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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Using Tracked Changes in Word

Tracked changes is IMO an underused, over abused feature in Microsoft Word. Essentially unchanged since Word 6.0, it has traditionally been clunky and hard to use. I have also talked with people who have serious I'll-sue-you concerns over privacy with regards to the Tracked Changes feature. However, in Word 2002 and Word 2003, the feature has been enhanced, though still not perfect. Some documents will even become corrupt and unusable if you use tracked changes for too long, without accepting some of the changes (especially if you updated TOCs a lot with tracked changes turned on!).

So, I've included in this article basic and practical information about Tracked Changes, a.k.a. Word's Markup feature.

1. What Does It Do?

Tracked Changes provides the ability for multiple users to review and make in-line changes to a document. The author/owner can then chose to accept or reject the suggested changes. It's as "simple" as that; and that's all it should be used for. I've seen attempts to make this a feature for collaborative creation (as opposed to revision) on a document. While you can do that, there are better ways to create a collaborative document.

2. How Do You Use It?

Tracked Changes can be turned on and off using the Reviewing toolbar:

  1. Click View > Toolbars > Reviewing
    Alternatively, you can right-click your menu bars and choose Reviewing
The reviewing toolbar for tracked changes in Microsoft WordTo better understand how to use Tracked Changes, you have to understand what each button is for and how to use the Reviewing toolbar to get around.

  1. Used to select the level of detail: Screenshot showing some text with markup

    • Final Showing Markup (default)
      This shows you the end result of the reviewing changes if you accepted all of the changes, along with the in-line changes themselves.
    • Final
      This shows you just the end result of what you'd see if you accepted all of the changes.
    • Original Showing Markup
      This shows you the original text, with the changes in-line.
    • Original
      This shows you just the original text.

  2. Provides you with more control over what you see: one of the Tracked Changes buttons Microsoft Word uses

    Think of this as the options menu. The most important thing to remember here is that you can see who the reviewers are (Show > Reviewers) and select which Reviewers comments you want to see.

  3. Change navigation buttons: Tracked Changes navigation buttons for browsing between errors

    These allow you you jump from change to change, without having to hunt them down by scrolling through the document.

  4. Accept and reject change buttons: Tracked changes accept and reject buttons

    These are important because they give you the ability to accept the "active" change (where you cursor is), or to do so for all changes in the document. Use the little down-arrow menu for more options.

  5. Comment and highlight buttons: Comment and highlight buttons for use with Word documents using Tracked Changes

    These give you quick access to the Insert > Comment menu entry and highlighting button on the formatting toolbar.

  6. Tracked Changes button: How to turn on and off tracked changes in Microsoft Word with a toolbar

    This is a toggle button that turns tracked changes on and off for the entire document.

  7. Reviewing Pane button: The button to toggle the reviewing pane inside of Microsoft Word

    This opens the reviewing pane, which is a small scrollable window at the bottom of the document. It's an easy way to see what changes have been made in the document.
3. What Can I Do With It?

Tracked changes does a couple of things for you. When you delete text, Word turns it red and strikes it out. This is the market for a deletion. When you insert text, Word turns the inserted text red, but does not strike it out. Word also creates a balloon comment about the change in the margin of the document (if you have that feature enabled in Reviewing Toolbar > Show > Balloons).

An example showing the reviewing features
4. Accepting and Rejecting Comments

So, when you're reviewing a document for someone, you can make in-line changes like spelling, word insertion/deletion, and sentence rephrasing. You can do whatever you want to the document, and Word will track every change that you make. No special action is required on your part, unless you want to make a comment about a section without making a change. if that's the case, all you have to do is select some text, click the Comment button on the toolbar (the comment and highlight buttons), and make your comment in the balloon in the margin.

As an author of a document, when you review the document that includes changes, you have the ability to accept or reject any or all of the changes made by other reviewers. You can accept or reject changes in a variety of ways. I find the easiest is to right-click the change and select 'Accept Change' or 'Reject Change'. That makes the balloon disappear and removes any markup on the text.
the reviewing context menu inside for Microsoft Word

5. Problems and Consequences

As mentioned earlier, these markup features can present problems. For example, if you turn on Tracked Changes and update a Table of Contents field, you'll wind up with a ginormous comment containing your new Table of Contents, and your new TOC will show up red-lined as a new addition, and your old TOC will show struck out in the document. I've seen large TOCs and Tracked Changes bring Word to its knees. So, document bloat is a real possibility.

Another increased danger is that of the document becoming damaged. It makes sense: the more you add to something, the more things that can break.

So, the moral of the story, as with most features in Microsoft Word, is that you can't just turn them on and create the document indefinitely, expecting no problems. You must, at some point in the processing of your document, stop and reassess where you are. If you're using tracked changes, occasionally get to the point that you accept (or reject) all changes in the document. A new baseline will save you a lot of headaches.

With those caveats said, Word's reviewing feature can be and is a benefit to many users. There are millions of documents floating around who have benefited from this feature, and the users have probably only lived with minor annoyances as payment. Just be sure that if your meta data is sensitive, take appropriate privacy precautions for your Word documents.

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