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Work Faster with Long Documents

InDesign has a number of great features to help make book and other long document production simpler. Besides syncing styles and master pages across documents, InDesign can automatically add blank pages to the end of a chapter when your last page lands on a recto. It can also update page, chapter and section numbers on the fly. This not only saves time, it can save you from embarrassing mistakes. You can enable these features in the Book Page Numbering Options in the Book Panel flyout menu.


This stuff is really handy when you begin pouring text into your chapters, but you’ll find that things can slow down dramatically as you edit the copy, adjust spacing and margins, or add and remove images. The more linked files you have in your chapters, the worse things get. If you have cross-references or other internal hyperlinks, InDesign can really slow to a crawl.

To understand why, we have to dig into what InDesign is doing behind the scenes. It’s doing a lot more than meets the eye. Willy Wonka’s industrious Oompa Loompas had nothing on the feverish activity that is InDesign in Long Document mode.

Inside the Document Factory

Let’s say you have a fairly small book: 20 chapters plus front matter. Automatic pagination is turned on, and the author has added a paragraph to the Preface in the front matter, which results in an extra page. In order to keep things up to date, InDesign must now open the next document, Chapter 1, update its page numbers, save the changes and close it again. Then it has to do the same for Chapter 2, and Chapter 3… twenty times in all!

That’s a lot of disk activity. With a fast hard drive such as an SSD, it might not be too bad if that were the only thing going on. But it’s not the only thing, not by a long shot.

In the File Handling section of InDesign’s preferences, there is a seldom-noticed section called “Links.” By default, “Check Links Before Opening Document” and “Find Missing Links Before Opening Document” are turned on. For most documents, this is what you want, but when InDesign must update chapters of a book, and those book chapters have linked illustrations, graphics, or photographs, that might mean checking for a dozen or more other files for each chapter.


Then there’s the matter of cross-references, if your book has them, or internal hyperlinks to text anchors in another chapter. Creating them tends to be a tedious process, but it’s not made any more enjoyable by having to browse for the document that contains the destination.

There is a command in the Book Panel flyout, “Update All Cross-References.” You might think that means “Update All Things Related to Cross-References only when I click this,” but it doesn’t. Buried in the InDesign Help under “Managing Cross-References” is this little gem:

“If the destination moves to a different page, the cross-reference is updated automatically.” [Emphasis mine.]

Oops. That means that every time the page count of a chapter changes, InDesign will update the later page numbers and comb the entire book to update any cross-references. If a paragraph in Chapter 20 is referenced from Chapter 1 and you change the page count of Chapter 5… well, you begin to see where this is going. Before long, InDesign is spending most of its time opening, updating, rewriting, and closing files in a valiant attempt to wear out your hard drive before its time.

Even something simple, like synchronizing styles in the book documents, can take a very long time — go-make-some-coffee-and-come-back kind of time — if the book is very large and has lots of illustrations.

Managing the Madness

Turning off automatic page numbering and link checking, once your chapter count gets large, can certainly help to calm things down, but any operation that involves updating other chapters than the one you have open can still take a while. You must also keep track of the preferences you’ve now turned off, and you still haven’t touched that automatic updating of hyperlinks and cross-references.

There is another potential downside to all this behind-the-scenes updating: because documents are being opened, saved, and closed in the background, there is no “Undo.” If you need to undo some global change in just one of the chapters, you’ll have to open it and change it back manually.

The elephant in the room is all that disk activity, and the simplest way to make almost all of it go away is to open all the book documents and keep them open while you’re working.

Unless you’re working with a very limited amount of RAM, all of your documents will be in memory, and nothing need be written to disk except InDesign’s recovery files until you Save All (Ctl-Alt-Shift-S/Cmd-Opt-Shift-S). Suddenly things will start to go a lot faster.

Synchronizing styles across all chapters takes half to one-tenth the time if all documents are open. Cross-references can be created in minimal time and update immediately any time there’s a change in page count. Automatic page, section and chapter numbering is seamless.

There is a potential hidden bonus with regard to hyperlinks and cross-references. There were many reports of bugs with cross-references that spanned documents in earlier versions of InDesign, but the only time these ever showed up in my work was when I didn’t have all the book documents open. Keep them open, then, and you’re much less likely to hit problems.

You can also turn off automatic pagination in the Book Page Numbering Options, if your system isn’t fast enough and you really can’t stand the lag.

Hidden Shortcuts that Help

One thing that makes people avoid opening dozens of documents at a time is the tedious process of saving and closing them. That’s where two useful keyboard shortcuts that are (for no good reason I can think of) missing from InDesign’s File menu come to the rescue.

Ctrl/Cmd-Alt/Opt-Shift-S saves all open documents. Ctrl/Cmd-Alt/Opt-Shift-W closes all open documents.

To open all of the documents in a book, highlight them all in the Book panel then double-click one document. Why there is no “Open All Book Documents” in the Book panel menu is another mystery. But at least now you know what you can do to get better performance and fewer problems working with long documents in InDesign.

