Version control features in Word: remain sane when collaborating on a document

You are probably aware of the track-changes feature of Microsoft Word. When you send a document to someone else to review, they can use the feature to track any changes they made to the document. After you get the document back, you can then go over the changes one by one and decide whether to accept them or not.

But what if you *gasp* keep working on the document after you’ve sent it? By the time you get the comments back from the reviewer, they will be comments on an outdated version of your document! Alternatively, you may have sent the document to two or more people to comment on. Now you have multiple different versions that all contain useful changes.

And so the grand manual labor of redoing all of the changes in the new document begins… or so you may think.

Luckily, Word has some version control tricks, so there is a better way!

In the background, Microsoft Word keeps track of all the changes you make to a document, even when the “track changes” button is off. If you’ve ever used a version control system, you may appreciate how useful this can be. The “Review” tab of the ribbon gives you access to some of the stuff you can do with this.

Accept changes once in a while

Of course, there’s the oh-so-convenient “Track Changes” button that you are hopefully familiar with (if not, let this be the joyful day you finally learn about it!) but have you ever looked at the row of buttons next to it?

For example, take the “Accept” button. You can use this to make a change not be marked as a change anymore. If you never “accept” changes, then by the time you’ve send the document back and forth a few times, the entire document is lit up like a Christmas tree: changes upon changes upon changes. A big horrible mess. Usually, it is up to the first author of the document to mark changes as accepted.

You can think of accepting changes as merging a pull request into the master branch.

Hide annoying formatting/language changes

The “Show markup” button is useful too! I use it frequently to hide formatting changes or to hide changes by previous reviewers when the first author is too lazy to press the accept changes button.

Comparing documents

The “Compare” button is a hidden gem that not many people use. If you’ve used version control, you’ll be familiar with the diff command. The “Compare” feature in Word is actually great and allows you to quickly see changes between two arbitrary versions of your document. This is also useful when your collaborator has turned off “Track Changes”, as the “Compare” feature can mark all the differences as changes.

But the most useful feature of them all must be…

Merging documents

Word can merge different versions of a document! Let’s say the situation is like this:
you’ve started out with one document (thesis.doc), but at some point you ended up with two concurrent versions (thesis_MvV.doc and thesis_RS.doc) that both contain changes you want to keep. The merging process will attempt to re-play the changes made to the original document (thesis.doc) in one of the copies (e.g. thesis_RS.doc) to the other copy (e.g. thesis_MvV.doc). The result will be this:
a new file (thesis_merged.doc) that contains the changes in both concurrent versions. See here for the actual buttons you need to press in Word in order to make merging happen.

Going back to a previous version

Annoyingly, recent versions of Word have dropped to ability to save different versions of a document in the same .doc file. So, either choose a consistent naming convention for your files and save different versions sporadically, or take the plunge and learn a decent version control system. But, even if you don’t save your document using different file names from time to time, Word keeps a decent history of a document internally in the form of auto-saves. So if you ever completely ruin your document, don’t despair. Instead, to go File➔Info➔Versions➔Manage Versions➔Recover Unsaved Files. Chances are good a previous version of your document is still there.

Would you like to know more?

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