Help with Writing: Word Advanced, Part 2a

This post is dedicated to Track Changes. I mean dedicated in both senses — it’s the only thing I talk about in this post, and also Track Changes deserves special recognition as possibly the most useful tool in the MS Word arsenal. Are you working with a colleague on a document? You’ll need Track Changes (it’s more functional than Google docs for academic collaboration). Are you working with a publisher to get your article out? Most, although not all, of them use Track Changes for copyediting. Are you trying to save the environment by grading paper-free? One of the easiest ways to do that is (you guessed it) Track Changes. If you, like me, are already a heavy user, this post is probably not for you. And I’m sorry: it took me so long to explain how wonderful Track Changes is that it will be next week’s post, too.

On the other hand, if you are new to the world of Track Changes or really need a refresher, read on!

Unlike some of the other tools I’ve mentioned, Track Changes is very simple. There is a button that you click to turn it on. From that point forward, every change you make to the document is recorded. If you want to work on the same document with a second person (for example, if you are co-writing a book chapter or working on a grant application), that person’s changes will also be recorded. Word differentiates between different users by using different color texts.

Track Changes: the basics

Everything related to Track Changes is controlled by the Review Panel. When you first open a document, Track Changes is defaulted to off:

review panel MS word

You can see the slider in the middle just under Review. Click and drag to the right to turn Track Changes on. That’s all you need to do!

MS word track changes on

When you put Track Changes on, a few things happen:

  • Any insertions are marked with a line (usually defaulted to red) in the left margin. The inserted text is also in color, even if you’re cutting and pasting it. A bubble appears in the right margin explaining the change.
  • Any deletions are also marked with a line in the left margin, and the deleted text appears in a bubble on the right. BUT in-text the deletions are silent: although older versions of Word would show the deleted word(s) with a line through them, that is no longer the default in Word 2011, 2016, or Office 365. (Miss it? You can turn that back on by clicking on Markup Options, then Balloons, and selecting Show All Revisions Inline). For people who don’t know what I’m talking about, it looks like this: MS word inline revisions I personally find it harder to work this way, but you might prefer it.
  • Any formatting changes (font, size, face) are marked with a line in the left margin and a bubble in the right explaining the change. It will look something like this: Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 2.45.34 PM and I’ll show you how to get rid of it later in the post.
  • You can also choose to add a New Comment, which will open a box in the right-hand margin where you can type freely. If you have word(s) highlighted, those words will be highlighted in your Track Changes color (again, that’s usually red). If you just have your cursor in the text, the previous word will be highlighted.

MS word track changes comment

Once you’ve turned Track Changes on, it will remain on in that document until you turn it off. Even if you close the window or quit Word, Track Changes will still be on. But if you’re worried, you can also return to the Review panel at any time to make sure that you have activated Track Changes.

How to use Track Changes

This is the most important part, and honestly it’s easy to forget until you get used to it. When I first started grading online, I would realize about a paragraph in that I’d forgotten to turn Track Changes on. Unfortunately, you can’t track changes retroactively. Your best bets, if you forget, are either:

  1. If you haven’t done much work, chalk it up to experience and either close the window or hit undo to return the document to its original state. Then activate Track Changes and re-edit; or
  2. If you have done substantial work, re-save your changed file under a different name. Then go to the Compare menu and hit Compare Documents….


MS Word Compare menu

Click here first, anywhere in the box labeled ‘Compare’

MS Word compare menu

Then highlight and click the top option

This will open a dialogue box, where you can choose the two documents to compare. Although it doesn’t really matter, I recommend putting the later (changed) document on the right.

MS Word compare dialogueScreen Shot 2017-10-08 at 2.00.41 PM

You can Label changes with any label you want; the default is to use the name that Word is registered to.

When you then hit “Okay”, Word will give you a new (third) document that has all of your changes tracked (in blue)!

MS Word compared document

Now, if you turn on Track Changes, your new changes will be in a different color (red), as if they’d been changed by a third party. That’s because by activating Track Changes, you are recording the changes in the new (third) document, and Word wants you to be able to keep track of what was changed between versions 1 and 2, and what was changed between versions 2 and 3.

MS Word Track Changes in Compared document

If you had multiple authors working on this file, or if you’d chosen a different name for the Compare documents… option above, you’d be able to isolate one person’s or one version’s changes by going to Markup Options. There, you can choose to view the changes of only one reviewer. Because both of my reviewers have the same name, this isn’t very helpful:

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 2.13.32 PM

But you can see that if I turn the Compare Documents me off, the changes are much cleaner-looking and easier to read:

MS word track changes by isolating single reviewer

TIP: all changes to the document still appear in the document, but they are no longer marked as changes. Basically, this option lets you view the final document with only your changes highlighted.

You’ll notice that this window also lets you control what changes are visibly tracked (the checkmarks next to Insertions and Deletions, Formatting, etc.). Unchecking some of those options, especially Formatting, will result in a cleaner-looking document with less clutter in the margins (I assume that most of the time, users are less concerned about fonts and typefaces and more concerned about contents and ideas). This is what I mean by ‘less clutter’: the same section of a document where the only change I’ve made is hiding Formatting changes.

MS word tracked changes with and without formattingScreen Shot 2017-10-08 at 2.36.41 PM

As you can see, Formatting can really overwhelm your margins. I always hide these changes (by un-checking Formatting) for complex documents. Don’t worry — even if you un-check those, they’ll still be tracked by Word, and you can turn them back on at any time!

At this point, you should have a handle on the basics of using Track Changes for your own work, whether that’s writing your own argument or correcting and editing someone else’s. In the next post, I’ll cover how to use Track Changes to work collaboratively with someone else (or even multiple people).

Questions? Comments? Passionate defenses of G-Suite? Let us know in the comments or on social media!



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