Learning to Use Track Changes

All of us have gaps in our knowledge. For example, there are a ton of words that I know how to spell and use accurately in writing (because I’ve read them often) but am unsure of the pronunciation. (I know, I know, I could look up the pronunciation, but how often am I going to use the word chimera in conversation, really?)

One fairly common knowledge gap among writers, I’ve often been surprised to learn, involves the use of (or even existence of) “track changes.”

“What is ‘track changes’?” you ask. See, I told you.

“Track Changes” is a function in Microsoft Word that, well, tracks the changes made to a document. And it’s the go-to editing tool of editors. And, yes, I know Google Docs has a similar function (and it also very helpfully keeps track of different versions of the same document), but believe me when I say that a familiarity with “track changes” in Word is or will become important to you as you work back and forth with editors.

Obviously, you can search the internet for instructions or video tutorials on using “track changes,” so I won’t try to accomplish more than a short introduction to this valuable tool (and the following details will be slightly different if you’re working on a PC; I use Word for Mac because, well, I’m a good person).

When you open a document in Word, you can pull down the “Tools” menu at the top of your screen; one of the choices you’ll see is—looky here—“Track Changes.” That’s the one you want.

Select “Track Changes,” and then “Highlight Changes.” Check all the boxes, then return to your document. With “Track Changes” selected, every change you make—deletions, additions, formatting changes, etc.—will be tracked and highlighted in your document (and detailed in a sidebar in your document), enabling anyone who looks at your document to see what changes you’ve made.

“But what if I want it to stop tracking the changes I make?” I’m glad you asked. All you have to do in that case is go back into the “Tools” menu, select “Track Changes” again, and unclick the appropriate boxes. Your subsequent changes will not be “tracked.”

“Okay, cool. But now my document is all marked up. What if I want to look at it without all those tracked changes?” You’re just full of questions, aren’t you? To make the markup go away, all you have to do is pull down the “View” menu and deselect “markup.”

“But what if I want to send an editor a completely clean copy after I’ve been tracking changes? Won’t he or she be able to see all my changes?” Well, yes. That’s a big reason we use “track changes,” so different parties in the writing (such as collaborators) and editorial process can see what changes others have made.

“Will those tracked changes be there forever then? I don’t think I like that. I just want to go back to a crisp, clean manuscript page.” Settle down. You’re getting all worked up for nothing. In your Word-for-Mac document is a “Review” view. See it up there? No, not at the very top of your computer screen; in the document itself, where “Home,” “Insert,” etc., appear? Click on “Review,” and lo and behold, your “track changes” choices allow you to “accept” or “reject” each change, either one-by-one or all at the same time. It’s a magical land of enchantment. I guess I could’ve sent you there from the very beginning instead of all the pull-down rigmarole I put you through, but I think it was more fun that way.

Once you’ve done the process a few times, you’ll settle into a rhythm and routine that will make the review and revision process a little more orderly and fun (after all, lots of colors are involved). You can even customize your “track changes” colors and other preferences to make it more useful for you.

But believe me when I say, “track changes” will make your writing life much easier when the time comes to work with an editor on a book manuscript. And you want that. You really do. So, whether you’re working on your first book or eleventy-first book, get familiar with “track changes.” You’ll be glad you did.

And if you use “track changes,” feel free to add tips, helps, warnings, protests, and outbursts in the comments.

[The image used at the top of this article can be found at this site: Association for Learning Technology].



32 Responses to Learning to Use Track Changes

  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 23, 2019 at 4:17 am #

    I wish life had ‘track changes’
    or better, remove/replace,
    for fate so rearranges
    what we’d planned for our own space.
    I might have been a pilot
    pulling contrails in the clear high blue
    or – and I won’t deny it,
    a lawgiver commanding YOU.
    But would this have prepared me
    for a sick pup in the night?
    Have had the courage not to flee
    my marriage, but stay and fight?
    God’s ways aren’t mine, but I understand
    that He’s made the life to fit the man.

    • Bob Hostetler January 23, 2019 at 6:34 am #

      My life used to have track changes,
      But then my memory got fuzzy,
      So here I stand on the Rock of ages,
      Who never was mistaken, was He?

  2. Lori Hatcher January 23, 2019 at 4:46 am #

    Thanks for this, Bob. I use Track changes all the time in my work as an editor. Whenever I send back an edited article for the writer’s approval, I include a brief explanation of how to use Track changes in case they don’t know. Now I don’t have to anymore. I can just share the link to this post. Yippee!

