Word’s Track Changes – what writers need to know

Microsoft’s Word package is part of its Office 365 suite – which is used by over a million companies worldwide, according to Statista. That means that there are millions of people wondering what the hell Track Changes is.

I have no statistical basis for that of course. I just know that in five years of freelance editing, only a handful of writers have known how to use it. Many are not really sure what it’s for, or what they are supposed to do about it.

I’m here to help.

In a nutshell, Track Changes does exactly what it says on the tin: it tracks changes made to a Word document, as those changes are made.

Why that’s important

As a writer, you make changes to your text all the time as you go along. That’s part of the creative process (I’m doing it as I write this article). Those changes are all known to you, and gradually build into the finished product. You don’t need to track what you are doing because you are involved in a creative process.

But when you turn your writing over to an editor, and they start changing things, it’s important to be able to see what has been done to your work. That why you want an editor who can work with Track Changes.

Where is this Track Changes thingie?

In the current version of Word it’s in the Review tab, to the right of Comments.

Word review tab showing Track Changes

Word Review tab showing Track Changes

It says, with clarity: Track Changes (there is a drop-down menu with some more advanced options which are applicable to the person doing the changes, usually the editor).

How do I see what’s been done to my text?

Next to the Track Changes button, there’s a field that says “Simple Markup”. The document will typically be set to that view when you get the document, because it’s the way the editor will have worked on the document.

In this view, there’ll be red lines down the left hand side of the document indicating where changes have been made. (Don’t be alarmed if there are lots of red lines! Word records every single change – every double space turned into a single, every font change, every fullstop inserted. Lots of red lines don’t necessarily mean your article has been butchered).

In the screenshot below, I took some text from this very blog post, turned on Track Changes and inserted some paragraph marks, which are indicated by the red lines on the left hand side.

Text showing Simple Markup

Text showing Simple Markup

If you want to see everything that’s been done, change that Simple Markup field to All Markup, via the dropdown menu. You will now see something that looks like this:

Screenshot showing all markup

Text showing All Markup

Here, you can see the deletions and insertions.

What do I do now that I can see Track Changes?

Don’t panic. Scroll through the document looking for areas where a lot of changes seem to have been made – these are where you might disagree with what the editor has done. If you then want to make changes of your own, go back to Simple Markup and work in that view. (Be aware that returning to Simple Markup may return you to a different page, unless you had your cursor at the point where you were reading).

When you look again at All Markup you will see your changes noted in a different colour. These will then be visible to the editor when you return the document to them.

What do to when the text is perfect?

Next to the Tracking panel, there’s one that says Accept – in that drop down there’s an option that says Accept All Changes and Stop Tracking. That will turn the document into a final version.

Word's Accept Changes options

Word’s Accept Changes options

How to be kind to your editor

Don’t turn Track Changes off if you intend to send it back to them for discussion. If you turn Track Changes off they are going to have to manually compare two versions of the document to see how you reacted to their edit. (All editors work differently, of course, so if you aren’t sure, ask them what they’d like you to do about Track Changes.)

There are refinements to this process, of course, but this guide should give you the means to look intelligent when people talk about Track Changes (not to mention being able to work well with your editor).


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Main picture: Tadas Sar, Unsplash

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