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Writing basics: Track Changes

10 April, 2008

Track Changes in Microsoft Word is one of those can’t-live-without functions for writers. I do much of my editing online, either revising my own work or commenting on others’ work. Track Changes provides an efficient way to edit electronically.

How does it work?

After you select Track Changes, any changes or comments you make to the material get highlighted with ng a different colour and style of typeface.

Here’s an example, where changes and comments are shown in  BLUE BOLD.

Original Draft

‘All those TV shows about people moving to a new country, where their biggest worry seems to be getting the right colour of wood for a stairway. But it’s not like that. First,’ she ticks off on her fingers as she talks, ‘unpacking everything and fixing up a new place. And then learning all the practical things, like finding the best butcher, and where to get good bread, and who will clean your teeth.’

Draft with Track Changes

All On thoseTV shows where people moving move to a new country, where their biggest worry seems to be getting the right colour of wood for a stairway. But it’s not like that. First,’ she ticks off on her fingers as she talks, ‘unpacking everything and fixing up a new place. And then learning all the practical things, like finding the best butcher, and where to get good bread, and who will clean your teeth.’ Julie, to help this paragraph move the story forward you could include more about what the character is feeling.

When would you use Track Changes?

  • To edit or comment on someone’s written work. The beauty of Track Changes is that it lets you  insert comments or proposed changes into a particular spot in the text. No more scribbling in the margins or drawing arrows to a location.
    And because your comments are highlighted, you can easily review them before sending them on.
  • To edit your own work. With Track Changes, it’s easy to decide if you want to keep or delete a change. You can keep any changes by  clicking an option—much easier than cutting and pasting  changes into a previous version of your work.
  • To comment on a written work at a distance. When I worked for a large, multi-site organisation, I used Track Changes to comment from a distance on colleagues’ material. It enabled quick turn-arounds while also giving everyone a chance to have their say. Using Track Changes was easier than scheduling a face-to-face editing meeting. And it was more efficient than trying to identify problems via email or telephone, e.g., Now go to page 4, and count to the 20th line down.
  • To receive comments from multiple editors/reviewers. Track Changes assigns a different editing colour to each person who uses it to change or comment on your work.
  • variations in your own work. I sometimes use Track Changes when I want to try out a major change in what I’m writing. Because the new material shows up on the screen in a different colour, I find it easier to assess if it works. If it doesn’t, returning to the original is simply a matter of not accepting the changes.


Any drawbacks?

  1. A biggest drawback is that it makes changes so easy  that you can overdo it. Perhaps someone asks you to comment on their short story. If you had a hard-copy version, you’d probably write a few suggestions in the margin, plus make an overview comment at the end.Track Changes is so easy to use that it tempts you to fix every problem.  Restrain yourself! Keep firmly in mind the usual guidelines for commenting on others’ work:
    • Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you’ve been asked to comment—not undertake a close edit—concentrate on major elements.
    • Identify problems but also provide positive comments.
    • If you suggest changes, explain your reasoning.
    • Don’t rewrite someone else’s material to make it match your own writing style.
  2. It takes time to get used to how Track Changes works. Don’t wait until a deadline to use it. Play around with it when time isn’t critical.
  3. Some people use it for commenting on others’ work but not their own. They find it too distracting seeing different print colours in their own work.

How to make changes

The following information is for Word 2002. Details about Track Changes generally and how to use it for Word versions other than 2002 can be found on Shauna Kelly’s website.

  1. Go to the TOOLS menu, in the top toolbar of Microsoft Word screen.
  2. Select the TRACK CHANGES option.
    If you look at the toobar BELOW your screen, you should see a small box with TRK highlighted. This tells you that Track Changes is on. Now anything you type will come up as an EDITING CHANGE.
  3. When you want to leave Track Changes, select TRACK CHANGES again to turn it off.

How to accept or reject changes

  1. Open your document, then go to the VIEW menu, in the top toolbar of the Microsoft Word screen.
  2. Select TOOLBAR, then REVIEWING.
    The Reviewing Toolbar (at top of your screen) will display some small icons. If you run your mouse over them, you’ll see they provide options for accepting of deleting each change.

Changing the Track Changes options

Go to the TOOLS menu and select OPTIONS.
Click on the downward arrowhead at the right of each box to choose the following:

  1. How you want to show changes.
    You can choose colour only, boldface, italics, underline, etc. Changing a font style (e.g. double underline) is better than using only a colour, especially if the document is going to be printed out on a non-colour printer.
  2. Show deletions in a ‘balloon’ in the margin.
  3. Include a vertical line in margin to identify lines where changes have been made. This option helps readers find any small changes, such as the insertion of a comma or the deletion of an unneeded space.

A number of websites provide details about how to use Track Changes. Here’s one set of  guidelines, developed for the legal profession but helpful to anyone wanting to learn the basics and advanced techniques.

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