Master Documents without pain

Don’t be afraid – Word’s Master Documents is stable and worth using.

The term ‘Master Document’ may cause many to scorn if not outright panic especially those who have been using Word 97 or 2000 version. The most common problem which people faced earlier was the corruption of master documents and the problem of not being able to recover it properly.

Eventually Microsoft listened and rewrote the whole codebase to make it work safely. However memories of master document disasters still linger and is often asked if the feature is now safe. The answer is yes, with the usual proviso for making backups that comes with any software.

So in this article we’ll show you how to use the basics of Master Document then move on to its various features and functionalities.

What is a Master Document?

Master Document can be considered as a main document which would contain a set of separate sub files or subdocuments. Using master document it is easy to manage complex or merged documents such as a book with several chapters. It mainly contains information or links to other documents which are referred as subdocuments. This enables in easy maintenance of long documents with many pages.

Word can handle large documents though saving and scrolling can be sluggish at times. Most people find it easier to work with a section or chapter of a larger document then combine the sections into one big document near the end of writing.

Master Documents lets you do both at once. You can open the whole (master) document and see the whole project as a single file or open a chapter (sub-document) and just edit that part. All changes in the sub-document become part of the master document later.

You can even send sub-document to other people for work, when they return that part you can combine it back into the master document.

Another advantage of master documents is formatting. The master document styles and page settings are copied to the sub-documents.

Master document can be created in two ways; either you can convert an existing document to a master document or add existing small documents into a master document.

Create a Master document

Making a master document from a single document is easy. You can do it at the start of a job when you have a clear plan of sections / chapters to sub-divide the document. More commonly you’ve been working on a document and realize its grown way too large and you need to convert one big document into a master document with sub-documents.

Master Documents make use of Word outlining feature – paragraphs with ‘Level 1’ setting (usually the Heading 1 style) become the markers for the start of a new sub-document.

Either way, to create Master document from the scratch follow these steps:

Open a new blank document or existing document. We’ll work with a blank document to save clutter in our example.

Click View | Outline

Word - Outlining ribbon for Master Documents image from Master Documents without pain at

As seen in the above image under the “Outlining” tab there are various options available to create and format the master document. In Word 2003/2002 and before you’ll see the Outlining toolbar.

At the cursor type some heading text. Word formats the text with the built-in heading style which ranges from Heading 1 to Heading 9 or it converts it to the body text format also. For a chapter heading choose the ‘Heading 1’ style and make sure the outlining level is ‘Level 1’. Press [ENTER] after typing each line of text.

In the below screen shot you can notice the format in which the text appears in the outline view. “Master 1, 3 and 6” have taken the Heading 1 / Level 1 format, “Master 2” text is appearing in Heading 2 or Level 2 format, “Master 4” is in Level 3 and finally “Master 5” is in Body Text format. All the formats appear in a hierarchical structure. This way the text appearing in the Master document can be formatted.

At this stage we’re most interested in the Level 1 headings, these are the ones that determine the sub-document structure.

Word - Master document structure with outline levels image from Master Documents without pain at

The styles for text can be changed using the Promote and Demote buttons below the “Outlining” tab. Promote increases the heading level (towards Level 1) and Demote option decreases the heading level (towards Level 9).

As shown in the below screen shot some more options are available to format the headings. By moving the cursor over these buttons the options available for each of these buttons are displayed helping the user to understand its usage. There are options available to Move the headings above or below in a list, to collapse or expand and item and promote or demote the body text.

Word - Promote and Demote levels for outlining and master documents image from Master Documents without pain at

Type up a rough outline of the entire document with the Level 1 (the ‘top’ headings) that will become the sub-documents. Usually the Level 1 headings will be the Chapter headings or equivalent.Master Master 2

Once you have the basic outline of the whole document you can create the master document and all the sub-documents. Don’t worry you can add or change the structure later.

Click on ‘Show Document’ in the Outlining pane, Master Document chunk. This displays all the master document options – Create, Insert, Unlink, Merge, Split and Lock Document.

For the moment select the entire document (or the parts you want to make into sub-documents and click on Create – this will separate the master document into sub-documents as shown by the boxes and little document icon on the left. The separation is done according to the Level 1 headings with any content ‘below’ that level placed in a separate document.

Word 2007 - Master document simple structure after Create image from Master Documents without pain at

Anything not inside a box is stored in the master document and not a sub-document. You can use this for the Introduction, Table of Contents etc.

If the structure isn’t the way you want, change it. In particular make sure that the sub-headings are under the correct Level 1 heading and inside the sub-document as shown by the black box.

Save the master document, this will also create the linked sub-documents in the same folder using the Level 1 heading for the sub-document names. Here’s a folder view of a structure with a master document called ‘Eateries’ and the Level 1 headings (Restaurants, Café, Food Stall) as sub-documents.

Word 2007 - Master document before saving sub-documents image from Master Documents without pain at

Word 2007 - Master document and sub-documents saved automatically image from Master Documents without pain at

Convert an existing document

Another way to create a Master document is to convert an existing document to master document. To do this follow these steps:

  • Open an existing document
  • Click View | Outline
  • Once in the Outline view the contents in the document can be formatted in the same way as done while creating a new master document. Make sure the chapters are Level 1 headings etc.
  • Use the Master Documents | Create button to separate into sub-documents. Check that the sub-documents contain all the text they should.
  • You can collapse the text and sub-headings in Outline view so you can see the major headings and sub-document separation easily.
  • After making changes to the Heading and body text the file can be saved in the same location or, more wisely, in a new location by clicking the Office button | Save As option.
  • Once the file is saved exit the Outline view by clicking Outlining | Close Outline View button

Add Subdocuments to the Master document

Existing Word files can be added to an existing master document.

Open an existing Master document or create a new master document.

Put your cursor at the place in the master document where you want to insert the sub-document.

In the Outlining ribbon choose ‘Show Document’ then ‘Insert’ and choose the existing Word document that you want to include in the master document.