I have never understood why anyone would choose not to combine all the files for a project into a single document rather than copyedit each one separately.
Before you all write to tell me why, let me agree that there are some reasonable exceptions, such as when (1) a file such as a table or a bibliography is completely different from the main text; (2) some of the files will be shared and others won’t; (3) your designer or typesetter requires it; (4) combining them would create a file so large that it would cause technical difficulties.*
The excuse I hear most often, however, is that if something disastrous happens, it’s better for the damage to be confined to a single file. I always wonder what could possibly happen that would be this horrible, and I conclude that the fear must be rooted in old technology—perhaps from the time when it wasn’t possible to undo more than the most recent action. Unless you’re frequently asleep at the wheel, or fail to back up your work at reasonable intervals, your file is safe enough.
Editing ten separate documents means repeating the same cleanup routine ten times, for starters. It would be like running the dishwasher one dish at a time. And it slows the editing, which normally depends heavily on searching and replacing. Yes, you can search across separate files—but making the needed replacements is much more efficient within a single document. In fact, when searching for inconsistencies in multiple files is cumbersome, you find yourself doing a lot less of it.
And that’s not good editing.
Combining files in Microsoft Word is easy using the Insert → File function; if you use key commands instead of mousing up to the menu, you can combine ten files in less than a minute. The only startup cost I can think of is in learning to manage section breaks (which you might not even need), because they affect pagination, running heads, and the numbering of notes. So read about breaks before combining files, but don’t worry about them; these things are not difficult to fix.**
One of the funny eccentric-author stories in my office lore involves someone who submitted his book manuscript in more than 350 separate Word files. (It’s true—I was there.) At the bottom of every page he had started a new one. Ridiculous, you’re thinking—but I expect the editor who was assigned that project combined them into ten or twenty files herself.
*I’ll grant a temporary pass for (4) while you address those technical difficulties, perhaps by upgrading your computer’s memory or obtaining access to an FTP site that can handle large files. No passes for (3), however; it’s still more efficient to combine the files and break them apart when you’re finished.
**When I first combine the files, I insert a manual page break rather than a section break before the next incoming file. If notes or running heads are involved, when I’m finished combining I set up the document’s layout (page numbering, notes numbering, running heads), and only then put section breaks between files. After that, any adjustments to running heads and page numbers will apply only to the section your cursor is in. For note numbers, you can specify “whole document” when you make changes.
Bonus Tip 1: Section breaks carry information with them about running heads, etc., so copying and pasting them can save you work if you’re savvy, and cost you work if you aren’t.
Bonus Tip 2: Before you start editing, check that all the files are there. (Yes, I learned that the hard way.)