OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Numbered and bulleted lists that don't disappear, switch, realign themselves or otherwise make your life miserable.

Like any word processor,'s Writer automatically adds numbers and bullets to paragraphs for you. Unlike typical word processors, however, Writer does not make lists a part of paragraph styles. Instead, lists have styles of their own. These styles are called numbering styles. It's a rather misleading term, though, because it refers to both numbered and bulleted lists, but never mind.

By splitting lists and paragraphs, Writer gains several advantages. First, the split removes many users' confusion regarding whether they are configuring lists or paragraphs. Second, it is more economical, because one list style can be applied to multiple paragraph styles instead of defining the same format separately for each paragraph. Third, and most important of all, separating list styles from paragraph styles gives list options more room for custom settings without burying them deep in the menus.

In addition, Writer's numbering styles are more dependable. Unlike other word processors, Writer places bullets and numbers in fields, which is why they display in a gray backgrounds in your document (select File -> Page Preview to see how they'll look when you print). One of the uses of fields is for variable information. So, by using fields for lists, Writer makes its lists more or less immune to corruption. For example, if you want to:

  • interrupt list items with unnumbered lines or styles

  • place one type of list between two items in another list (for example, bullets between numbered items)

  • move a numbered item to another place in the list

you usually can do so without problems. In fact, Writer encourages you to do so by offering a custom tool bar for lists.

Accessible in several ways, Writer's numbering styles are both highly convenient and highly customizable. Not only do they give you the tools to create several types of lists, but you also can use the same tools for a time-saving trick or two.

Using Automatics Lists

You can use automatic lists in several ways:

  • Manual application: Select Format -> Numbering/Bullets from the menu or the Numbering On/Off button in the Object tool bar. This method is suitable mainly for short documents and default settings. If you use an elaborate setup, you'll either have to recreate it or copy and paste each time you use it.

  • Autocorrection: Type the first number or bullet and add contents. When you press the Enter key for the next paragraph, Writer recognizes that you are making a list. The number or bullet in the first paragraph is placed in a field, and one is added to the next paragraph automatically. If this feature does not work, check that Tools -> AutoCorrect/AutoFormat -> Options -> Apply numbering - symbol: * is turned on.

  • Semi-automatic application: Create a numbering style and then apply it to paragraphs as you choose.

  • Automatic application: Associate the numbering style with a paragraph style on the paragraph style's Numbering tab. Whenever the paragraph is used, it is numbered unless you turn off numbering with the numbering tool bar. Give both the numbering and paragraph style the same name, so that you can see at a glance that they're associated.

For your own convenience, automatic application is recommended.

Types of Lists

Numbering styles support three different types of lists:

  • Numbered Lists: lists in which the order matters, such as a recipe, or the steps in a technical manual.

  • Bulleted Lists: lists in which the order is unimportant. For example, in the list you're reading now, the order in which you read the list items doesn't matter. You won't lose data or suffer grievous bodily harm if you don't read them in order.

  • -Outline Numbering: an outlining method that uses a single paragraph style. I call this method single-style outlining to differentiate it from the type of outline numbering available in Tools -> Outline numbering, which is something quite different.

In addition, you can use numbering lists for a couple of tricks that do not directly involve lists.

Bulleted and numbered lists each have five numbering styles pre-defined. For bullets, they're called List, while for ordered lists they're called Numbering. These styles are useful as examples and have corresponding paragraph styles pre-defined to which they can be assigned. However, descriptive names, such as lower case letters in blue, are much more convenient.

Each of the three types of lists has at least one tab in the numbering styles window from which you can choose a pre-defined design. In addition, bullets have the Graphics tab. If you want to customize styles, however, your main concerns are the Position and the Options tabs. The Position tab includes similar settings for all types of lists.

However, if you want to customize your lists, the Options tab is the one that matters. Its available options change with the type of list you're making.


-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)


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Turing off numbering and lists

Anonymous's picture

I can't find an option anywhere to turn these things off. They are driving me nuts.

Number is the worst Nightmare

Desperate's picture

Installed OO 3.0 hoping the style / numbering is finally ok.
So... modify Numbering 1 to get what I want (1 1.1 1.1.1 with no extra dot).
Then modify my custom paragraph style "Mystyle" to use "Numbering 1" for numbering.

Done. Not really intuitive but - after all - rather easy.

However: it doesn't work. After trying many things for 2 (two) hours, I'm desperately looking for a solution on the web forums.

