Writing a Book in MS Word

So You Want to Write a Book with MS Word

If you intend to assemble and manipulate large amounts of text in Word and would like to minimize the time you spend fighting Word, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of how Word works.

If you are hoping for an easy template for a book, you should realize that there is no such single item. There are as many potential templates as there are books. However, if you format your text according to the structure of your book, following the principles introduced and linked here, you can plug the same text into any template to control the visual appearance, and reformat and reorganize your entire book very quickly.

This webpage will also point you toward how to set up Word to write a book, a dissertation, or other long document projects that require multiple chapters. If you follow the principles introduced in this article, Word will automatically update all those things that change as you edit. For instance, it will create a table of contents and update the page numbers as you shuffle chapters, and will re-number your figures and fix the cross-references when you add another figure.

The title of this article refers to “books,” but these are principles that apply to many types of long documents. Word has been known to handle 10,000 pages in a single file, and these approaches probably start being extremely useful at about 30 pages. This article is designed to redirect you to some of the most useful pages on the web that elucidate the necessary concepts in detail, although there is also a fair amount of introductory overview on this page. This page is also designed as a gateway so that you only have to bookmark or share one link that will direct you to many useful references.

This one article answers ninety percent of the most common questions relating to books and theses, so if you are looking for a quick fix, start there. You could also try these Step by Step Instructions from a Professional Writer, which will point you toward some of the most fundamental concepts—it's a rather more efficient but also more elliptical introduction to the process than this page. Otherwise, this compilation of links assumes that you are interested in learning how to control Word, and attempts to get you started on that task.

Although each version of Word has different features, these are general principles that apply to all versions since Word 97, including versions for the Macintosh. Note: The next versions of Word after WinWord 2003/MacWord 2004 will incorporate a new file format, XML. XML should make long document writing easier, but it is not yet clear how or whether XML will change Word. These principles should still apply, however.

Is This the Right Article for You?

If you are actually hoping to print a bunch of pages that you can fold in half and staple into a booklet, see here: WinWord;MacWord. These principles may not be necessary for you, although they should be useful if your booklet has a lot of text.

If your book is going to have multiple graphics on every page and will resemble a coffee-table book more than a novel, you may want to consider page layout software, programs that will give you more control over graphic placement than Word does and will let you flow text around images. For Windows, try Microsoft's Publisher; on a Mac, try Apple's Pages. The more powerful incarnations of such features are found in Adobe InDesign or Quark Xpress, both offering 30-day trials.



General Principles

Basic Techniques

Special Cases

More Information


Authors generally write one chapter at a time, so that each chapter takes life as a separate entity. However, it’s tricky to print sequentially numbered pages, create a table of contents, or use cross-references when each chapter is a separate file. Word promises to make combining chapters easy with the Master Document feature, but this is likely to corrupt your documents and you are advised to avoid it.

Instead, you will generally be best off if you combine your entire document into one file and format it consistently. To do this, the most fundamental concepts you need to understand are Styles, Templates, and Sections. Section breaks between your chapters will let you mimic many of the things that you thought you needed separate files to do. Styles and templates help you enforce consistency while minimizing the work you have to do.

Styles are about structure. Working so extensively with Word demands that you learn to think a little bit like Word thinks. There are two facets to writing a book in Word.  In the manuscript phase, you write and collect all the text that is part of the book. In the formatting phase, you decide what the book will look like. These are very different actions. In the first phase, you need to format the text according to the structure of the book, not according to what you want it to look like. You don’t tell Word that you want the text under the picture to be centered and bold, you tell Word that this piece of text is a caption, by applying the Caption style. In the second phase, you tell Word what you want a caption to look like, by defining the Caption style. As long as the book is formatted according to the role each piece of text plays, it is very easy to change your mind about what you want a caption, or a heading, or a footnote, to look like. Formatting according to structure allows you to implement the final touches very easily. When the thesis czars demand 12pt footnotes, not 10pt, it only takes you a few seconds to change the Footnote style to 12pt. When the publisher asks you to use underline instead of italics, it only takes you a few seconds to change the Emphasis style.

