Why I think ‘track changes’ sucks as an editing tool

One of the recent trends in publishing has involved using ‘track changes’ to let proof-editors and authors exchange notes about work going through the publishing process.

Wright_BooksIn some ways it’s a good idea. In others, it isn’t. Actually, it sucks royally. And here’s why.

  1. Microsoft’s ‘track changes’ protocol isn’t exactly that of anybody else. Even they’ve changed it (the switch came from Word 2003 .doc format to Word 2007 .docx) – meaning that the onus is on the author to have a compatible version, or run into trouble. This actually happened to me in 2014 where I spent a lot of time trying to make Word 2003 address ‘track changes’ adjustments made in a Word 2010 document.
  2. ‘Track changes’ is an office collaboration tool and it’s optimised for that functionality – it’s well suited to the ‘change and change back’ ping-pong of corporate writing. It is NOT, I repeat NOT, a dedicated editing tool. The system sort of works for proof-edit scale reads, but not the line-editing that must follow.
  3. Line editing is virtually impossible with it, because the visual display of tracked changes makes it a very slow and painstaking process for a line editor to figure out what’s in, and what’s not. I’ve seen typeset text with broken sentences and other weird content, wholly because the line-editor couldn’t figure out what the changes were and ran ‘accept all’.
  4. Contrary to popular belief, a Word file isn’t a document. It’s an executable – specifically, Word uses XML coding to do its tricks, wrapping that database up in a shell. Don’t believe me? Change the extension on a Word document to .zip and open it that way. See? What this means is that everything you ever type into it – including ‘deletions’ – is actually still there. And ‘track changes’ deletions sometimes get read as current text by the InDesign import filter. The result is more broken sentences and more work for a long-suffering production editor.

Commercial publishers know this too – it’s why a manuscript usually is handled via ‘track changes’ when being proof-edited, so that the proof-editor and author know what’s happening. But the rest of the process involves taking the manuscript ‘as is’, clean, and checking it for integrity through a series of line-edits. Often on paper, even if the book’s also being published electronically.

I have to agree with this approach. On my experience – which has involved being on both sides of the process – there’s no substitute for paper. More on that soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


20 thoughts on “Why I think ‘track changes’ sucks as an editing tool

    1. It’s certainly cost me plenty of time. Last year I had an experience with it – driven by version incompatibility – where I had to spend around 40 hours extra sorting out a manuscript that the proof editor had butchered. It was diabolical to disentangle and the whole lot was a consequence of the way track changes had been applied.

      1. That is horrible. When I began this work, i had clients that required it, so I sucked it up. But I quickly turned it around by explaining why it was not going to be used and the extra charge for the time involved if I do. I know many professionals who have ditched it. It’s simply not a professional editing tool. 🙂

  1. I hate it with a passion too! It leaves hidden artefacts lurking in the undergrowth that can spring up like weeds when the file is formatted for an ebook. At that point it’s faster to wash it through Notepad and reconstruct the headers and italics and so forth rather than pick out all the glitches.

    When I edit for clients I fix minor faults that are clearcut without making a note, and highlight changes they might want to know about. They can approve, alter, or change back – then it’s easy to remove all the highlighting at a stroke.

    1. Yes, I’ve had ‘deleted’ text ‘magically’ reappear thanks to some of the ‘undocumented’ features of Word. Of course, that may be fixed in the next version… ☺

  2. My only really published books were done through academic publishers, so everything was exchanged via LaTeX documents … which are great for typesetting, especially mathematical type. But tracking and highlighting changes is not standardized or predictable or, as far as I can tell, even really wanted in LaTeX. There’s probably some extension that makes this change-tracking something people can do but there’s no getting LaTeX extensions installed.

    1. Yes, LaTeX is really good for scientific and mathematical papers… Amazing when you think how ‘old’ that markup language is – it was around in the 1980s or earlier as I understand it. Don’t get me started about Microsoft’s very, very sucky equation editor!

  3. The only value that “track changes” has for me is when I send a MS to a particular beta reader of mine who lives in another country. She uses the wide margin on the right to write me notes, ask questions or point out things that she either doesn’t agree with, or to tell me when she likes something. When I get her text back, I don’t use the same document to continue editing, but rather compare her text to my original so I have the option to use or discard whatever she suggests without damage to that original text.

  4. I’ve never liked Word and use OpenOffice as a word processor. But I suspect that probably uses a similar system, producing files which are executables rather than documents. I convert manuscripts to PDF for Createspace paperbacks, but struggle with documents being formatted for ebooks. The OpenOffice doc. files usually get mangled at some stage in the conversion process. What would you recommend as an alternative to Word and .doc file formats?

    1. I’ve used only Open Office and Word. The former has a track changes system of its own that is meant to be compatible with Word, but isn’t really. In general I think all of these products only really produce results when used as glorified typewriters…

  5. I sometimes use track changes with electronically-submitted student papers (usually in Google Docs), because it usefully highlights things that are wrong. I can’t imagine using it on long form anything, though, even without conversion and artifact issues.

    For my own writing (both my dissertation and my fiction), I use Scrivener. Its export feature for ebooks isn’t perfect, but it’s functional.

    1. I use Word like an ‘easily editable typewriter’, 98% of the time – no fancy formatting, no track changes etc. Works a treat as long as I don’t try to do more. It wasn’t around when I was at varsity: I did everything including my 10,000 word Honours dissertation on a mechanical typewriter. I did look at using a Fat Mac and MacWrite for my subsequent thesis, but the technology really wasn’t there and I ended up back on the old mechanical typewriter, switching to an IBM Selectric II for the final type-up. It did a neat job, but re-drafting also involved a lot of re-keying. I might have written the thesis in half the time – or done a better-styled job – if I’d had some sort of word-processing to hand.

  6. “…it’s well suited to the ‘change and change back’ ping-pong of corporate writing.”

    Actually no, it sucks royally for that as well. Untracked changes can easily slip past, intentionally or otherwise. It’s only good for accepting or rejecting specific edits with no further changes. If you actually are negotiating language, it’s awful. We always start with a clean doc and use third party software to show a single round of edits.

  7. I have never used that feature. I use the comments feature and highlight the area in question first. I have not heard of any complaints from authors. I will stay clear of it in the future. Thanks for the info.

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