A pile of the Microsoft Word logo on tiles.
Image: Andreas Prott/Adobe Stock

You’ve been able to work in a Microsoft Word document at the same time as someone else for many years. Since Word 2010, if the file is stored somewhere like OneDrive or SharePoint, you’ve shared the file with the people you want to collaborate with, and it’s in .DOCX rather than .DOC format.

The Share button in the top right of the ribbon shows you which other people are working in the same document as you, and colorful flags with their initials show you where in the file they’re making changes, so everyone doesn’t try to make the same change at the same time. Microsoft calls this co-authoring.

SEE: Microsoft Office Professional 2021 for Windows: Lifetime License (TechRepublic Academy)

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Word editing conflicts can result in confusion and lost work

Older versions of Word lock the entire paragraph each person has their cursor placed in to avoid overwriting, but while you can see where someone else is typing, you may still be able to change something that interferes with what they’re working on – and if one of you is working offline, you can both change the same sentence in different ways.

If you’re using Word on iPad, two people can edit the same section at the same time, but the document won’t save until you check on the Conflicts tab to make a decision about any changes that clash.

If you make conflicting edits in desktop Word while you’re not connected, when you go back online, you’ll see a sync error from OneDrive when you go back online telling you that you need to open the document and deal with the conflict (your changes will be stored in a local copy of the document with the name of your computer appended). If it happens while you’re online, you’ll see an error bar inside Word telling you that your upload failed and AutoSave will stop working – and you’ll stop seeing new edits from other people in the document, so if you keep working you’ll only get further behind.

Either way, fixing the problem has meant giving up your own changes (choose Discard Changes), saving a local copy of the document – or copying the content into a blank document temporarily – and then redoing all your edits, either by scrolling through the document manually or using the Compare tools on the Review tab in the ribbon.

Sometimes you’ll see a Resolve button on the error bar that lets you step through all the conflicting changes as if you’d been using Track Changes and accept or reject each of them. That usually means someone who was editing the document didn’t have AutoSave turned on in the first place, but it can actually be easier to fix because it makes it clear where the problems are.

Fixing collaboration failures

The new way of recovering from these kinds of editing conflicts that has been rolling out in recent Office Insider releases (2208 and later builds of the Beta Channel) also lets you review conflicting changes without making it look like an error or asking you to create multiple documents so you can copy and paste what you already typed once. Instead, the yellow notification at the top of your document asks you to review conflicting edits, and it shows them as tracked changes – but the author is shown as Microsoft Word rather than one of your colleagues.

  • Click Review Changes and you’ll see the conflicts highlighted in the document. You may need to turn on Show Markup or select All Markup under Track Changes on the Review tab of the toolbar to make them visible.
  • Or you can use the Accept and Reject navigation buttons on the Changes dropdown to navigate through them and deal with each one.

But make sure you’re not working in an offline copy of the document while you’re editing, so everyone can see your edits as you work, and you’ll get the edits they’re making live in the document.

Sometimes you’ll see that you and another author have made different choices like whether to use a word or digit for a number or updating a reference with more recent information. Other times you’ll see that text you added to the document has been deleted – not because someone else removed it on purpose but because Word wasn’t able to upload it and sync the document; in that case, rejecting the change will put back what you added without all the extra work of copying or retyping it.

You might also see a Refresh button on the toolbar telling you there’s a newer version of the document available; this means there has been a problem with your network connectivity, but you haven’t made any conflicting changes. While Word can’t update the document with other people’s changes automatically, you don’t have to change any of your own work.

There might be times when Word will suddenly close, reopen and tell you that the document has been updated – that means you had the same kind of network problems, but they’re fixed, and you don’t have to change any of your edits. Think of it as Word hitting the Refresh button for you without asking – it’s annoying, but it does avoid you having to deal with decisions about conflicting changes later on because you’re not working in an older version of the document.

Co-authoring in Word, SharePoint and OneDrive

If you’re using Word on the web, a mobile version of Word or the desktop version of Word 2016 or later, changes save automatically, and you will all see each other’s edits in more or less real time – as long as you all have Microsoft 365 subscriptions. Someone who is in an older version of Word or doesn’t have an Office subscription will have to hit Save to sync their changes and see yours.

Similarly, multiple people can edit the same Word file at the same time if it’s stored in SharePoint Server. When one person saves the file, everyone else working on it gets a notification that there are new edits they can choose to see straight away or wait and see later.

That’s the same experience as if you’re working on a document stored in OneDrive or OneDrive for Business when you’re not connected: You can keep editing and, when you go back online, other people in the document will be notified about your changes, and you will see a notification for any edits they’ve made. You’ll also get a notification that someone has made changes when you reopen a document that has been edited since you last worked on it.

If you stick to Word on the web, you can share and edit documents collaboratively when they’re stored on services that can handle co-authoring like Box, Dropbox or Citrix ShareFile, and depending on the subscription you have to your storage service, you may not need an Office subscription. With Box and some other services, you can co-author on iOS, too; with Dropbox, it also works on Android. But you can’t co-author documents stored on Google Drive in Office on the web or any other device.

If you can’t get co-authoring to work, there are a few things to check, starting with whether you’re online. Very long documents, documents that have been left open for a very long time, Group Policy, document permissions, master documents, having macros in the document, ActiveX controls and OLE objects can all block simultaneous editing.

The most common problem is conflicting changes, which is when two authors make different edits to the same section. These Word co-authoring updates that notify writers provide a more seamless way to approve or reject changes and automatically refreshing the document reduces the confusion when multiple people are working in a doc.

Read next: How to quickly rearrange pages in Microsoft Word (TechRepublic)

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