My idea about the problem: I initially used a custom numbering in "mystyle" (that worked very well), then I wanted a level 3 and thought that it would be better to use the "Numbering 1" pre-defined numbering style. Did that but OO started to be confused seemingly.

I know OO is free etc... but as a professional 2 hours of time is a lot, just to get some numbering working. OO is *really* not intuitive, and is bugged. The mix of that is: when there is a problem one never know if it is a bug, or a mis-use of the non-intuitive interface. In my case it seems to be both.

Numbering has been a nightmare since day 1. OO guys, please, just erase numbering.c (or whatever it is called) and create a new one from scratch.

Its a complete mess

Anonymous's picture

the OO numbering is such a mess Im close to installing Word again. This is a hopeless case!

So many years of computing, yet no decent writer app

Anonymous's picture

Numbering is a nightmare. In 1991 I wrote my master using FrameMaker and numbering worked like a charm. In 2006 I am stuck with openoffice where numbering is impossibly hard. I'm going to have to go back to my favorite 1988 tool: latex. This is so frustrating. If I knew a $1000 would fix the problem forever, I would pay it right away: who do I write the cheque to?

OOo Off the Wall: Not even on the Same Page

Simon Mackenzie's picture

I like OOo! But I still think back to the days of Venture Publisher. In comparison control of paragraph style numbering and insertion of numbering and style text into headers in OOo is disappointing, frustrating and seems so unbelievably inconsistent. One has to check various unrelated dialogue boxes to effect some sort of result; but predicting the result seems very unpredictable. (I feel the results are more akin to the results of the “Improbability Drive

numbering lists

Anonymous's picture

I appreciate the effort of writing this paper. However, also given our enthusiasm for writer, I must say that numbering the title of chapter and paragraphs is a nightmare. I could not solve my problems even after reading the article. The only program I used that offered the result strightforward was lotus manuscript! This is 20 years ago. Even a printed book about OOO could not explain the mechanism to me. I really hope somebody is going to write a good tutorial on this.

Open Office numbering is so b

Anonymous's picture

Open Office numbering is so bloody ridiculous. The behaviour is so unpredictable. Why couldn't they have just followed MS Office outline numbering exactly. Most users are so used to that. Now they've mixed it up with the styles. Then there's a Tools->outline numbering, both of which can't do even the simplest outline numbering MS Word allowed me to do. Its stupid and ridiculous.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Anonymous's picture

OOo 1.1.2 is just rubbish when it comes to lists and outlines. It is worse than M$!!! It has been an extremely frustrating experience. After two months of trying to make decent looking outlines and lists I gave it up. Type everything manually!

So that's why it mixes up bullets and lists

Anonymous's picture

This article goes some way towards explaining why my bullets spontaneously turn into numbers and why my numbering sometimes spontaneously starts at "7" instead of "1". Ah well - it will be fixed one day. (I've got a 200+ page master document with 31 sub-documents.)

Re: So that's why it mixes up bullets and lists

Anonymous's picture

I don't know how you implemented bullets and numbers, but you could also be having problems if you haven't been using styles, or if your sub-documents have a different template than your master document.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Anonymous's picture

A really great article.. Thanks

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Anonymous's picture

My biggest issue with Writer's numbering/lists isn't really with the lists at all, but rather with the document wanting to change the font because of how i selected or deleted text. It usually manifests itself as a number in a different font than what I had been typing in. I guess the moral is to do the formatting after you write the document.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Bruce_Byfield's picture

Actually, you have a couple of choices:

- turn off all the automatic features
- use paragraph and character styles throughout

Either way, you should get the results you want.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Anonymous's picture

My problem with OOo numbering is that I haven't been able to consistently turn it off! I don't want/need any "help" with numbering lists. Unfortunately I've had problems turning it off (and keeping it turned off).

I would like a top level menu option telling OOo to leave the text alone.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Anonymous's picture

You've hit the mark, man.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Bruce_Byfield's picture

Try turning off all the features in Tools > AutoCorrect/Autoformat.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Anonymous's picture

I have to agree. I want to wean myself off of Word. However, three things keep stopping me -- bulleted/numbered lists, occasional Word incompatibilities, and embedded graphics.

While this aricle may clear up most of the first and part of the second reason, I, too, wish that Open/StarOffice would just leave it alone, by default.

