Word MVP Steve Hudson
an article describing how to use master documents safely
The complete explanation would be a book in itself. For now, it is enough to know that a Word
document is a great big “list” of objects. An object can be anything you can put in a Word
document. Each of these objects has many, many “properties” that determine how it appears and how
The properties are all contained in several giant “tables” inside the file. The connection between
any given object (say, a paragraph) and its properties is made with an amazingly complex
lattice-work of “pointers”. These pointers are large binary numbers that cause Word to look at an
exact byte location in the file to see what shape, size, or colour this object should be. Most
objects have more than one pointer. Some pointers go to “collections” of properties (for example, a
“List Template” that describes all the formatting for a numbered list) and some go simply to a
single entry (for example the “language” that is just a single name).
Whenever we experience a “Word document
corruption”, what has actually happened is that the
pointer, or the entry in the table it points to, has become corrupted. The information found there
is either nonsense, or it does not apply to the object in question. For example, a paragraph is
trying to inherit page margins: a paragraph cannot have page margins, so Word gets terribly confused.
All these property tables are stored in Section Breaks. A Section Break is not just a
it is a binary container that stores several hundred properties in multiple tables. The largest
Section Break is the “Default” Section Break. You will never see one. The default Section Break
hides in the very last paragraph mark of a document. Because it is absolutely essential to the
document (without it, the file is just a stream of bytes, not a document) Word maintains the
contents itself and hides it from you and me.
The reason that Master Documents cause so much trouble is that you are asking Word to merge
together many hundreds of different settings, some of which conflict, some of which apply only to
one or a few paragraphs. A typical master document may contain 20 sub-documents. This means there
are 21 “default” Section Breaks, each containing potentially-conflicting properties. Each
subdocument also can contain multiple “user” Section Breaks. These may or may not override or
conflict with the settings in one or more of the default Section Breaks.
If a property is specified, does it apply to this document? Some of this document? Several of these
documents? And is the document that stores it open? Is it “active”? Read-only or
editable? The number of possibilities rapidly expands, geometrically, until the structure simply
becomes too complex. Word loses track of what it is trying to do. And takes a guess. The guess
overwrites something: and Bingo! You lose your master document.
When we say you “lose” your master document, this
“loss” can take many forms. You wouldn't be
reading this at all if you had not so far experienced one of the lesser forms. You can still read
“some” of your text, right? Trust me, it can get worse! The ultimate master document corruption
results in some or all of the text paragraphs disappearing. Once this happens, there is no way to
get them back: they are no longer in the file. Which can be very disconcerting if the corruption
happened several weeks ago, and because you were not looking at that part of the document, you
didn't find out about it until you came to print the whole thing, by which time you had long since
over-written your backup!
A master document has only two possible states: Corrupt, or just about to be corrupt. And
that is why we say that the only possible fix to a master document is “don't use
For information on how to recover a Master Document, please see the article
How to recover Master Documents