    One tip I’d add is that you can switch between a “clean” version with no red and a marked up version by selecting All Mark up or Simple Mark up under the Review Tab. This way you can read the new and improved version without all the red and then switch back to see the edits that made it new and improved.

    • Bob Hostetler January 23, 2019 at 6:35 am #

      Lori, yes, absolutely. Thanks for adding that “pro tip.”

  3. Deborah Raney January 23, 2019 at 5:20 am #

    Haha! This is definitely the most ENTERTAINING article I’ve ever read on Track Changes. And yes, I believe it’s the best literary invention of the past quarter century! I use it to make notes to myself, working with my writing critique partner, and of course, with my editors.

    • Bob Hostetler January 23, 2019 at 6:37 am #

      Thank you! That’s high praise indeed. I’m not implying you were high when you wrote it, only that….oh, never mind.

  4. Bex January 23, 2019 at 5:27 am #

    Yes, BUT…does it work in Word on an Apple iPad Pro? 😉 Thank you for the introduction to track changes.

    • Bob Hostetler January 23, 2019 at 6:38 am #

      I don’t know. I’m not enough of a pro to use an iPad Pro. Wish I were.

    • Joyce January 23, 2019 at 9:10 am #

      @Bex – Track changes works in Pages on the iPad Pro. I would think it would in Word too. Put a document in there & see.

      Thanks Bob! This is a great post!! As an editor & writing coach track changes are a HUGE HELP when working with clients.

  5. Glenda Zylinski January 23, 2019 at 5:38 am #

    Hi, Bob-

    Your post helped me to settle down and know that my learning to use Track Changes is no chimera. 🙂

    Also, I never thought I’d see “orderly and fun” used in conjunction with the revision process! Color me surprised.


  6. Vie Herlocker January 23, 2019 at 6:36 am #

    I recommend saving your tracked change copy. I name that one with TC after the usual file name.Save that one.

    Then “save as” just the usual name. Now go ahead and accept all those changes.

    Thanks for this blog, Bob. As an editor, I also teach writers to use this tool…but it is as much a part of being a pro writer as knowing how to type.

    • Bob Hostetler January 23, 2019 at 6:40 am #

      Vie, yes, absolutely. Thanks for the tip.

  7. Barbara Ellin Fox January 23, 2019 at 6:37 am #

    Hi, Bob
    It was nice to walk up this morning and learn that I’m a good person, too! I don’t use track changes with an editor, yet, but I use them with my critique partners. There’s a lot of “stuff” in the Microsoft tool bar that I ignore, because well, wow. Your post encourages me to look at Track Changes more thoroughly to see if I’m using all of the functions, which I’m not because I’ve not clicked accept or reject. Thanks!

    • Bob Hostetler January 23, 2019 at 6:41 am #

      I “accept” your comment. And your status as a good person/Mac user.

  8. Cindy Payne January 23, 2019 at 7:24 am #

    Now I want to write so I can play with this new toy. Thank you Bob, for writing this, and to Lori for posting it where I would see it.

  9. Shirley Buxton January 23, 2019 at 7:33 am #

    Am I a good person (or at least semi-good) if I use Pages tracking on my Mac laptop?

    • Joyce Glass January 23, 2019 at 11:08 pm #

      You are a great person Shirley! I use Track changes in Pages too!

  10. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D January 23, 2019 at 7:53 am #

    Thanks for the very helpful info, Bob. I love eh word “eleventy-first!” What fun!

  11. Tisha Martin January 23, 2019 at 8:02 am #

    Bob, you’ve attracted all the editors with this blog post. 😉 TC (or Track Changes) is ah-mazing!! Don’t know where my writing/editing life would be without it. Thank you for giving attention to such a worthy tool.

    For anyone who has not used Track Changes, it truly is easy to use and implement. And you, your manuscript, and your editor will love you for using it with each draft. All the best to you.

  12. Seralynn Lewis January 23, 2019 at 8:49 am #

    I’ve used track changes for years in the world of business but I only use it when my fellow writers (read editors) edit my work or I theirs. I like to keep a daily iteration of documents as I write. So today, the work will be renamed xx Manuscript 2019 01 23 and tomorrow 2019 01 24 etc. This tells me when I look at my archive if I’ve written every day or if life got in the way. That’s just me and it works for me. Every person has to do what works for them.

    Sometimes there are lines that I have had to delete – for whatever reason – but were really good lines and I may want to go back and resurrect them later on. 😉

  13. Sharon K Connell January 23, 2019 at 8:58 am #

    This is what we use in the ACFW Scribes critique group and it’s a blessing.

