Tracking changes in a document

Tracking changes in a document

A recent conversation amongst freelance writer friends brought-up a word processor feature they universally hate: Track Changes. Designed to show what edits have been made to a document, including deletions, typically an editor will activate the Track Changes feature, make her edits, and then pass the Word document back to the author so they can see what’s been altered.

The basics

In the old days editors scribbled edits on the actual page, typically with a red pen, and they wrote comments in the margins. The Track Changes feature is an attempt to recreate this within a word processing document. Keep this in mind you’ll make sense of the often confusing look of a document that’s had Track Changes activated.

Text that’s been deleted is struck through with a line, but it still sticks around on the page, just like it would in real life. Any new copy that’s been added is underlined. Comments inserted into the document by the editor appear on the right of the page, with a line attaching them to the word(s), sentence(s) or paragraph(s) they refer to. A line appears in the left margin alongside a paragraph to indicate at a glance where an edit or addition has taken place.

All of this is referred to as markup but that’s all there is to it understanding the look of a tracked changes document. Although even a moderately-edited document can look bewildering when covered in markup, it really isn’t very hard to understand – and your skills will quickly get better with experience.

Everybody who makes an edit once Track Changes is activated gets their own colour of pen, which is to say, their edits appear in a particular text colour. Hover the mouse cursor over each edit and you’ll also see the name of the editor appear as a pop-up tooltip.

Once Track Changes has been activated, even the original author’s edits will be marked up as described earlier. All subsequent changes, no matter who they’re made by, are marked-up until such time as Track Changes is switched off.

On and off

Track Changes is located on the Review ribbon/toolbar in most modern versions of Word, where you can turn it on and off by clicking its button. Notably, any markup from previous edits will continue to stick around even if you turn it off.

If you’re using LibreOffice then you can click Edit > Track Changes > Record Changes.

By default Word 2016 shows “Simple Markup”, which is to say it hides edits from the user aside from the line in the left-hand margin showing where an edit or addition has taken place. You can switch to viewing all the markup by selecting the option in the dropdown list alongside the Track Changes button. Alternatively, if you temporarily want to hide all markup while you make your edits you can select the option from the list – and this can be useful if you just want to work without becoming overwhelmed by a messy page. (In LibreOffice markup is always shown if Track Changes is active.)

Comments can be inserted by clicking the New Comment button (or the Comment button on the main toolbar in LibreOffice), but again they won’t be visible in Word unless you’re viewing all markup. Anything you type into a comment box is separate from the main body of the text and can’t be integrated at a later date unless you copy and paste it manually.

Dealing with rejection

Track Changes isn’t just about seeing what’s been edited. It’s also about approving or rejecting edits, and this is how an increasing number of editors use the feature – they’ll make their edits with Track Changes activated, and/or add comments, and then send the document back to the author for their final approval.

There’s several ways of accepting or rejecting marked-up insertions or deletions. The simplest is to right-click one of them, then select the option from the pop-up menu that appears.

Bear in mind that if you accept a deletion then that text will instantly disappear. If you reject any inserted text it will also disappear from the page.

A major cause of confusion when reviewing changes are very small edits, such as inserted/deleted punctuation or corrected spelling – an American editor removing the U from the word colour, for example. Again, these will be marked-up but are often hard to spot, and very difficult to right-click once you do see them.

Therefore, a more useful method of accepting and rejecting edits in Word is to use the Previous and Next buttons on the Review ribbon/toolbar. These are alongside the main Track Changes button, and simply jump the cursor to the next (or previous) edit. The edit in question will also be highlighted so you can’t miss it. You can then click the Accept or Reject buttons alongside the Previous/Next buttons on the toolbar. This allows for a speedy workflow, especially on heavily-edited documents.

In LibreOffice, a similar feature is provided by clicking Edit > Track Changes > Manage Changes.

One very useful trick is this: If you’re confident the edits are all for the good, in Word you can click the small down arrow beneath the Accept button on the ribbon, and select Accept All Changes. In LibreOffice you can click the Accept All button in the Manage Changes window.

Comment is free

Sometimes a comment from an editor might be simply explanatory in nature, in which case you might choose to delete it by right-clicking within it and selecting the option from the pop-up menu.

If you don’t agree with the content of the comment and need to provide feedback for the editor to see, you can right-click the comment and select the reply option. This will append and inset a new comment beneath. Obviously, this is also how you should reply to any comments containing questions.

If you disagree with an edit then you might choose to leave the edit in situ, without approving or rejecting it, and attach your own comment by highlighting it and selecting the New Comment button on the ribbon. Beware, though, because if somebody later approves or rejects that particular edit, the comment you created will not be deleted. In the case of the edit being removed, the comment will simply attach itself to the nearest word or sentence. This can create immense confusion, so it’s a good idea to always delete any comment attached to an edit before approving or rejecting it.

As with when reviewing changes, in Word you can use Previous and Next buttons to quickly switch through comments. This time the buttons you need are to the left of the main Track Changes button on the ribbon, alongside the New Comment and Delete Comment buttons.

Comments work best if Microsoft Word knows your name, because your name is added to each to identify you. It attempts to guess your name based on your Windows login username, but you can tell it your proper name by clicking the File ribbon, then clicking the Options heading and typing your name under the heading that reads Personalize Your Copy of Microsoft Office. Type your full name into the Username field, and your initials into the relevant field beneath this. On a Mac open the Preferences dialog box (tap Cmd+comma), then select the User Information icon before entering your details. In LibreOffice click Tools > Options, ensure User Data is selected at the left, and enter your details.

Unfortunately, clarifying your details in this way won’t retrospectively rename comments or edits you’ve already made.