The Advantages of Master Documents

A master document is a document that provides a gathering place for multiple smaller documents?called subdocuments. Each of these subdocuments can be developed and edited separately, by separate users on separate computers. All of these subdocuments can be controlled centrally, through the master document. Subdocuments can be divided and combined as needed by the project's participants.

Master documents make it possible for many people to work on parts of a document while one person still controls the entire document.

After you've created a master document, you can reopen it any time you want, displaying all the subdocuments together. This gives you a quick, efficient way to see how all the components of your document relate to each other, even if individual subdocuments have been heavily edited by your colleagues since you viewed them last. You can use Word's navigation tools as if you were working with a conventional document rather than a collection of documents. You can also handle all the tasks that generally should be performed on the entire document at the same time, such as the following:

  • Ensuring consistent formatting throughout

  • Spell checking and ensuring consistent spelling of specialized terms

  • Building an index and a table of contents

  • Reorganizing the document, moving large blocks of text among chapters

  • Printing

To learn more about creating a table of contents in a master document, see "Creating a Table of Contents, an Index, or Cross-References for a Master Document," p. 673.

The master document doesn't merely gather the subdocuments in one place: It integrates them, enabling you to set unified styles and document templates that can apply to every subdocument. Using master documents thereby helps you maintain visual consistency throughout large documents, even if many authors are contributing to them.

No matter what formatting is attached to styles in your subdocuments, when those subdocuments are displayed as part of a master document, they all use the formatting associated with styles in the master document's template. So if you stay with a basic set of headings and other styles, you're virtually assured of consistent formatting.

In addition, when you display subdocuments as part of a master document, all cross-references, footnotes, outline numbers, and page numbers are automatically updated to reflect the new location of the subdocument within the larger document. In fact, master documents behave very much like regular Word documents. You can format them, save them, and print them just as you would any other document.

Master documents are extremely helpful in organizing complex projects. As you'll learn later, you can organize a project using a Word outline, divide the project into subdocuments, and delegate those subdocuments to your colleagues as needed.

Because Word usually works faster when editing smaller documents, working in subdocuments rather than a much larger main document can significantly improve Word's performance during mundane editing tasks. This, of course, tends to be most important if you are using a slower computer.


Before going further, it's worth pointing out that master documents have traditionally been buggier than most other Word features. We've found them fairly reliable thus far in Word 2003; however, if you choose to use them, it makes sense to save backups often.

Corruption in master documents typically occurs because Word can encounter problems resolving inconsistencies among the master and subdocuments. You can improve their reliability by doing the following:

  • Limiting the amount of text in the master document itself: for example, only a table of contents and/or an index.

  • Opening subdocuments using File, Open instead of through the master document except when necessary

  • Using the same template for both your master document and your subdocuments

For more information about issues that have arisen with master documents, see and

If you find yourself encountering difficulties with master documents, you may want to consider a third-party alternative: the free Tech-Tav macro suite, available at is worth a look.

    Part I: Word Basics: Get Productive Fast
    Part II: Building Slicker Documents Faster
    Part III: The Visual Word: Making Documents Look Great
    Part IV: Industrial-Strength Document Production Techniques
    Part VI: The Corporate Word