  14. Sy Garte January 23, 2019 at 9:02 am #

    There once was a writer of fact
    Of changes he always kept track
    His computer did crash
    Changes went to the trash
    And he never could get them all back.

  15. Maco Stewart January 23, 2019 at 9:06 am #

    Bob, I turn on Track Changes before I send a draft to a reader for comments, but I find the Word Compare function most useful for seeing how a ms got a “a” to “q”, or whatever draft I’m on. I save new files every day with a date stamp (20190124, for example) at the beginning of the file name. That way comparisons over time are easy to make.

  16. Thomas Womack January 23, 2019 at 10:02 am #

    I’ve found Microsoft Word’s “Compare Versions” feature to also be very helpful, and in fact usually a superior editorial tool to the “Track Changes” in providing the same end result. Since the tracked changes get visually in the way while I’m editing (I want to keep seeing the unfolding end result only), and they also don’t work well sometimes for the best clear indication of changes resulting from editorial macros (a necessary tool for heavy editing), I forgo the tracked changes function. Instead, after editing is complete, I do a “Compare Versions” between the original and my edited version, and the resulting new document looks exactly like a “tracked changes” document. I send both the clean final edit as well as this new “redline” compared-documents version to the author. (And in that redline version, some automatic presets have redefined style tags so that all UNchanged text shows in a fainter gray type, while the changes are bolded–deletions in red strike-through, insertions in bold green underline.) The “Compare Versions” functions can still produce some quirky looking results at times, but all in all, I find that it seems to produce an easier-to-read document for the author (and editor) to review exactly what changes were made.

    • claire o'sullivan January 23, 2019 at 6:29 pm #

      I just said the same, I didn’t read through the messages as I normally do…

      Perhaps it is because of a different version of Word? Mine is older. Track changes doesn’t track a thing!

  17. Tim Shoemaker January 23, 2019 at 10:25 am #

    Great job with this, Bob. I can tell you had fun writing it–I certainly had fun reading it!

  18. Linda Riggs Mayfield January 23, 2019 at 12:20 pm #

    Here’s another editor chiming in. I don’t save all the previous colorful changes in the current working document–I update it to the last edit each day; but I do save the file with a date in the file name at the end of each work session so I can always go back and find something that was changed or deleted previously and retrieve it. I also teach my clients to use Track Changes.

    I’ve edited a few books, and I edit columns for the local newspaper, but most of my consulting/editing work is with doctoral scholars. In a dissertation, I don’t want to just change things, I want to teach the scholar how to recognize a weakness or error and learn from the mistake, so s/he can become a better writer in the process, as well as a better expert in his/her field. The New Comment function under Review is perfect for explaining a recommended change. I can highlight the error or the TC correction, select New Comment, and in the right side column, explain/teach. Since the client must Accept or Reject each suggested change, I think including the rationale for the suggestion is extremely important. Doing that might benefit other writers in critique groups, as well.

    And Bob, I had edited several years before I discovered Track Changes–I wish I had run into you a lot sooner! ;-D

    • Elaine Starner January 23, 2019 at 2:29 pm #

      I agree with Linda… The Comments feature is one of the most helpful aspects in Track Changes. I use it regularly to make suggestions to writers, like “Is this the exact word you want?” or “Would several examples be helpful here?” or “As a reader, I’m totally lost here. Let’s try to find a clearer way to explain this.” You get the idea… Then the work is still up to the writer, and they are learning at the same time.

  19. claire o'sullivan January 23, 2019 at 6:28 pm #

    Hi – great post.

    I didn’t even know this was available! On my Word doc, I went to Track changes and it came up with nothing. So, I tried a different method. Under REVIEW, there is the pane for ‘track changes,’ the one that didn’t work. However, the next pane over gives options of compare to original document, as well as ‘show markup.’

    This produces the tracking/editing.

    So, why do agents, editors look at this, is this a process used from my MS to a professional editor to the agent edit to the publishing house?

    Reminds me a bit about despair I had many years ago. ‘Send query with first three chapters and SASE.’ I was doomed, doomed, I tell you. Moments later, it dawned on me, but for those few seconds, nothing in life made sense. Ha!!

  20. Terri L Gillespie January 24, 2019 at 4:06 am #

    Thanks, Dad! 🙂 Great blog. Felt like my dad was walking me through the instructions. Appreciate the finer aspects of Track Changes’ functionality! Thanks, Bob.

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