Five tips for using Word's Track Changes feature more efficiently

The Track Changes feature is a great collaboration tool, but a lot of reviewers misuse it. Here are some practical tips to pass along to your users and fellow collaborators.

Word's Track Changes feature lets multiple people review a document, make changes, and insert comments to the same document. Unfortunately, the feature is misunderstood, misused, and underused. The mechanics are simple, but everyone seems to have their own style -- and often that style creates more work than necessary. The following tips will help you edit, comment, and review more efficiently.

1: Check to see if it's on

Perhaps the most annoying thing about Track Changes is determining whether it's on. Word 2003's icon displays an outline when the feature's on. Word 2007 and 2010 are somewhat better. The option in the Tracking group displays a background when the feature's turned on. But both are subtle difference that most users just don't recognize.

Fortunately, there's an easier way -- check out the status bar. As you can see in Figure A, Track Changes is on in Word 2003 and off in Word 2007.

Figure A

Check the status bar indicator to see if Track Changes is on.

You can also use the indicator to toggle Track Changes on and off. Double-click Word 2003's indicator; Word 2007/2010 require just a single click. If you don't see the indicator in Word 2007/2010, right-click the status bar and choose Track Changes from the resulting context menu.

2: Comment and change appropriately

The most confusing aspect of reviewing isn't finding changes, but conveying your thoughts to the author and other reviewers. Here's what I recommend:

  • Use comments when you need more information or want to share more information.
  • Make changes in text when something needs to be changed, but you're allowing the author and other reviewers the opportunity to accept or reject.
  • Make changes that must be made without using Track Changes, unless other reviewers need to see the change for some reason.

Don't use comments to convey a change that will most likely be made. That's inefficient. It takes the same effort to make the change directly (maybe even less), and the author has only to accept or reject the change. If you insert a comment, the author must make the change and delete your comment.

3: Reject singularly; accept all at once

Accepting and rejecting individually is time consuming and unnecessary. As you review changes, take the time to reject only. When you're done, accept everything that's left. Or, vice versa, if you find you reject more than you accept.

4: Don't highlight

Highlighting reviewers should spend time in the stocks. If you highlight text, the author must make the change and remove the highlight. Just don't do it. There's no need for it at all.

5: Give the author two for one

If you have two possible changes, add them both directly to the text. Then, let the author reject one -- that's all the author will have to do. If you add a comment that outlines both possibilities, the author must still go into the text and make one of the changes. You'll save the author a lot of time by putting both possibilities directly into the text. You can add a comment to clarify what you've done, if necessary.