Using Word to Write your Thesis: Creating a Master Document

Wow – your thesis is really coming along. First, you created an outline to help you organize your chapters. Second, you made a Table of Contents and learned how to insert captions and how to cross-reference within the document.

Now it’s time to combine your chapters into a single master document, so that you can either work on the whole thesis at once or concentrate on individual chapters.

Separate or together?

When putting together a thesis, it is useful to keep the chapters in separate documents because it keeps the files smaller (which means they will open and close faster). You also won’t have to scroll through pages and pages of introduction when you only want to make a slight amendment to a method! And you can work on each of the chapters separately, or have them all open together in the same document depending on what you need to do.

But eventually, you will have to put it all together. Once you have linked all your chapters to the document, you can then start adding in the small bits and pieces such as the cover page, the list of abbreviations, etc. within the master document.

Beware: Once you have linked files to the master document, you can’t change the file’s name or the file’s location or the master document won’t be able to find it! I stored all my thesis files in a folder in my dropbox account – this saved me having to update backup copies every other week and meant I wasn’t moving the documents around.

Also note: Make sure you have an up-to-date backup of the individual files, as sometimes creating the master document can go a bit wrong and you might loose a chapter or two.

To create the master document:

1.  Open a new word file

2. Go to the Outlining tool

3. In the master document options, select “Show document

word for thesis p3 fig 1

This will create the option to “Create” or “Insert” files in to the master document.

word for thesis p3 fig 2

4.  Click on “Insert” and add in your chapter files, which will appear as file path links with the normal format (depending on where you saved them) “C:\Users\…” followed by the name of the computer you’re saving on, the location, the folder etc.

5.  As with headings in the “Outline view” you can drag these around using the grey circle next to them until everything is in the right order.

6.  Hit “Expand Subdocuments” to get a look at the content of the chapters rather than just the file paths. This gives you a look at the thesis as a whole and a chance to update your table of contents, list of figures etc.

word for thesis p3 fig 3

Master documents can be a little tricky and take some playing around with to get the hang of – before you get started setting up your thesis master document, try linking a few smaller files together and get used to manipulating them in Word.

Don’t forget to update your Table of Contents, List of Figures and List of Tables when you create your master document.

Once you have your final thesis ready to go, you can expand your subdocuments, save the entire file as a PDF (to stop things moving about) and print!

Come back for the last article in this series in which I give hints and tricks to using Word for writing.


**Note:  All screenshots taken from Word for  Windows, 2013.



  1. MichaelAdamat on November 1, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    Be very careful with Dropbox or similar online storage systems. These are technically no backups. The reason is simple: The moment you do a change on the folder which has been linked to the Dropbox, it will be propagated to the Dropboxsystem. So if you manage to produce a corrupt version of one of your thesis files, this will be in your online storage before you will be able to prevent it and replace your last working version there. I have seen dramas here…

    To avoid this, create an independent backup (not something you work on) which is on a USB stick, or a different folder which syncs with Dropbox. This way you are relatively safe of this work errors. It is more work by hand though, but you have to know how much your thesis means to you.

    • Abdullah on February 12, 2017 at 3:43 am

      This is not true anymore. Dropbox has file version history that goes back to 30 days where you can recover an uncorrupted version .

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