Live-link and magic-merge Word and Excel documents

  • What if you could have a time machine to speed up your Microsoft Word-based editorial production in InDesign?
  • What if you could place Word and Excel documents with live links in InDesign, and proceed with production, while your authors and editors continued working on the original documents?
  • What if, when they had updates, you could magically merge their work into yours with a click (as a link update), without losing any work on either side, and with automatic notification of any conflicts?
  • What if you could push your content changes back to the linked Word document at any time, staying synchronized with your authors and editors?
  • What if you could export original InDesign content to a new linked Word document, allowing collaborators to work in their native tools, and then re-import their changes with a click, using the same magic merge?

You can do all this, and more, with WordsFlow, your Word-based time machine.

A walk-through screencast

If you prefer a screencast as an overview, here’s a 4 minute WordsFlow walkthrough.

(Expand to full-screen for best viewing.)

Bring your authors and editors into your InDesign production process

WordsFlow, a plug-in for InDesign, for the first time combines the editing power of Word and Excel with the layout power of InDesign, adding its own dynamic linking and sophisticated merge technologies to supercharge your editorial and production workflows.

WordsFlow Place menuWith WordsFlow, you place Word documents (including tables and graphics) and Excel spreadsheets (Pro version) as InDesign story contents normally, using a familiar place dialog.

But, behind the scenes, WordsFlow maintains a dynamic link so it can intelligently merge external document changes into the InDesign story contents on each link update, rather than just replacing the story. The Pro version provides a two-way link so you can push your InDesign story changes back to Word format.

So you can format, layout, and edit in InDesign, while your authors and editors continue creating and editing story content in Word and Excel, all without ever losing work. Your authors and editors are no longer “frozen out” once layout begins.

What’s your biggest headache?

If you use InDesign for production, you already know the pain point: an author sends you a story via email or file-sharing, and you’ve placed it in your InDesign publication, fixing typos, changing formatting, adding and deleting text, etc. Then, the author or your editor sends you another version of the file, and expects you to figure out what changed, and weave those changes into what you hoped was the final story.

In the past, you might bite your tongue and simply re-place the story, losing all your hard work, then go through and manually make all the same changes you made before, hoping you’re not forgetting something (and likely losing that bet). Or, if you’re more sophisticated, you might use a file-difference utility, going through each change, manually editing the InDesign story to match, and scratching your head a lot. In either case, you end up wasting a lot of time in a highly error-prone process.

Magic merge-update removes the pain

WordsFlow ends the headaches. When you place the original Word or Excel file (or any text file), WordsFlow asks InDesign to keep a special kind of dynamic link to the file.

WordsFlow Living Buildings modified Links panelWhen you or anyone else makes to changes that file (locally or in a shared-file situation), InDesign will notice that the link’s source has changed, and change the link’s status to “modified” in the Links panel (a yellow alert icon, as shown here). You can update the story when you’re ready, using the normal link-update invocations, such as a double-click on the modified icon.

As the link update starts, WordsFlow kicks in. Instead of letting InDesign replace the linked story wholesale, it applies a complex algorithm behind the scenes to merge the changes made to the external document since the last update into the current InDesign story contents (and to detect any conflicts). We call this the “magic merge-update,” since it seems like magic the first times you see it working. It’s this magic that saves you from endless error-prone manual merging.

With WordsFlow building on the standard file linking mechanisms you already know for graphics, there are no learning pains.

And there is no barrier to using WordsFlow—just install the plug-in, select Place with WordsFlow and proceed using the normal place dialog. Your collaborators don’t need any special software, and can continue to work exactly as they always have. But now their last-minute or even ongoing changes won’t slow you down.

About that time machine

WordsFlow not only ends these last-minute just-one-more-little-update kinds of headaches, it enables entirely new and powerful workflows.