Once this happens, I will help wean others off of Word, too.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Anonymous's picture

I guess that the popularity of WYSIWYG word processors is due, in no small measure, to the fact that anyone can produce a simple document with little or no training. It is only when trying to produce complicated documents that the limitations associated with such programs, and the contortions that their designers have to go into in their attempts to paliate them, become obvious.

Word and its siblings are OK for uncomplicated, amateurish documents. For something that allows one to obtain professional-looking, beautiful results, programs like TeX and its progeny (LaTeX, TeXmacs, LyX) are light years ahead.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Anonymous's picture

I agree with your comment, TeX is the utmost in terms of possibilities and professional quality. However I think it is fortunate that this kind of WYSIWYG word processors exists. Think of all the people whose specialty or expertise is not computer science but who need to produce reports, articles or whatever without worrying about the ins and outs and who don't have time to waste learning TeX or LateX programming. They just look for something "intuitive", easy to use and better than the prehistoric ribbon typewriter. OpenOffice is splendid for that and word in a certain extent.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Bruce_Byfield's picture

TeX is great, but it's an overstatement to claim that it is vastly ahead of other alternatives. Several publishers use for their work, so it can't be that far behind TeX.

I wonder how many people could look at a document done in TeX and another done in and tell what software was used to produce them?

OpenOffice is younger thatn Tex

Anonymous's picture

Tex can do things OpenOffice cannot but Openoffice users a extendable XML the features could be added. If you used a feature that Tex only had I could pick it but else I could not.

Now merging the features of Latex into Openoffice would be a power boast.

Note it is also what you see is what you get. This has many extras. The source of Hotdog Html editor was a good merge of direct editing with What you see is what you get. This is Latex and most Tex based editors faults I have not found one that does a good job of this.

Now it is just a merge with openoffice to get good display with out lossing the extra functions(add a tex exporter/importor and extend the XML where needed).

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Bruce_Byfield's picture

Yes, there are a lot of badly designed documents out there.

However, the problem is not really the tools. The problem is that most users have no idea of the principles of good design. GUI programs give users more ways to go wrong, but put design-illliterates in front of Tex, and their results would be no better.

The truth is, both GUI programs and Tex require both learning and design knowledge to use well. Given both, the only reason to prefer one over the other is your own work habits.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Anonymous's picture

While I don't use TeX-based tools, the best WYSWYG document processor IMHO has always been Framemaker. It handled complex and large documents without any problems, especially section numbered headings. MS Word makes me tear my hair out everytime it autocorrects numbered headings and insists on overriding my paragraph numbering styles.

Unfortunately, when Adobe bought out Framemaker, the stability of the first-release Adobe-branded FrameMaker was poor, and it's been many years since I've touched it so I don't know if it's still around even.

Now if OOo manages to implement FrameMaker style numbering, I'll be a happy camper!

Outline numbering in Writer is just plain broken

M1911's picture

All I want to do is having my headings outline numbered. That is, my doc should look like this:

1. Introduction
blah blah blah

2. First Real stuff
blah bla blah
2.1 Subsection
bla blah blah
2.2 Another Subsection

Setting this up is incredibly easy in Word. You simply edit the styles and you are done. It is incredibly easy in HTML. Here I am floundering around in Writer and I just can't figure it out. Why did you have to take a simple idea and make it so bloddy complicated?

I somehow figured out how to

Anonymous's picture

I somehow figured out how to do the numbering you're looking for with heading1, heading2, and numbering. But now I'm in this mess where I can't insert a new heading 2 that uses the same numbering as the heading2 paragraphs around it. If I have 2; 2.1; 2.2; 3; ... and I want to insert a heading 2 before 2.1 I end up with 2; 1.1; 2.1; 2.2; 3; ... I ended up copying and pasting the 2.1 paragraph and erasing all but the number. There are multiple sets of numbered paragraphs and I have no idea how to get Writer to use just one.

I'm sure this is very powerful, but without better documentation it's frustrating.

I have been battling with

Anonymous's picture

I have been battling with the same problem for over 18months...

I found something out try this:
insert new "default" paragraph eg

blah blah
my new default parargraph, with numbering turned OFF

Now select part of the new line, you will find an NEW option saying
Continue previous numbering, select this. You will see something like

blah blah
3 my new......

then using the "bullets and numbering" toolbar (view-->Toolbars) "push" in the numbering by clicking on -> arrow you should get

blah blah
2.3.1 my new.....