Alan Gilbertson

Alan Gilbertson

Owner/Creative DIrector at G&G Creative
Alan Gilbertson is an independent (Scots by birth, independence is in the blood) creative director and designer living in Los Angeles, on the left coast of the U.S. Specialties are visual branding, identity programs and large format (indoor, outdoor and illuminated), across all media. His first love is book design, which he never gets tired of, closely followed by Creative Suite workflow efficiency, with which he is mildly obsessed. Besides InDesign Secrets, you can find him on , Behance,, various Adobe forums and a sprinkling of social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter (@gngcreative) and Google+ (+AlanGilbertson), sharing hard-won experience with Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator and other apps in the Adobe Creative Suite, most of which he uses (although InDesign is still his favorite).
Alan Gilbertson

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  • - November 30, -0001
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12 Comments on “Work Faster with Long Documents

    • Indeed. But I’d wager that 99% of InDesign users have never discovered those shortcuts, far less put them on the menu. (I don’t have them on the menu, either, but that’s because I always use the keyboard!)

  1. “There were many reports of bugs with cross-references that spanned documents in earlier versions of InDesign, but the only time these ever showed up in my work was when I didn’t have all the book documents open. Keep them open, then, and you’re much less likely to hit problems.”

    I’ve been looking for some confirmation that using cross-references across multiple documents won’t cause file problems in InDesign CC 2014, so thanks for sharing your experiences. I’ve been reluctant to use cross-refs because the thought of possibly having to re-create multiple corrupted files is not a pleasant one, so this is good to know – will start testing the waters.

    • I use cross-references regularly in book documents, and I can attest to the fact that InDesign CC’s functionality for cross-references continues to improve. I do run into trouble periodically, but at least it doesn’t crash my computer anymore.

      One caveat I will share with you–because I create the same basic type of document, often with the same text in various sections, I will often reuse the last document I created as a starting place for my next project. So, if Project A has Chapters 1, 2, 3, I will open one document from Project A, edit the master pages, and then call it Project B. Then I will cut and paste the text from Project A, Chapters 1, 2 and 3 into the equivalent Chapters in Project B.

      Be very careful if you have cross-references in this situation–it is obvious in retrospect, but the cross-references will remain linked to their location in Project A, not the equivalent text in Project B. Because my cross-references are frequently just a page number, it is not always obvious that it is referring to a page number in the wrong project since the contents are frequently similar. I only noticed this because I had some cross-references that were out-of-date, and when I clicked on destination, it opened the document from Project A.

  2. Thank you for this article. It was worth the price of admission simply for the “Save All Documents” keyboard shortcut. I frequently use the Close All Documents feature (which you can also access by right-clicking on one of the open document tabs if you use the mouse) But, then I invariably have to manually accept the Save Before Closing for each document because it seems like the slightest change to one document causes InDesign to update them all. So, being able to save them all in one step before closing them all will be a great improvement.

  3. Where were you 10 years ago? I’ve been fighting this “open all” “save all” and “close all” battle that long. Yes, I should have googled it, but I just assumed (stupid I know) that those commands would appear somewhere in at least one of the files, book fly-out, or right-click panels. Many thanks.

    • Well, dang. Sorry about that. My time machine’s been in the shop getting the wobbles out of the framistan, and *of course* it’s out of warranty and they can’t get the right parts, so I’ve been stuck in the now for a while.

  4. There is also a previous post that will definitely help avoid the “slow-down” of indesign:

    I’ve written this elsewhere but I will say it here too, and that is there is a trade-off of live features for speed. Several live features, such as the thumbnail pictures in the pages palette; GREP and Nested styles; cross references (as mentioned in the article above) and live preflight can make a long document crawl. This is before taking into consideration whatever else the machine is running at the same time (e.g. other software that is open, or live backups like time machine).

    • You’re welcome! I pick up lots of stuff from your posts here and on documentgeek, so the thanks are mutual! We all learn from each other, because we all come at InDesign from different angles. (David once suggested I had no need to go to his and Anne-Marie’s presentation at MAX. Ha! Leaving aside the fact that David is far too modest anyway, I guaranteed him they would show at least one or two things I’d never come across, and at least a couple of other things I’d forgotten about. Happens every time.)

  5. Thanks for the post! One item to emphasize is that whenever you “package” your InDesign bookfile and its content files, the cross-references do NOT update. You must MANUALLY update the cross-reference links. This solved my InDesign slowness problem.

    Details — The blue spinning thing would spin for 5-15 seconds if I typed or deleted one letter or nudged one item. I had all the memory my machine could handle. I *thought* I had all of the files open (because I had all the files contained in the repackaged bookfile open). After much anguish, I (somewhat accidentally) clicked the go-to-destination button at the bottom of the Cross-Reference panel … and, to my surprise, a new document opened! This new document had the same name as another document that was already open.

    So my tip is — If InDesign is being slow and you use cross-references to other documents, open all the documents in the project. Then select one cross-reference and click the “Go to destination of the selected cross-reference” button at the bottom of the Cross-Reference panel … Check carefully to see if a brand new file opens.

    A post with tips on how to speed up manually updating cross-references can be found at:

    Thanks to all of you for sharing your expertise!

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