You can now have authors maintaining their story content in Word, with the layout and production people keeping story links to the shared Word files in InDesign (or getting new copies and relinking to them when changed). When authors make changes to the source files, the production folks can merge-update via the WordsFlow links to bring in the changes. That way, authors can stay working in their comfort zone, using Word, and production can maintain the overall document in InDesign, without worrying about hand-merging in the changes that happen over time. So authors and editors can work in parallel with production layout and formatting, giving you a virtual “time machine.”

For examples, think of a newspaper or magazine on deadline dealing with fast-breaking story updates, or, more long-term, a corporate or educational publication with multiple departments updating their respective sections regularly, or a quarterly financial prospectus assembling reports from various departments.

It’s never too late to use WordsFlow

If you’ve already placed and formatted a Word document without WordsFlow, and are presented with an updated Word document that threatens a massive amount of manual change merging, WordsFlow can still save the day.

Download and install WordsFlow, use Link to Original, selecting the Word document that you originally placed before doing all the work in InDesign. Then, relink to the updated Word document, and, presto! the Word changes are merged and all your editing and formatting work is saved.

Pro is two-way

WordsFlow Update menuThe Pro version of WordsFlow adds two major features to give you a fully two-way workflow.

With WordsFlow Pro, you can push updates from any InDesign story to its linked Word document. This way, you can keep your collaborators working with the latest InDesign content, in their own editing environment.

WordsFlow Export menuAdditionally, the Pro version can export original InDesign story content in Word docx format, auto-linking to the result. So you can now take existing InDesign content—however it was produced—and push it out in Word format for further editing and revision, to be shared with your collaborators. As they make additions and changes to the exported document, you can pull them in with a normal WordsFlow story update, usually with just a double-click.

One happy side-effect of WordsFlow Pro’s two-way capabilities is the availability for the first time of full, modern docx export for InDesign stories. Before, your export options were limited to using rtf or other half-way solutions.

Pro works with Excel (one-way)

The Pro version of WordsFlow also works with imported Excel spreadsheet files as well as Word files. You can place a spreadsheet file, then format columns/rows or individual cells, etc. in InDesign. Later, if you or someone else makes changes to the original spreadsheet, including moving around rows or columns, WordsFlow will figure out what changed, and merge in the changes without losing the formatting and edits you’ve made in InDesign.

WordsFlow Pro doesn’t support two-way workflow with Excel documents, for now. But we call it a “one and a half-way workflow,” since you can work on both sides simultaneously.

Works with open-source word processors

If you’d rather use open-source (and free) word processors like OpenOffice or LibreOffice, WordsFlow can interoperate with those tools as well, either using ODF (their native format) or DOCX, Word’s native format, which they support well.

WordsFlow vs. InCopy

InCopy is a great solution if you need your authors and editors to work with exactly what’s going to be seen in the final InDesign document. However, working with WordsFlow does have some serious advantages.

If your authors/editors have used Word all their lives, there’s no need to change their work habits or learn something new, using WordsFlow. They can stay productive in their long- and hard-earned knowledge of Word, with all its editorial power. InCopy is basically “baby InDesign,” and is a completely foreign world to Word users.

In fact, your Word users don’t even have to know you’re using WordsFlow–it’s entirely invisible to them. It just makes you, the production user or team, look a lot faster, smarter, and more accurate. (No more botched manual merges.)

WordsFlow enables InDesign production to proceed in parallel with editing in Word. InCopy stops all other work on a story while it’s checked out.

ICML (the InCopy native document format) can really only be used to feed InDesign. WordsFlow allows you to link document formats that can be used for other purposes.

WordsFlow is more “production proof” in that you can control the formatting on the InDesign side and review changes made by the editors before accepting. When an InCopy story is checked in, that’s it.

With WordsFlow, your authors and editors don’t need to be burdened with all the styling and other layout details in the InDesign story. It’s a well-known trope that dealing with the details of text formatting while writing is a huge distraction from the real job at hand. And your InDesign production folks will be glad your authors and editors don’t get to meddle with those details.

Each of your authors and editors needs an InCopy license, while only your production (InDesign) users need a WordsFlow license (most companies already have widely-available Word/Excel access).

