We are looking for software that will allow us to easily create and maintain service manuals for the machines that we manufacture. We have about 25 machines, and have been using Microsoft Word up until now, but it is extremely difficult and time consuming to maintain 25 service manuals that share at least 75% of text and images. When we make a change to one, we have to open the other 24 and make the same change.

We need something that allows us to use some sort of "shared" text and images that are inserted into placeholders in the manuals, so that we can change that shared source and it will update to all of the manuals, without messing up the format. Page numbers and index should auto update as well.

There should also be an area where all manuals are organized for easy access, maybe with revision saving and dates.

Windows is the preferred platform, but I am open to others as well.

  • Must the resulting document be in Word format – or would you be fine with others as well, e.g. PDF? Are the "common parts" copied without any adjustments (apart from maybe automatically generated chapter numbers and footnotes)? Would you be fine with a different input format, such as Markdown or HTML (at least as long as there are GUI editors for it)? I'd have an approach in mind which I could easily outline for Markdown -> PDF on Linux (which will probably work as well on Windows, which I cannot test). – Izzy Jun 9 '17 at 15:51
  • PDF is good too but the editor must be a regular text editor - the users aren't technical enough for anything else. – jrose Jun 15 '17 at 14:24
  • OK, then maybe something like Master Document might fit: A "master document" basically is a "wrapper" around multiple separate documents. So you have your users edit the "sections" in separate documents, and use master documents to stick them together. From there, you can then export to e.g. PDF, HTML or whatever you need and is supported (AFAIR you could even create EPUB ebooks that way). – Izzy Jun 15 '17 at 19:38

One option to look at is Sphinx which can output multiple formats of documentation.


  • Text is stored as reStructured text which is plain text so easily version controlled.
  • Free, Gratis & Open Source
  • Cross platform (written in python)
  • Output formats: HTML (including Windows HTML Help), LaTeX (for printable PDF versions), ePub, Texinfo, man pages, plain text.
  • Extensive indexing, cross references, etc.
  • Hierarchical structure: easy definition of a document tree, with automatic links to siblings, parents and children
  • Embed images & diagrams in a number of formats, (SVG being the best for this sort of thing), from external files.
  • Several good looking themes or define your own.
  • If changes in desired look can be implemented by a theme change and then regenerating the desired document(s).
  • Some example sites:
  • Also, a lot of things can be accomplished with reStructuredText alone, without Sphinx. – Kodiologist Jun 11 '17 at 0:59

MS Word will already do this for you. I can confirm that I just tested the answer to this question, and it works.

Go to the Insert tab, then click on Object (it is in the text sub-category over near the far right). You will then see the following screenshot:

enter image description here

Browse to the file, and check the "Link to file" box. You can either update the source file (I would do this to avoid confusion), or if you are in the destination file, when you try to edit it, it actually opens the file within the file. Hard to explain, but you will get it when you see it.

I created a docuemtnA.docx, inserted some text. Then created B.docx, gave it some text and, in the middle, I followed the instructions given above to insert a linkt to A.docx. I then updated A.docx and the contents of B.doxc reflected the change, with no action on my part.

This works for MS Word 2010. The same functionality will be there for other versions, but might need different menus to achieve.

Congratulations! You are now the hero of your department :-)

  • 1
    I'm looking into this, will come back and update on results. – jrose Jun 16 '17 at 23:17
  • Please do (+1), because your conformation could help others in future, just as I have helped you - and that's what stack exchange is all about :-) – Mawg says reinstate Monica Jun 17 '17 at 7:53
  • 1
    This worked as you said, but the index (a.k.a table of contents) does not include anything from the external word documents. – jrose Jun 21 '17 at 12:24
  • That is both surprising and disappointing; I can certainly see how it would be a problem. Alas, I can't help. You could try asking on superuser.com or an MS Office forum. If you get it working, could you please post here to help others in future. – Mawg says reinstate Monica Jun 21 '17 at 14:29

LaTeX is a good fit for this. It allows documents to include other documents, and it allows you to write macros to factor out other kinds of repetitive elements. It's generally much less pleasant to work with than Sphinx (TeX was already really showing its age 10 years ago), but it will allow you do to all kinds of fancy things for print typesetting if you have the patience for it, which will be useful if the manuals are intended to be printed and to look pretty in print.

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