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Understanding Master and Subdocuments

Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Word versions: 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. If you are using a later version (Word 2007 or later), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for later versions of Word, click here: Understanding Master and Subdocuments.

You may not have heard about master and subdocuments in Word before. They are a feature that has been available for some time, but are not widely used by many people. They are used as a way to develop smaller documents and then combine them together into a larger document. The classic example is chapters in a book. Each chapter might be in its own document, but can be combined together, using a master document, into a larger whole that represents the entire book.

Perhaps it is best to view a master document as a container. You can put information directly within the container, but you can also put other containers within the container. These containers, in turn, contain other information. A master document is nothing but a container for text and graphics (like a regular document), but also pointers to individual documents called subdocuments. When you are working with the master document, it appears to contain all the information within the subdocuments, even though the subdocuments are individual files.

There are several advantages to working with master and subdocuments:

  • Individuals or groups can work on the subdocuments, while someone else works on organizing the subdocuments within the master document.
  • You can work on multiple documents within their final context, as determined by the master document.
  • You can create indexes, tables of contents, and other lists based on the contents of multiple files.
  • You can create cross-references between the subdocuments.
  • Printing an entire complex document is easier because you simply need to print the master.

Even though there are advantages to working with master and subdocuments, there are also drawbacks. This is to be expected, since managing documents in this manner adds another layer of technological complexity to your documents. Any time this happens, it seems there is always a greater chance of things "getting messed up." This is the first and potentially most serious drawback—that you could end up messing up your document because of the increased complexity.

Another drawback is that it is harder to move the documents to a different location. With regular documents, you can simply move or copy them to a different location. With master and subdocuments you need to go through a specific process, as described in another tip.

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (221) applies to Microsoft Word 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. You can find a version of this tip for the ribbon interface of Word (Word 2007 and later) here: Understanding Master and Subdocuments.

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Comments for this tip:

csr    29 Jul 2012, 06:11
Sub and Master Documents are a VERY powerful way of creating and maintaining a "host/lots" of documents which may be necessary/useful in creating a Manual or other compendium of documents.

One tip/idea is to implement the following:
The relationship of the Master document (container as described above) and the Sub documents (chapters as described above) is by "LINKS"

There are 2 types of link:
a) absolute and
b) relative

The first is a specific address at which the linked (chapter) document can be found on a destination hard drive

The second is a relationship between where the Master is located and the subdocuments (like a tree structure - up one branch and down one branch)

Relative links are more complex because of the need to known the exact location and relative folders in which both documents are stored and maintaining that relative relationship

Absolute links are easier in that it is simple to know where the Sub Documemnt may be stored. Consistency of always placing a sub document in that area will always mean that it can be accessed by the Master

There may be easier ways of maintaining knowledge of structure but anyone can compose/edit a document and move it to the folder destination which the Master will then access

If it is known that a sub document is intended and will have a file description specific to it, such item can be worked on anywhere and then moved to the Sub document folder (maintaining the file name).

If a Master document is created in advance, it is easy to put "ghosts" or documents with the appropriate name but with no content except perhaps "File under construction" and the Master can then access that file with all other files until the file can be moved to the sub document folder

Once a document is moved to this location it is easy to take a copy, edit it somewhere else and copy over the original - so maintaining consistency. Such documents should contain some information as to date of creation/last edit with author or editor so that it is possible to know whether the file is up to date

The above releases the USer from knowing anything about Master and Sub documents and leads to ability to have control approval of what appears in the master document

In any event, as a default in all cases, the folder location of the Master and the Sub documents should be always known and maintained. The sub document folder should be at a specific level from the root as should the Master. If so maintained possibilites exist to extend to making relative references - but once the locations are determined they should not be moved except if moving to another location to the exact level from root in that other location (e.g. to another drive)
Sohan Jain    07 Jan 2012, 21:11
This was very helpful, particularly, because recently I merged several documents into one file using "create as a link". I am having some issues: When I click anywhere on a sub-document, the background of the sub-document turns gray, which is very irritating to modify the subdocument.

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