In the news

David Blatner of InDesign Secrets was very excited about even the early initial release of WordsFlow.

I’m trying hard not to type phrases like “Most useful plug-in ever,” but I have to tell you: I’m sitting here with my mouth agape, heart beating faster, and thinking “This is what I’ve wanted for 20 years.”

In short, I’m playing with WordsFlow, a plug-in from Em Software that fundamentally changes the way you’ll work with Word documents.

Jamie McKee of InDesign Magazine gave WordsFlow 3.0 a positive review. His conclusion:

WordsFlow 3 ID Mag reviewWordsFlow 2 was already a terrific plug-in for InDesign. The addition of the new Word import filter introduced in WordsFlow 3 gives you unmatched style mapping abilities, even for locally formatted text, while maintaining its terrific linking and merging capabilities.
If you spend a lot of time wrangling text files placed into InDesign, there’s no doubt that WordsFlow 3 will save you time and trouble.

Issue 137 of InDesign Magazine published a rundown of the ten most valuable plugins for InDesign, compiled from a survey of their board of experts. WordsFlow is #4 (and DocsFlow #8). Their pull quote:

Em Software’s WordsFlow is a no-brainer; I use it and couldn’t live without it. I used to send a PDF to my client, have her mark it up with PDF commenting, then spend a couple of hours deciphering her notes, scratch outs, word changes, and other tiny issues. Now, I send my client the exported Word file, and she makes all the minor changes. When she sends it back to me, I relink it with WordsFlow. The two hours that I would have worked on the minor changes is done in about a minute. —Laurie Ruhlin

Laurie also published a great overview of WordsFlow for the Adobe blog:

InDesign editorial + production magic with WordsFlow

Her summary:

So there you have it. WordsFlow and DocsFlow (for Google Docs) allows my client to retain content control throughout the production process. They can use the program they feel comfortable in to make edits, and best of all, I “allow” them to do much of the tedious editing. I simply update or relink the Word file using WordsFlow, and instantly, those client changes are incorporated into my InDesign document. WordsFlow has greatly simplified my workflow and allowed me to keep my designer hat on, the one I love to wear!


Anne-Marie Concepción of Seneca Design has released a course InDesign: Remote Workflows with InCopy, Word, and GoogleDocs on LinkedIn Learning, which includes two chapters respectively on getting started with WordsFlow and DocsFlow.

You know a collaborative workflow can benefit your editing and design teams, but how do you set it up inexpensively and effectively? In this course, instructor Anne-Marie Concepción walks you through a number of free solutions that allow mixed-platform designers, writers, and editors to work concurrently on a single publication, whether they’re on-site or remote. […] Anne-Marie also covers in-depth solutions that allow publishing teams to link Microsoft Word [WordsFlow] and Google Docs [DocsFlow] to live InDesign layouts, allowing for concurrent design and editorial development.

The good news is that, even if you don’t have a LinkedIn Learning (originally lynda.com) account, the link above gives you a free 30-day trial, which should be more than adequate to take advantage of this course.

Note that you can skip directly to the WordsFlow chapter for training, though you’d be wise to view the earlier chapters for a cornucopia of collaborative workflow knowledge.

Start your free trial now

We strongly encourage you to try out the software in your environment before purchasing, to make sure it will work for you.

A just-downloaded WordsFlow plug-in is a fully-functional trial version that will operate for 15 days at no cost (including the Pro features). Further, you can purchase a license at any point, without re-downloading and re-installing.

Download the appropriate version of WordsFlow (based on your version of InDesign and your operating system, macOS or Windows) from the Downloads sidebar. Double-click to install.

In InDesign, use File > WordsFlow > Place with WordsFlow… to select a Word or Excel document to place and link. (Enter your license code or press Demo when prompted.)

When the external document is edited, double-click the link-changed icon in the Links panel to update. Sit back and enjoy the “magic merge-update” functionality of WordsFlow. You’re at the start of a long and productive journey!

For full information, see “Getting started” in the user guide.


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