Word 2007 for Writers: Part 3 – Master Documents and Outlines

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10 Responses

  1. Anne says:

    Very useful – much better than Microsoft’s own Web site!

  2. PeteB says:

    Hi Dustin,
    Have you ran into all the problems people report with Master Documents in Word? See links. I have plenty of problems with multi-level outline numbering and when I try to combine that with Master documents is gets worse.

    Not sure if this link will come through…

    Some text from it:

    The master document feature has been broken in *every* version of Word
    since the feature was first introduced. In short, using the feature almost
    inevitably results in all or part of the document becoming hopelessly
    corrupted. Many could benefit from a trustworthy master document feature. My
    reading is that the OP needs the feature and wishes for a version of Word in
    which it works reliably.

    Because of the new file format, I had high hopes for master documents in
    Word 2007. Unfortunately, the last time I checked (SP1), the feature was
    still broken (i.e., still spontaneously corrupting documents). I have not
    ventured into master documents in Word 2007 SP2, but I’ve read nothing that
    suggests it was one of the fixes.

    For more on why master documents should be avoided by people who value their
    documents, see:


    John McGhie also points to an article describing a “safe” way to use master documents. IMO, the rules that need to be followed to avoid corruption are very difficult to enforce when working with a group of authors, and not all that easy to follow when working alone. In any case, master documents need to be made unbreakable and robust before they can be used with reliability and confidence.

  3. Dan Davis says:

    I’m showing my age here, but I remember when master documents DID work, and it was in Word 5.0. Yes, the DOS version of Word! This was back before some #$!$%$%$^ at Microsoft decided to do away with style sheets and go to the mess we know today as “templates.” Style sheets worked because they were a simple but powerful tagging system for formatting content. Back then, master / sub documents were even portable, because, if the master and subs were all in a single folder, the master didn’t include path information in the sub doc references. The mess Microsoft has made of what should be a simple referencing paradigm is outrageous. Word has gone backward with nearing every release since then in terms of its usefulness for professional writers.

  4. Dan Arl says:

    Thanks for the effort, but you discuss functionality without detailing the theory. Why would I outline sections instead of complete documents? Give examples. This still requires trial and error on the part of the reader.

    You no doubt understand the subject you’re discussing, but you don’t thoroughly explain the details a new user will need.

  5. Dustin Wax says:

    Dan: I don’t use Master Documents regularly, but here’s one case where they are useful — many publishers want chapters as separate documents, but single documents are easier for many writers to work with. Or for people who prefer to work in small chunks — maybe you are writing different sections on different computers — Master Documents provides a way to meld them together into a final product. (Same for working with other authors.)

    I’ve actually found a plugin that I’m testing that offers much more flexibility than Master Documents but does kind of the same thing, which I’ll be posting about soon, once I’ve determined that it works well. But both this new plugin and Master Documents provide a way to outline a large document and drill down into specific parts to work on at any given moment.

    Like most of what I write about here, this boils down to individual style and comfort levels — this is far and away the most popular post on the site (!!!!) so people must have some need to use Master Documents or they wouldn’t be searching for it. I don’t really work that way, but that’s more because I write mostly short pieces than because I’m just not Master Documents material…

  6. taylor says:

    I work with Caltrans Specs–we have a compiler that assembles various applicable sections into one document. Of course the source docs from Caltrans were written/edited by multiple people, many of whom have no idea how to use tab settings, let alone styles, but use them anyway. Can you see the potential for disaster? Yes, every time anyone who creates Specs for state, county or local construction jobs, we spends countless hours reformatting the EXACT SAME ISSUES, EVERY SINGLE TIME – but our bosses don’t understand what OUR problem is (I know a few admins who have dealt with Plans & Specs and they laugh hysterically-on the verge of lost sanity–over the whole thing). Besides going with Documentum, an over-priced mediocre solution – anyone out there have any ideas?

  7. I have written multiple documents with the Master and slave, I mean sub documents. I agree that it might be risky but I can’t recall having had any trouble. If I remember correctly my problems were even greater when I tried to create one huge document. However, that was back in the 98/2003 era. Not sure if the new system is better or worse.
    Anyway, this article was definitely helpful for me!

  8. Krzysztof says:

    Hi there,

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been dealing with larger documents recently in my work. To give some more feedback regarding the Master Documents and Sub-Documents, and to sum up what seemed to be the most interesting for me I did a quick summary here:

    Hope it helps someone.

  9. Andrew says:

    I’ve tried this feature, but the biggest problem is the absolute pathnames word maintains for the various components, including the links to other office files (xls and visio).
    Move the directory and it all just stops.

    As Dustin says, “and if you decide to move them halfway through the project, you’ll confuse your master document.”

    Confused is not the phase I would use.

  1. August 9, 2008

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