Track Changes

Anyone who writes or edits books will eventually come across a mention to the Track Changes feature in Word. It’s a powerful tool that gets a lot of use on my Mac, and it’s worth the price I paid for Office all on its own. I’m going to go over what Track Changes can do, and explain why all writers should be using it for editing–particularly when other people are involved in the process.

Love it for its features or despise it for its ubiquity, Microsoft Word is the standard for manuscripts in the publishing industry. Track changes is built into the application on both the Mac and PC versions. This screenshots here were taken on a Mac, but you can look up details for Windows on the Microsoft website.

Inline changes highlighted in Word's Track Changes

Track Changes is an editing tool, and with it enabled, Word will display all of the alterations you you’ve made. You–and anyone else working on the file–can also accept or reject any changes. (Accepting a change also wipes out the history behind it. We’ll come back to this last point.)

Comment balloon in Word's Track Changes

Track Changes is also a collaboration tool, and as you can see in the above screenshot, it lets you leave notes for writers. They’re color coded, so comments left by different users can be identified quickly.

But sometimes things aren’t so neat: Some writers insist on taking any editorial changes and pasting them into their original document. Editors will get multiple versions of a file with different changes that may or may not have a change history associated with them. But don’t worry, Word has you covered there too: The Compare Documents feature will generate a new document and show you the differences.

Microsoft Word report generated by Compare Documents

You can turn Track Changes on and off in Word’s “ribbon”, in the Review tab. There are also buttons here that let you view the original, unchanged text of a document; that help you navigate through comments; and buttons to accept and reject changes–whether one change at a time or an entire document’s worth of edits. (Be careful with that last one.)

The Track Changes section of Word's Review ribbon

When everybody involved in a manuscript–author, beta readers, editor, agent, proofreader–knows how to do all of this, you’ll end up with a document that including everybody’s notes and changes, nicely color-coded. When you’ve been through a manuscript a few times already, this is a great time-saver. It also gives an author a high level of control over the final product.

Track Changes is mostly used for novels and business documents, but I also use it for blog posts when I’m working with writers who prefer several rounds of back-and-forth changes. OpenOffice has a similar set of features, but Word has implemented it in a way that’s much easier to use.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a sample edit. He’s fascinated by places where language and music intersect, and he writes music and lyrics as often as possible. He’s also in the studio with his band Baroque & Hungry.

5 thoughts on “Track Changes

  1. I have a love-hate relationship with Track Changes, I have to admit. I can certainly appreciate the ease of getting everyone’s feedback at one time, and deciding which changes to ‘accept’. Or not, as the case may be. On the other hand, when you’re the writer, and you’re staring at a document with feedback from different people, in different colours, it can be overwhelming. I have clients for whom I do advertising, who use it. And there can be 10 or 12 different team members who are all making suggestions, merely asking questions, or just want to feel like they’re contributing, at the same time. It can look like a royal mess; and actually takes a lot of time and careful scrutiny to figure out who is saying what.

    1. I can see how this is a problem, but it’s a problem with the system your work uses: You’re getting feedback from too many people, on too detailed a level. Would it help if you asked people to write a general note instead of using a feature that’s really meant for discussion of specific passages in the text?

      Regarding the riot of color on your screen: Word preferences will allow you to specify the colors the comments are in. I have it set to “by author”, meaning different commenters get different colors. But if I were in your situation, with comments from any one of a dozen reviewers, I’d probably select a nice, soothing blue or green.

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