Templates hold sets of style definitions. Templates also hold layout instructions, such as margin size and the location of page numbers. As long as all of the text is formatted according to structure, you can simply change the template you are using and redo the look of your entire manuscript in just a few seconds. If you want to use one font for print and another for the web, you simply insert the same text into a Print Template and a Web Template, and voilà, all the appearance changes are made for you.

You should realize that Word is designed for user customization and if you are writing or editing long documents, it will definitely be worth the trouble to add your own keyboard shortcuts, create your own toolbars, and record the occasional macro. This page does not emphasize such tricks, but there is a section at the end to get you started customizing Word. This page also finishes off with links to additional resources. In particular, an article titled “Bend Word to Your Will” may be useful, as it is an even more extensive compilation of tips on using and customizing Word, many of them addressed to people who are doing long documents. Also realize that there are usually multiple ways to accomplish the same task in Word.

If you are already well into the writing process, it is not too late to apply these suggestions. In fact, it’s easier to understand how styles and templates work if you already have a lot of text you can play around with, and it’s easier to design a template when you have a rough sense of the structure of your document. Just do a Save As… TestFileName to protect your work in progress, and experiment to your heart’s content. Experimentation is often the best way to learn to control Word.

If you choose not to combine the chapters, you can and should still use most of these techniques. Basing each chapter on the same custom template and using styles will still be the best way to achieve consistent formatting. Word offers slightly more complex features that enable you to manage sequential page numbering and tables of contents, etc., across multiple files. Those tips are not so well documented, but you will find a few links below.

This article is divided into a number of subsections. As the linked articles were usually written to answer specific questions, not designed to walk someone through the process of writing a book, you may find repetition, and you may find indirect answers that require you to apply what you learn and your understanding of Word to your particular situation.

Mac users: articles written based on WinWord usually hold true for MacWord, but keyboard shortcuts often need to be translated; for references to Tools>Options, substitute Word>Preferences. Many of these links (any at http://word.mvps.org) will require you to hit refresh several times if you try to access them with Safari.

If you are familiar with web design, using styles in Word instead of directly applied formatting is very similiar to using CSS, and is based on the same principle of separating content from presentation. Cascading styles in Word, however, refers to the ability for a style to be based on a different style and to inherit most of its properties from that style. Templates in Word are not nearly as powerful as templates in a program such as Dreamweaver or GoLive—once the document has been created the link with the template is broken, and you can no longer update layout or text elements, as you can with web templates. You can still use the Word template to change style definitions, however, rather like a CSS stylesheet, but you have to consciously enable it.

General Principles

How Word Thinks

This article has a brief discussion of how Word understands the composition of a document, which is very different from the way you might understand it.

You should also realize that Word doesn’t think in terms of pages.  A somewhat more extended and less technical discussion of what that means may be found here.

Though I know it may be hard to believe, the Help system can often be extremely helpful. There is a lot of information in the Help topics. It's often tricky to find the right topic, so you might have to try a few guesses, but Help pleasantly surprises me more often than not.

Working Efficiently

Word is supposedly set up to "help" the novice user. For anyone writing a book, you want to turn off most of Word's "helpful" features. In general, taking control of Word requires overriding many of its defaults.

Setting Up Word

Word has a number of features that let you quickly enter repetitive material, whether that material consists of plain text abbreviations for long words, accented or formatted text, tables, graphics, or fields.

Exploiting AutoCorrect

Using AutoText

When you are in composition mode, try to keep your hands on the keyboard as much as possible. This might mean you leave layout and some formatting for the editing process, rather than the composing process.

Useful Keyboard Shortcuts

Creating a Keyboard Shortcut

Keeping Your Long Document Fast

Word is a memory hog, and can slow down when working on very long documents. You will be happiest with plenty of RAM, or memory (and of course plenty of free hard drive space). In addition:

  • Use styles conscientiously. Keeping track of style tags imposes less load on Word than keeping track of an infinitude of direct formatting.
  • Work in Normal view as much as possible; turn off background repagination if you can bear it (Tools>Options>General), but note that it will be turned on again automatically if you shift to Print Layout view.
  • Images, tables, graphics, and equations will all slow down your document, but see below for tips on those.

