Tracking Changes

In my job that actually pays the bills, I spend a lot of time working on reports.  Generally, before any report is finalized it goes through about four rounds of edits, sometimes even more.  And, because the working world is what it is, people have varying levels of familiarity with how to note comments and/or edits in a document.

So, I thought it might be useful to discuss this just a bit.

The rest of this discussion is going to focus on using Word.  At each large employer I’ve worked for and each client I’ve worked with, Word has been the default word processing system.  Even if you love using a Mac, unless it’s industry standard (which I think it is in some of the computer or creative fields), you’d be doing your career viability a huge favor if you learned how to use Word at a professional level.

One annoying way I’ve seen of inserting comments into a document is when people put the comment in brackets.  So, you’ll read a sentence that looks something like this: “In 1492 [Can we verify this?] Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  If you run across this approach you can do a find for “[” and can generally locate all of the comments that get inserted this way.  It’s a pain, but it’s doable.  (And this way is better than the people who insert comments and color them a different color or highlight them, because then you have to scan for them.)

An easier way to do this is to use the “insert comment” feature in Word.  I work in Word 2007 and under the “Review”section there’s an option for “New Comment.”  You highlight the text you want to comment on or put your cursor where you want the comment to appear, select “New Comment,” type in what you want to say, and there it is – off to the side of the text.  (NOTE: Earlier versions of Word are set up very differently, so you’ll have to track down exactly how it works if you have an older version.)

There are a few things that make adding comments this way better than using brackets (or highlighting).  First, assuming the person has their account set up correctly, it tells you who made the comment.  (And, yes, some of those bracket users will put their initials, but this does it without relying on them to remember to put their initials in each time.)  Second, you can navigate from comment to comment with the click of a button.  And, third, Word has an option that lets you delete all comments from the document at once so you don’t hand off a final version that has those comments still in it.  (In 2007, you can do this under Prepare – Inspect Document, which is available under the little Office Button in the corner.)

As I recall, you can’t insert comments into footnotes, but in that case, I just put the comment near the footnote in the actual text.

Now, what about showing changes to text?  The out-dated, please don’t do this to me, way is to type in the new text, delete the old, and either highlight or color the changed text.  (Some folks get really creative and strike-through the deleted text instead of simply removing it, which makes my work around less effective.)  When someone does this, you have to go through the document and catch any changes to coloring or highlights before you can finalize the document.  And you have to hope that someone colored or highlighted all of the text that they changed.

When I run into situations like this, I generally select all text, change it all to black with no highlight (assuming we aren’t using colors for some other reason) and then run a document compare between the original document and the new document.  This gives me the changes in track changes.  (When you’re dealing with one person’s changes, this is pretty straight-forward to do.  Annoying, but straight-forward.  When it’s multiple people’s changes, it can get a little tricky.  All the differences between the first document and the second are labeled the same, so you can’t see who suggested what change.)

This is why, ideally, changes should be made using track changes to start with.  Again, assuming everyone is set up properly, track changes will assign different colors to different users.  So, the original text will be in black, Sally’s changes will be in red, Bob’s in blue, etc.  (One thing to watch for is that as the document circulates, Sally may not always be red.  But she will be a color that is different from Bob and Carl and whoever else.  I think you can force it to keep the same colors, but I’ve never bothered.)  (And, be careful that you’re not working in a document that is set to strip identifying information.  If so, it’ll keep track changes, but strip out who made them.  I think it defaults to showing everything as by “author.”  When this happens, fix the document properties before circulating it again.  It’ll look fine until you hit save and then everything will be by author again.)

To use track changes it’s just a matter of turning it on.  For me, in 2007, that’s under the Review tab.  I go to Track Changes and select Track Changes.  (Or it looks like you can just use Ctrl+Shift+E)  Track changes isn’t perfect.  I’ve found that I sometimes have to turn it off when I’m fixing a formatting issue like a bulleted list.  (Or, if I need people to see those formatting changes, I’ll fix it, have to accept changes to see what it will really look like, and then undo the accept changes to show it in track changes once more.  Sometimes it may take a few tries to get the correct formatting to show after track changes are accepted.  And if that little aside was confusing – just ignore it.)

Track changes can also fail to show situations where Person A recommended a change, but then Person B edited Person A’s change.  So, when you have multiple users tracking changes in a document that can sometimes be an issue, but I don’t think it happens often enough to matter.

The beauty with track changes is that the computer recognizes them as different from the text.  So, you can navigate from one tracked change to the next.  This can be really helpful when the change is an inserted comma or period or something so small that it is hard to see.  (Word also places a little vertical line to the side of any text line with a change.)

It also tells you who suggested what change.  (Which, when dealing with varying levels of experience on a team or client feedback can help you decide how seriously to consider a recommended change or how to respond to it.  I.e., don’t dismiss a client edit out of hand.  And if your expert wrote something and a non-expert tried to fix it, be very careful about going with the non-expert’s fix.)

You can also use that Inspect Document function to remove any track changes, but I would recommend getting rid of them before then.  Generally, we write a document, circulate it for edits and comments, accept all changes in the document, recirculate it and repeat until we have a 98% ready to go product.  The final round of edits I do without track changes.  I circulate the document, ask for any feedback or edits and manually enter them into the document.  To me, it’s important to do this step outside of track changes, because you need to see spacing and formatting issues that can sometimes be hidden by track changes.  I would never recommend editing a document in track changes, accepting them, and sending it off without a final read-through.

I think being familiar with how to use comments and track changes in Word helps with professional skills that can help pay the bills for an aspiring writer.  I also think that, as time goes on, it will probably become more common to see agents or editors sending comments and/or edits electronically rather than on paper.  Since most submissions seem to be in .rtf or .doc format, it seems to me that most of this will happen in Word.  So, knowing how comments and track changes work will make the whole revision process easier.

Of course, this is just my unpublished opinion…And I am not a computer expert, so go find a Word tutorial if you really want to learn how to do this.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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