Why and how to use track changes

Reading time: About 4 minutes

Some people find it painful to respond to edits from others. But learning how to use track changes can make the whole editing process so much easier…

Do bosses, editors or cowriters ever want to change your text? If so, it’s important to be agile with the “track changes” feature in Microsoft Word.

I’m going to start this post with suggestions aimed at writers who are already using track changes and then I’ll work my way to those who are less familiar with it. Don’t worry! I’ll have information for both groups. Use the subheads below to guide yourself to the section that will be most helpful to you.

How to use track changes — senior level

Longtime users of track changes will know the software allows writers to see any text that’s been removed (it appears either crossed out or at the side of the page), identify new text (it appears in the story in a different colour) and read comments from the cowriter or editor (these also appear at the side of the page.)

Here are three slightly more sophisticated ways to use track changes:

1-Did you know that you can make all the changes and comments imposed by your cowriter or editor temporarily disappear so that you can read the text without feeling as though your head is going to explode? (This is an important option for writers who are likely to feel sensitive to edits from others.)

Simply go to the review tab in Word and then click on the “all markup” button in the top middle of the page and select “no markup.” This will make all comments and edits disappear to your eyes, but not be deleted. You can then read the story and see how you feel about it. If you are entirely comfortable with it, and assuming you trust the judgement of your editor, you can then go to the Accept button (one button to the right of “all markup”) and select the choice “Accept all changes.” This will accept all the edits your cowriter or editor has made but still allow you to read their comments (which might be important) later. When you’re ready to review comments, just go to the “No Markup” button, and reselect “All markup.”

2-For works involving multiple authors or editors, give each person their own highlighting colour — let’s say pink, blue, yellow, or green — and ask each contributor to highlight their own comments exclusively in that colour. Comments — which are different from edits — give participants the opportunity to state their views or ask questions. Writers or editors can simply insert their comment and then highlight it (using the highlight key — it’s right there on the home page, offering a choice of colours, provided you’ve enabled your “ribbon” under the View pulldown menu at the very top of your screen.) Having each person with their own assigned colour allows you, the writer, to understand instantly who made the comment.

3-If you are an editor or cowriter, I strongly suggest you avoid using the colour red for any of your edits or comments. Red has an electric impact on most people, probably as a result of the way school teachers usually used a red pen to mark our work in high school. Switch to a more neutral colour – I suggest blue, green or purple. To make the manouevre, go to Review/Markup Options (which is underneath “all markup,” in the centre top) and then click on “preferences”. That’s where you can change all the colours to anything other than red. Knock yourself out. Your colleagues will really appreciate it.

How to use track changes with cowriters

Academic authors often have to spend time in the circle of hell known as “writing papers with other people.” Many of my clients are academic writers so I have some experience in making this process as painless as possible. Here is my advice:

#1: Identify who the lead author for the paper is going to be. If it’s you, that’s fine as long as you’re prepared to make the hard decisions and understand that the project is not a popularity contest. If the senior person is someone else, that’s also okay. Just be aware that you may need to defer to this person from time to time.

#2: Before anyone writes a word, agree on a process for handling editing. Deciding that you’re going to use “track changes” is only a first step. The second is to give every author their own highlighting colour (see description above). Then, once you’ve done that, agree that you won’t ever allow more than one master copy of the draft to circulate. This means instead of sending the draft to all collaborators at the same time, you’ll agree upon a specific order over a specific time. (I cover this in more detail in a video on the topic.)

Having only ONE copy of the master draft circulating will prevent the terrible problem of Writer A making changes and Writer B making different changes at the same time. Still, to make this system work, it’s essential for all your collaborators to understand the urgency of deadlines. Does this sound impossible to you? Be aware that people are more inclined to meet short deadlines rather than long ones. And agree on these deadlines before any writing or editing takes place, underlining how essential they are.

When ALL of your collaborators have returned the document to you, see if there is any obvious way for you to reconcile disagreements between participants. In my experience, a certain percentage of issues will be easy to fix, while there will also be points of contention. For this reason, you’ll probably need to schedule a meeting between collaborators after you’ve all had your swing at the master draft. (If COVID has taught us nothing else, it’s that such meetings can be done easily on Zoom.)

At the meeting, everyone should bring a printed-out copy of the draft and you should review it together, with the lead author in charge, in chronological order. Use the principle of consensus-decision-making to wrestle with the tough issues. That said, if there’s anything that you’re unable to reach consensus on, the lead author should make the final decision.

Why newbie writers should learn how to use track changes

If you’ve never used track changes before, I strongly suggest you experiment with it now. To enable it, go to the Review dropdown menu at the top of any MS Word document and turn on the track changes button (middle top of page.)

Every time you delete text, it will either have a line placed through it or be moved to the side margin. Experiment with it now! (If you change your mind later and want to restore that text, simply right-click on the word(s) and select “reject change.”)

If you’d like to make a comment on a word or piece of text, simply highlight it with your cursor then go to the Insert dropdown menu at the top of the page and select “comment.” Type your comments in the box.

If you want to respond to a comment box, right-click on it and select either “reply to comment”, which will allow you to add your own remarks or select “resolve comment”, which will grey it out. (This should mean that you’ve addressed the concern raised by the other reader.) Alternatively, you can also just delete the comment.

If you want to accept edits by other readers, you can do it either one at a time or all at once. To do the latter, just go to “Accept” button (one right of the “All markup” button) and select “Accept all changes.”

If you want to learn more about the logistics of how to use track changes, I’ve found a good YouTube video, here.

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My video podcast last week addressed the perils of free-writing. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.

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Need some help developing a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.

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What tricks do you have for using track changes effectively? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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