Keeping Your Long Document Uncorrupted

Again, styles reduce the possibility of corruption by giving Word less to keep track of. Here is an article discussing other causes of corruption.

Realize that Word does not have an AutoSave feature, only an AutoRecover in case of crashes. You can, however, set Word to automatically create backups, which will keep a copy of the last saved version of the file. In Tools>Options>Save, check the box for “always create backup copy”.

You should also try to train your fingers to hit Ctrl-S to save whenever they are not busy. My personal preference is to do a File>Save As FileName# at the beginning of every major editing session, whether I’m editing for textual content or for format. Avoid using Word’s Version feature, as it has been linked to corruption.

You should also set up a good backup strategy.

If your document does become corrupted, see these links:

Section breaks hold a great deal of information about the document, and can sometimes corrupt. Many experts will advise you toavoid section breaks. As long as these are used for good reason (beginning a chapter with "different first page” header/footer, a change in page orientation or number of columns), they should be acceptable. You can use StyleRef fields to change the text of a header/footer without section breaks, as detailed in this article.

Basic Techniques


Styles are collections of formatting instructions that let you change the formatting of large amounts of text with just a few simple steps. If you select all your text, then go up to the toolbar and change it from 10pt to 12pt, that is called direct formatting, because you have directly applied formatting to the text. An alternative is style-based formatting. Styles deal with structure, not appearance. You assign styles to text depending on the role that text plays—chapter heading, footnote, block quotation—not depending on what you want that text to look like.

You need to understand styles because Word thinks in terms of styles, and if you use direct formatting in a book, Word will fight you on every single page. You might compare it to giving a person directions in Italian when that person speaks Spanish.

An introduction to styles

Why use Word's built-in heading styles?

How to save yourself hours by using Outline View properly

Why does text change format when I copy it into another document?

How to Apply A Style

How to Modify A Style

How styles in Word cascade

What is the difference between the Normal and Body Text styles?

Default Paragraph Font Explained

One neat trick: you can use Find & Replace to easily change styles throughout a document. [Article forthcoming]


Custom templates let you set the layout you want, and can hold a set of custom styles so that Heading 1 in the Web version of your book does not look the same as Heading 1 in the print version of your book.

Creating a Template - The Basics (Part I)

Creating a Template (Part II)

If you start by creating a custom template for your book, you will invariably find that you keep changing the style definitions and what the layout looks like. It’s very easy to switch templates by using Insert>File to insert the book into a new doc based on a different template, or to attach a different template through Tools>Templates and Add-ins. If you attach a template, all it will do is update the styles. If you have changed layout elements such as margins, or text in the header/footer, you need to use Insert>File. Insert>File has the additional benefit of creating another backup.

What Happens When You Attach a Template


As said above, section breaks between your chapters let you mimic many of the things that you thought you needed separate files to accomplish. You can have different headers and footers, you can restart page numbering, you can restart footnote numbering, etc. However, if possible, you should avoid section breaks. The more section breaks a document has, the more complex it is, and the more chances for corruption.

Making the most of headers and footers

How to set up a document with front matter numbered separately

Working with sections

How is it possible to copy an entire document into another document without bringing across the header and footer?

Where section breaks are necessary, it may be easier to leave adding them until the end. If you know what you want as the end result, you can take advantage of the fact that Word links sections by default, but once you have unlinked the headers and footers, you may find you need to repeat actions as you change what you want. You can use StyleRef fields to change the text of a header/footer without section breaks, as detailed toward the end of this article.

More Useful StyleRef Tricks

Understanding Your Document

With long documents, it is especially important to know what is going on behind the scenes. If you don’t take advantage of all the ways that Word offers to see the structure of your document, you will cripple your ability to manipulate Word and control your document.

The most important of these tools, the Style Width area and nonprinting characters, are introduced here.

What do all those funny marks, like the dots between the words in my document, and the square bullets in the left margin, mean?