It sometimes works..... if your lucky but once numbering is there you won't get the contiue option!!! aRRRRRRRRR!!

What I'd like to see is an option like "restart numbering" BUT the
opersite "conitune numbering" which links to previous lat numbering reference which if its too deep you "just" <- back with the option in
the numbering tool bar button.

THIS whole numbering thing is really coursing me to rething OO, which
on the whole I like, but this numbering issues has caurse me to re-write more than one doc to just to fix numbering!! not fun on a 100page doc. Please Please someone that can please look into it

Two separate issues

Anonymous's picture

There seems to be two separate issues here:

1) Bullets and numbering
2) Paragraph and heading numbering

What I have found is that if the item just before an "Outline Numbering" heading is a bulleted or numbered list, that heading will not become numbered when you do a Tools -> Outline Numbering.. action on your document.

To get the number to appear I found I had to:

Push enter at the end of the list, then backspace to remove that new list member, then enter twice to create two blank paragraphs straight after the list, then the delete key to pull the following heading onto the second blank paragraph (its heading style gets changed to that paragraph style), then re-style the heading to the appropriate level.

Once I did that the heading appeared with a magically assigned number, and OO reordered the rest of the numbering systems below that heading to match.

I suspect that its a bug.

I got the same problem with 2.0.3

Anonymous's picture

I found exactly the same problem, even in 2.0.3.

The outline numbering for headings worked just fine when I first edited my document. When I came to edit it again today, any new headings started again at 1. So I have section 2.1, 2.2, 2.3 and then 1.1.

Thanks for the tip about copy+paste. It works for me.

Copy+Paste is not a real solution

Rasmus EST's picture

I used to have exactly the same problem (seemingly random numbering). At first, I tried to fix the heading numbering by setting the "Start at" section in numbering properties, which unfortunately also changed some other headings. Then I found this article here that told me there are numbering styles.

So I found a real solution. This works under OO.o 2.4.0, probably others too. If your numbering is really gone wrong, do the following:

1. Format -> Styles and Formatting
2. In the Styles and Formatting window that just popped up, select the "List styles" icon. It is the fifth icon from the left
3. Right mouseclick in the listbox, select "New..."
4. Give it a good name, e.g "Chapter numbering".
5. Select the "Options tab".
6. In the "Level" list, select "1 - 10".
7. Select numbering styles, before and after characters, number of sublevels (it must be at least the number of your lowest heading, mine was 3 because I only used Heading 1, Heading 2 and Heading 3). Set "Start at" to 1.
8. CLick OK. New style created.
9. Make sure your headings have the Heading N styles, where N is the level of the heading.
20.Select the first heading you want to number. Then double-click on the name of the newly created list style. Heading will now have the number 1 in front of it.
21. Repeat step 20 for every heading. They will all "magically" get the numbers you always wanted them to have.
22. Each time you add a new numbered chapter or section you have to apply the list style to it.

You are welcome :)

Cranky Numbering

Anonymous's picture

The key to getting numbering to work as expected is to define a new list style.

For example I have some headings in a document that I want outline numbered, I define a new list style 'foo' in the 'list styles' pane of the 'styles and formatting' window; I then assign the list syle 'foo' to the paragraph styles 'Heading 1' ... 'Heading 4'. That way if I change the style of some text to a 'Heading' style it will automatically continue numbering from the previous entry that has the same style.

If you have some headings that have got out-of-sync with the rest of the list just place the cursor on the same line and double click the heading style you created in the 'styles and formatting' window, they will automagically re-number themselves in line with the rest of the list in that style.

Voila. Sane numbering.

Not so wrong after all

Gianluca Amato's picture

The easy way is to assign paragraph styles Heading 1 and Heading 2 to your headings. Then, go to Tools -> Outline Numering and choose the kind of numbering you like for all your headings.

This article describe another approach to outlining documents (one-style outlining) but I feel it is more difficult.

By the way, Brunce, thanks a lot for your wonderful articles.

Re: OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

Bruce_Byfield's picture

FrameMaker is still around, but the rumor is that its features are going to be absorbed into In-Design.

I'd like to see OOo borrow Frame's approach, and allow a style to be defined to restart a numbering list, too.

Otherwise, OOo is really much closer to FrameMaker in functionality and logic than it is to MS Word. I'm starting to assemble notes for an article on the subject, and I'm surprised to reach this conclusion.