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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:

Christine Madsen    10 May 2016, 18:23
I'm looking for something that will help me split a master document into subdocuments, so they can be parceled out. Any ideas? I have things mostly worked out but having trouble moving between files, trying to return to the master file after I have plucked a bit of text from it to create a subdocument.
Don    25 Aug 2014, 08:49
I used sub-documents years (and years) ago when I had a team of people developing a single document. The situation was much like you described.

Another use of master/sub documents is if there is a series of documents that need the same section(s).

For example, we're writing documentation for a set of processes, some with common tasks. We put the common tasks into sub-documents then include them in the process-level documents.

One of the advantages of using subs and masters this way is that when a task changes we only need to edit one document before re-publishing.

One more thing: When we started discussing using master and sub documents some people thought it was too complex, so we re-named them for what they represented. We now have Process Documents and Task Documents, each with their own template.

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