Collaboration is a key element of good document creation in most workplaces. Like most features in Microsoft Word, the collaboration tools are powerful, but they can be frustrating to use until you learn how they work and how to make the best of them.
We’ve taken a look at tips for better formatting in Word before, and now it’s time to turn our attention to collaboration. Maybe you’re lucky enough to be the only person working on a document, but more likely you have other people adding their input too. In some cases, that might be a lot of people. Fortunately, Word has pretty solid collaboration tools.
The instructions in this post are based on Word 2013. Most features will work the same in previous versions and in the upcoming Word 2016, which is now in public preview. We’ll note where any major differences occur.
Why Use Word Instead Of Google Docs?
The attraction of Google Docs, at least to me, is that I can easily create and edit any document on any Internet-connected device I happen to be using. It’s free, fast, simple, and everywhere. That’s a powerful attraction. And if Google Docs does what you need it to do, then why not use it?
The trouble is that Google Docs doesn’t really have a robust feature set, and especially in the workplace, a lot of people need that power. In terms of collaboration, Google Docs does offer one important feature that Word, so far at least, lacks. Real-time collaboration allows you to work with other people on the same document at the same time, seeing the changes they make as they make them.
Real-time collaboration is great in certain cases. If you have a small, tight team who can all get together at the same time to review a document and, ideally, can communicate via voice or video chat (or in person) while the editing is happening, it’s hard to beat real-time collaboration. In fact, that’s the kind of environment where Google Docs excels overall. Google Docs does offer its own take on Word’s Tracked Changes feature (though Google calls it Suggestions), and it is easy to use. But it’s nowhere near as robust as Word’s offering when you’re working with complicated documents or on complex teams. And that’s the kind of environment where Microsoft Word excels.
In the end, it’s about choosing the tool that works best for your team.
Learn The Basics Of Collaboration
I’ve been working on documents in Word for a very long time and I’ve seen all forms of collaboration. People who insist on emailing me changes because they don’t want to mess with the document. People who print documents out and redline changes with their trusty pen. It seems kind of crazy, but this behaviour often stems from a misunderstanding, and an ensuing mistrust, of how collaboration tools in Word actually work.
There are really just two collaboration tools in Word:
- Track Changes allows you to visibly keep track of each person’s revisions within a document. Added text shows up in a different colour for each person who’s made changes. Deleted text also changes colour and appears struck through with a line. When it’s time to review the document, you can accept or reject each individual change.
- Comments annotate a document with notes that don’t really belong in the document text itself. These notes appear in the right margin, are colour coded along the same lines as tracked changes, and include the commenter’s initials.
Depending on the version of Word you’re working with, you also may find other collaboration tools. In some older versions, you’ll see a tool named Web Discussions, which is a sort of online commenting system. In Word 2016, you’ll also see tools for real-time collaboration.
Put Somebody In Charge Of The Document
Before we get into the details of how Word’s collaboration tools work, we should talk about the most powerful step you can take to ensure good collaboration in Word: put a single person in charge of a document. Make that person responsible for ensuring that people understand (and use) the collaboration tools, routing the document where it needs to go, and incorporating changes at each step along the way.
Depending on how you work on documents in your environment, this may seem like overkill. Maybe you’ve only got two or three people working on a document and you trust each one to do their thing. But what happens if three people decide to edit the same document at the same time?
Also keep in mind that in many environments, the issues are more complicated. Consider this scenario. My wife works for a company that consults for other companies preparing government proposals. A single document may be over 100 pages. There may be different authors working on every section of the document, with other techs or engineers contributing. A whole chain of people at the main company have to provide their input and a number of people at my wife’s company will have input too, ranging from technical editing to copy editing to formatting. And a single proposal may have eight or more of those documents and go through a dozen phases of writing. As you can imagine, this can get messy fast.
One way to handle this is with a document management system, like Microsoft SharePoint, where people have to check out a document to work on it and no one else can work on it at the same time. But even with this setup, you find people who try to find shortcuts around the system.
Putting one person in charge of managing the document and routing it through the various people who have to provide input (whether via email or using a content management system) goes a long way toward preventing a collaboration nightmare. So, with that little lecture over, let’s take a look at how to manage some of this stuff in Word.
Track And Review Changes
To turn Track Changes on or off in a Word document, switch to the Review toolbar and click the Track Changes button (or press Ctrl+Shift+E). When it’s turned on, Word automatically marks all of the changes made to the document. Formatting changes are noted in balloon text in the right column.
When multiple people work on a document with Track Changes turned on, different peoples’ changes are marked in different colours so it’s easier to tell who did what. To find out which person made the change, just hold the pointer above a change for a moment to display a popup showing the author, date and type of the change. All changes in the document (including formatting changes) are also marked with a vertical bar outside the left margin to make it easier to scan for changes.
At some point, you’ll need to review changes and decide whether to accept or reject them. Word provides a couple of ways to do this:
- Toolbar. The reviewing options are on the Tracking and Changes sections of the Review toolbar. Use the Previous and Next buttons to move through changes in the document. Use Accept to make a change permanent and move automatically to the next change. Use Reject to revert to the original text or formatting.
- Context menu. You can also right-click any change to open a context menu with options for accepting and rejecting changes. I actually like this way the best because I’m usually hovering with my pointer anyway in case I need to make any last-minute corrections. Since I’m usually reading the document as I review changes, using the context menu seems to interrupt my reading flow the least.
