalt consult the Template User Guide for further options (or call the publishing group).

This approach has eliminated number list problems and the associated loss of time from our organisation. On the rare occasion something does go wrong, someone typically has been using the full-width template and then decides to use the narrow-width template but forgets to re-initialise the PC with the different template. When they click on an alpha list style, for example, the list appears at the same position as in the wide template. Re-initialising with the narrow template provides the instant fix, and reapplying the style causes that list (and all other numbered and bulleted lists) to appear at the correct position from that moment on. As an additional benefit, because all files are created with the same set of named styles, the publications people changing the deliverable version of the file to a completely new format by attaching a different template is a trivial matter.