MS Word

Avoid Master Documents if Possible

The Problem:

When documents become too big and unwieldy to email around, we turn to using master documents and subdocuments so that team members can work simultaneously on the various parts, which can then be exchanged easily. However, it's our experience that Word master documents and subdocuments are easily subject to corruption. We often find that we have to revert to an older version, or even just start over.

The Solution:

You've hit the nail on the head. Master documents are unreliable, because they're so complex. Let's take a minute to see why.

A master document is a document that contains two or more subdocuments, or component documents. You can edit the master document as a whole or edit its subdocuments separately. The advantage of master documents is that several people can work on different subdocuments at the same time, instead of only one person being able to open the same copy of the document at a time.

These are the essentials of how a document is put together:

  • Each Word document contains many objects, from characters, words, and paragraphs to tables, graphics, equations, and more esoteric objects. Each object has properties (attributes) that control its appearance and behavior.

  • In a document, Word stores each object's properties separately from the object itself and uses pointers (references) to indicate which properties apply to which objects.

  • Word stores the properties for a section invisibly in its section break. (The section break appears at the end of the section.) If the document has only one section, Word stores the properties in the default section break, which is the final paragraph mark in the document. (This is the paragraph mark that you'll see if you start a new document and press Ctrl+Shift+8. Normally, Word won't allow you to delete the default section break, because doing so removes the formatting from the document.)

  • The properties in a single Word document are complex enough. In a master document, the complexity is greatly increased by having a default section break for each subdocument and a default section break for the master document. Word has to merge the properties for each subdocument into the master document. When this process breaks down, corruption results.

  • The master document is just a container for the subdocuments. It doesn't actually contain the text of the subdocuments.

The easiest way to escape the annoyances (or worse) of master documents is to avoid them altogether. If you decide you must use master documents, the next Annoyance, "Enable Multiple People to Edit a Document at the Same Time," explains how to do so.