How the Styles and Formatting Pane Works

Navigating Your Document

How to save yourself hours by using Outline View properly. Actually, you can do a lot more with Outline View than just navigate—you can rearrange entire sections. Be sure to read this article.

How the Document Map works in Microsoft Word

Document Map Glitches and Fixes

You can also use the Browse Object to easily navigate to specific items in your document.

I Want My Document to Look Perfect!

One thing that might help is to remember the separation between the composing/editing and the formatting process. You don’t really need to worry about what the book will look like until someone else is going to see it, and even then, you might want to ignore formatting, for various reasons. Until then, use the format that works best for your comfort as you type and edit the text.

If your book has a lot of graphics or tables, however, you do want to think about the layout in advance. There are some questions to consider in Layout Planning: Advice from a Professional Typesetter.

Typographical Tips from Microsoft Publisher

Improving the Bottom Line: Toward a more uniform page length

Creating a book, as opposed to writing a manuscript, is as much an artistic endeavor as a technical one. Consistent use of styles and templates build the foundation for a manuscript you can work with easily, but the formatting layered on top of that can be as unique and individual as the book itself.  If the publisher has not laid down rules, and you are designing the appearance of the book yourself, you might start by browsing the appropriate section of a library or bookstore, the section where you want to see your book. When you find books you find visually appealing, copy the title page and table of contents, and make some notes to use for inspiration.

Special Cases


Are you using outline numbering in your book? For example: Chapter 3 has a section 3.1 then a subsection 3.1.1. You need to set up outline numbering. Numbering in Word can be extremely complicated, but follow these directions for an unbreakable system.

Create Numbered Headings

Number Headings and Figures in Appendixes

If all you want is a chapter number in the header and table of contents, see here.

Word's Numbering Explained

Page Numbering in Word

Tables of Contents, Index, and Glossary

If you use Word properly, it will create a table of contents for you, and update the numbers as the text changes.

How to create a table of contents in Microsoft Word

TOC Tips and Tricks—make your table of contents do exactly what you want

Customizing your table of contents with switches

How can I include just part of a paragraph in my table of contents?

Whenever I update my Table of Contents it acquires unwanted tabs, and I have to press Ctrl+Q to get rid of them

Creating a Table of Contents Spanning Multiple Documents

Creating an Index in Word

How can I automatically generate an index in Word?

How to create a glossary

If Your Document Has Tables or Graphics (Equations, Figures, Images)

The Insert>Caption feature will automatically number and renumber images, tables, equations for you, and let you set cross-references to the captions, which will also update to match changed numbers.  You can use a custom label, such as Exhibit, if you prefer. If you want Word to include the chapter number with the figure number, however, you must set up outline numbering.

Tables and Images can slow down your document. Link graphics as much as possible and don't display them except when absolutely necessary. On the View tab of Tools>Options, check the box for "Picture placeholders" and clear the box for "Drawings." This will suppress the display of all graphics, so that Word does not waste energy displaying them when you are editing the main text.

Avoid long tables, especially single-row tables. If you must have long tables, find ways to split them: for example, let subheads be in text paragraphs outside the table. In addition, the Document Map will not see headings that are inside a table. Individual tables can also become corrupted.

Table Basics

How can I create a landscape section—and still have a portrait page number?

The draw layer: a metaphysical space (and how to bring it back down to earth)

There are many more articles on the Word MVP FAQ site, well worth browsing—a whole page of links for Drawing/Graphics and another page for Tables, Fields, Forms.

If you are using equations, you might want to consider MathType, the big brother to the built-in Equation Editor. The makers of MathType provide Equation Editor to Microsoft for use in Word.  If you download the trial version but do not purchase it, MathType will automatically convert to MathType Lite after thirty days.  Even MathType Lite has a few more features than Equation Editor, and MathType Lite is cross-platform, while Equation Editor is not.

References and Bibliography, Etc.

This article gives a general overview of academic citations in Word and answers several questions, including how to put an appendix after your endnotes, what to do when random lines appear, and how to create endnotes in alphabetical order, yet still have them autonumbered by Word.