You can also accept or reject multiple changes at once by selecting text and using the buttons on the toolbar. For example, you might prefer reading a whole paragraph at a time, selecting that paragraph, and then accepting all the changes. Unfortunately, you can’t use the context menus this way because, for some reason, the reviewing options do not appear if any of the selected text is not a marked change.
Change The Way You View Tracked Changes
As with most options in Word, you can tweak a fair number of settings controlling how you see tracked changes. In the Tracking section of the Review toolbar, the Display for Review dropdown menu reveals these four options:
- Simple Markup. Use this view to see the final version of the document with no tracked changes shown inline, but with red vertical lines on the left margin indicating where tracked changes occur. You can click any of those margin lines to toggle between showing markup inline and not (basically switching between Simple Markup and All Markup views), making it pretty handy for reading through a clean document but having quick access to tracked changes.
- All Markup. Use this view to see all of the tracked changes in the document. This was the standard view in previous versions of Word (and was named Final: Show Markup), so if you’re coming from an older version you might find this the most comfortable to work in.
- No Markup. Use this view to see the document as it would appear if all tracked changes are accepted. This view is particularly useful if you have a document that’s so heavily marked up it has become difficult to read.
- Original. Use this view to review the original state of the document before any changes were made. Note that changes you have accepted will be considered part of the original document.
Right below that menu, the Show Markup dropdown menu lets you control what markup you see onscreen. You can toggle on or off markup for comments, ink, insertions and deletions, formatting, types of balloons, or even specific reviewers.
Set Advanced Tracking Options
You can take this a step further with advanced options. By default, Word assigns a single colour automatically to each author that edits a document, strikes through deleted text, and underlines added text. But, you can change that.
At the bottom right of the Tracking section of the Review toolbar, click the small pop-out arrow to open the Track Changes Options window and then click Advanced Options. The Advanced Track Changes Options window lets you fine-tune how changes are displayed. You can control how different types of markup (like insertions, deletions, and changed lines) appear and how they are coloured. For example, maybe instead of seeing a different colour markup for each reviewer, you want to see all changes in red. You can do that. Or maybe you want to insertions as bold instead of underlined and have insertions coloured red and deletions coloured blue. You can do that too. You can also control elements like how changes are handled within tables, whether formatting is tracked, and even the size of balloons (for comments and formatting changes) and in which margin they appear. Just bear in mind that if other people are used to the standard Word settings, altering these may confuse them.
Protect Your Document
One of the best ways to ensure that everyone uses the Track Changes feature is to lock your document. Word 2013 (and 2016) makes this very easy. Click the dropdown menu under the Track Changes button and then click Lock Tracking. Word will ask you to assign a password. You can only unlock tracking if you enter the password.
When tracking is locked, nobody can turn off Track Changes and nobody can accept or reject any changes. Any changes made to the document are tracked using whatever options you’ve set up.
You can also turn this feature on by clicking the Restrict Editing button on the Review toolbar. In fact, this method gives you extra options like limiting formatting to certain styles and allowing only certain types of changes, such as comments. The Restrict Editing button is also available in previous versions of Word.
Leave Comments For Others
Comments are actually pretty simple. Click somewhere in the document (or highlight some text) and then click New Comment on the Review toolbar. A blank comment bubble appears in the right margin and you can type whatever you like. You can use the toolbar the move through the comments in the document and delete them when they are no longer needed.
Word 2013 (and 2016) also offer threaded comments. In any comment, just click the Reply button to reply to that comment and keep everything nice and tidy. Versions previous to 2013 did not have threaded comments, so following discussions could get a little messy. One easy way to approximate threaded comments if you’re using an older version is to just add text to an existing comment, spacing down and including your name at the beginning of your new text. It’s not great, but it does prevent multiple comments about the same topic from crowding the page.
As easy as they are to use, one of the challenges I’ve run into with comments is getting people to use them. I still have people today who will send me comments by email, along with page and paragraph numbers that might change as the document is edited. And I have people that insist on leaving their comments as inserted text right in the document. So, this is another instance in which a little prepping and education can go a long way.
Combine Or Compare Changes
If you do find yourself in a situation where you have multiple versions of the same document, Word does offer a way to combine or compare documents. Frankly, I hate using it. It is much better to let each reviewer make changes in turn. But it can be handy to have the option. Both the combine and compare features work by bringing changes from one document into an original version of that document. Just note that you can use any document as the original, despite what Word calls it. Think of it more as the master document. Both tools are found under the Compare button on the Review toolbar.
- Combine. This tool merges changes in documents from multiple reviewers and is your best choice if you have multiple documents that all contain tracked changes. You’ll work with two documents at a time. When you combine two documents, your window will divide into three parts. A large pane to the left shows the combined document, where tracked changes from both documents are shown. Two smaller panes to the right show the original and revised document. You can work through and accept changes using the normal methods. Though it’s tempting to just keep merging all your documents into one (assuming you have three or more), you’re much better off tackling just two documents at a time, reviewing all the changes, and then bringing in the changes from the next document.
- Compare. This tool is useful if you have a version of the document where Tracked Changes was not turned on when changes were made. This tool also offers a three-paned view, with the compared document on the left. As you scroll, all three windows scroll together at the same point in the document.
See anything we missed or have your own tips to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.