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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 6 Issue 11November 2012
Track Changes: What Did You Change In My Word Document? What Did I Change?

Has this ever happened to you?
  • You're collaborating with a colleague on a writing project. You're responsible for the final product, but their help will be invaluable. Your idea is to send a Microsoft Word file back and forth and you will each make changes. How will you maintain control of the project and keep track of your changes vs. theirs?
  • You're working on a writing project by yourself, and you want the ability to easily see what you've changed at each stage. How can you keep track without any extra effort and free yourself to focus on your writing?
  • You've got a number of Word documents with similar content that you've edited at different times for different reasons. Is there a way to see the differences between them without spending hours comparing every word or sentence?
  • You send your Word document to someone else for review. Instead of sending you their notes separately, they make their changes to the document and send their edited version back to you. Now you've got a problem: What exactly did they change?
If solving these problems are important to you, it's time to look into Word's Track Changes function!

"Old-school" approaches - Clumsy but simple
Whether you're a teacher commenting on a student's paper, a professor commenting on a thesis, an editor encouraging a writer to polish her prose, or a helpful friend lending a hand, collaborating with someone (or helping them with their writing) can be tricky. Here are some of the "old-school" approaches I've seen adapted into a word processing environment:
  • You write your notes and suggestions in a separate document or email. On the one hand this leaves the original untouched, on the other hand every note has to specify the location or piece of text in the main document it is referring to, and will become harder to understand the more the document evolves.
  • You type your notes into the document itself. In order to distinguish your notes from the original text, you might surround them with square brackets ([ ]), or use special formatting like ALL CAPITALS, a different font, bold or italic, or using a vibrant text color like red or purple. This puts your notes in context, but it also makes the document longer, changes the way the document looks (and prints), and makes it harder to read.
  • Rather than writing notes (or in addition), you make the changes you feel are appropriate right in the document, and you try to remember to make them bold or italic or red so the other person can see what you've done. This method takes bit of work, but it won't show what you've deleted unless you add an explanatory note.
Also, all of these approaches require you to document your changes or ideas, which is time-consuming, error-prone, and probably also distracting from the writing process.

Higher-tech approaches - A little more elegant
It turns out that Microsoft Word has some relatively simple high-tech features that can help in situations like this:
  • Hidden text: Just as you can make some of your text bold or red, you can also format text as "Hidden," making it useful for notes. You can hide or show Hidden text while you're editing, and also control whether it's visible when you print. However, you have to remember to apply the Hidden attribute, you may accidentally start typing regular text in an area of Hidden text, and if you've made Hidden text invisible, you may forget that it's there.
  • Comments: Word has a built-in function that lets you insert Comments into your document. A Comment has two parts: a specific piece of text it's anchored to, and the "comment text" (e.g., "Rephrase this--'to which it's anchored' is better!"). Comments are kept in a separate area of your document so they're not embedded in the main text, and you can control whether they're visible when editing as well as printing. They're part of Word's "markup" features, which also include Track Changes.
Track Changes - What you've hopefully probably been waiting for
Microsoft Word has an amazing built-in feature called Track Changes. When you turn this on, every change you make (or someone else makes) to your document is "tracked," including:
  • Text added,
  • Text deleted, and
  • Formatting changes (font, size, bold, color, etc.).
Activating Track Changes in one document does not affect any other documents. In some versions of Word it will probably also turn on the Reviewing toolbar.

Track Changes while you're editing
When you turn on Track Changes, you'll probably see it in action as you edit your document:
  • Text you add will be underlined and in color. This is not how it will look when printed, it's merely tagged this way by Track Changes so you'll know it was inserted. Also, if you place your mouse pointer over this text, you'll see a pop-up note telling you who inserted the text (you) and when.
  • Text you delete will either become "strikethrough" or be displayed as "deleted" in a "balloon" in the right margin.
  • Formatting changes you make (e.g., making some text bold or italic) may also be shown in "balloons" on the right.
  • Vertical "change bars" will also appear in the left margin next to any changed lines.
You can control whether these tracking marks (known as the "markup") are visible while you're editing and also when you print. You can also control whether Word uses "balloons" in the right margin or in-line marks.

You can turn off Track Changes at any time, so changes to your document won't be tracked anymore (unless you turn Track Changes back on again). This does not remove any of the tracked changes already in your document, and it also doesn't turn off the Reviewing toolbar.