Why do my footnotes sometimes end up on a different page from their references in the text?

I want the numbers in my footnotes not to be superscripted, and I want the numbers to be followed by a dot and a tab

Dealing with Other People: Reviewers, Multiple Authors, Printers

If other people are reading your work, and they intend to use Word's Track Changes feature to edit and respond to it, be sure to read this link so that you know how Track Changes works. You might need to send it to the reviewer too.

If you are coordinating multiple authors, you may choose not to worry about all of this (styles, templates, sections) until the book has finished the editing process. At that point, go through and reformat it. The tedious drudgery of reformatting is likely to be far less frustrating than attempting to force multiple collaborators to follow these suggestions. See Understanding Your Documentfor some tips to make the process easier, as well as Customizing Word. Also see this more detailed Advice from a Professional on coordinating multiple authors and dealing with multiple levels of review.

One exception: you may want to use templates to share macros and custom toolbars with collaborators.

If you are sending camera-ready copy to a professional printer, see here for a procedure to create crop marks.

If You Choose Not to Combine the Chapters

Creating a Table of Contents Spanning Multiple Documents

See the “Number Pages Across Files” section here.

IncludeText Fields can partially substitute for the Master Document feature.

Steve Hudson (aka Word Heretic) on how to make Master Documents work safely

Master Documents

Why Master Documents corrupt

How to recover a Master Document

With care, long document professionals who are expert in their use of Word manage to use Master Documents safely, particularly in more recent versions. Here are some instructions.

Steve Hudson (aka Word Heretic) on how to make Master Documents work safely

More Information

Customizing Word

The Word MVP FAQ site has an entire section on Customizing Word, but these three articles are the most frequently useful.

How to assign a command or a macro to a toolbar

How to assign a command or a macro to a keyboard shortcut

Creating a macro with no programming experience using the recorder

Don't forget about the Tools>Customize dialog—there are far more predefined commands in that dialog than there are on the menus or common toolbars, and you can set up Word to access them quickly.

Additional Resources

Check out the Word MVP FAQ site, of course, but it almost has too much information to easily find what you need. (What's an MVP?) Here are some sites that are likely to be most useful with reference to long documents:

The Editorium is directed toward those who edit, write, or typeset in MS Word, and its free newsletter has a wealth of useful tips. You can read the current and back issues online.

MVP Suzanne S. Barnhill’s site (author of many of the articles linked above, she also provided much of the advice in the text).

MVP Shauna Kelly’s site (author of many of the articles linked above).

MVP Stephanie Krieger's blog concentrates on long and complex documents.

MVP Margaret Aldis has some articles that may be useful.

MVP Clive Huggan’s “Bend Word to Your Will” is a massive, dictionary-style compilation of tips and tricks for using Word, written especially with reference to MacWord.

Microsoft also provides training on their Office Online site. In particular, users of Office 2003 can take online tutorials, including some on headers and footers, and Tables of Contents.

If You Still Have Questions

This article is not designed to answer all questions, but merely to provide a convenient access point for existing webpages that are useful for long documents. If you still have questions or run into specific problems, you can ask on a newsgroup. If you have never heard of newsgroups, start with this article, which also explains the different ways you can access various newsgroups.

Tips from MVPs on posting to Word newsgroups

Google Groups archives the questions and answers on newsgroups, as well as offering access to most newsgroups. You can click here to search the archives of the Word-dedicated newsgroups hosted by Microsoft, mostly with reference to Windows versions.

If you want to use Microsoft’s Web interface to the newsgroups they host, start here for Word and other products within Office. This interface requires a Passport account to post, but you can search on that link without signing in.

Mac Users: there are Mac-specific newsgroups, although Mac-specific answers are not required for most long document questions. If you have problems with any of the linked articles, you can ask in those newsgroups to confirm whether the articles should hold true on the Mac, and for translation to Mac-speak if necessary. Again, when you see a references to Tools>Options, substitute Word>Preferences. Many of these links (any at http://word.mvps.org) will require you to hit refresh several times if you try to access them with Safari.