Reviewing The Tracked Changes
At any point you can "review" the changes in your document. For each tracked change, you can:
  • Accept it: This integrates the change into your document and removes that item's tracking. Inserted text and formatting changes "settle in," and deleted text disappears.
  • Reject it: This discards the change, returns the item to its original state, and removes that item's tracking. Inserted text and formatting changes disappear, and deleted text returns.
  • Skip it: This leaves the tracked change as is.
You can act on any tracked change individually and in any order, or you can visit each tracked change in order going forward or backwards through the document.

Collaborating with someone else
You should discuss your wanting to use Track Changes with any collaborator before you send them your document, since they may be confused by the on-screen tracking (markup) they'll probably see (and will create as they edit the document). Since they may also have no interest in the tracking, they'll probably need your help to learn how to hide it from view while they're working. Remember that they may have a different version of Word than you.

You should also work out some other issues:
  • How will you send the document back and forth? Via email, an online system like DropBox, in person using a USB flash drive?
  • Like "passing a baton back and forth," I recommend that you avoid changing your copy of the document while the other person is working on it, and that they do the same while you're working on it.
  • I also recommend that you carefully name your document based on where you are in the collaborative process, and expect to create a series of documents during the project. For example, if "Joe" is your collaborator, instead of "Smith project.doc" I suggest "Smith project 2012.11.01 sent to Joe.doc," then "Smith project 2012.11.05 back from Joe.doc," etc.
What if you don't trust the other person, or simply want to maintain control over the process?
Since you can turn Track Changes on or off at any time, if you're collaborating with someone else, what's to stop them from turning it off and then making changes that don't get tracked? The other person may not do this maliciously, they may simply not understand how to hide the visually distracting change-tracking that will appear on-screen and when they print except by turning off Track Changes.

The good news is that Word has a Protect Document function that lets you (among other things) prevent Tracked Changes from being turned off unless the correct password (which you can set) is entered. This also prevents anyone from accepting or rejecting any of the tracked changes. However, they can still control whether the change-tracking (markup) is visible while they're editing or printing the document. Also, protecting a document does not encrypt it, so anyone who gets a copy of the document has complete access to its contents.

When you get the protected document back, if you want to Accept or Reject any of the changes (or turn off Track Changes), you will need to "Unprotect" it first (and enter the password). You'll need to make sure Track Changes is on and Protect it again before sending it back to your collaborator.

What if I didn't turn on Track Changes at the start of the project?
If you sent document "A" to someone else (without having turned on Track Changes first), and they changed it and then sent you back document "B," here's how you can compare the two and see exactly what changes they made:
  • Open "B," the newer document that was modified by the other person.
  • Click Word's "Compare Documents..." function. If you see the "Compare and Merge Documents..." function instead, after you click on that be sure to choose the "Legal blackline" option to get the Compare function (not Merge).
  • Locate and choose "A," the older, original document.
  • Click "Compare."
Word will then open a new, untitled window showing what Track Changes would have displayed had you used it, or if A and B are identical it will tell you that there are no differences. You can also use this method to compare two of your own documents to see how they differ.

Other things you should know
Tracked Changes is supported in .DOC and .DOCX files, but not .RTF (Rich Text Format).

Tracked Changes works with any number of collaborators. Their changes will be tagged with the date and time they were made, and (as long as each person makes their changes using their own separate computer), their name.

Word has another, more primitive function called Versions, which lets you store multiple, complete versions of an entire document within the same file. You can look at any older version you've made, but you can't change or compare it without first saving it to a separate file.

  • If you need to put notes into a Word document, either for yourself or someone else, and you want to control whether they're visible when editing or printing, consider using Hidden text or Comments.
  • If you want to keep careful track of every change that you or someone else will make to your Word documents, try Track Changes. You can Protect the tracking with a password if you need extra control.
  • If you didn't use Track Changes when you started writing (and you still have the original), use Compare Documents to see what changed between the two documents.
Where to go from here
  • Take Track Changes for a test drive: Create a new document and type in "This is my original document." Then turn on Track Changes, change "original" to "modified," and see how Word tracks your changes while you edit.
  • Look in the Help system for your version of Word for more detailed information on using these functions.
  • Although it's a little specific to Word 2003 for Windows, here's an article that covers Track Changes very well: http://www.esqinc.com/Content/WhitePapers/10-Proven-Tips-Words-Track-Changes.php 
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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