A screenshot of the Review tab and Display for Review setting.

Working through the Edits

Track Changes can be intimidating, but this basic introduction will help you get comfortable with it.

Everyone has a different editing style; mine can be charitably described as “verbose.” And because the majority of my work is line editing—the kinds of intrusive, content-oriented edits that happen earlier in a manuscript’s life—my first pass on a manuscript can be messy. Intimidating, even. I also work with a lot of self-publishing authors these days, and many of them have not used Track Changes before—or at least not at this level.

So I’ve decided to launch this blog with instructions to help you, novice author, wade through a messy markup to find your next draft. I’ve used variations of these instructions with several first-time authors now, and they’ve always been well received. I hope you’ll find them helpful too.

Note: The screenshots in this blog were all taken on a PC using Word 2010, with highly customized tabs and toolbars, so your screen may look a bit different. The core tools are the same, though, and where possible I’ll point out the differences.

Let’s start by seeing what we’re up against. Don’t worry, I’m right here with you, and I promise you can get comfortable with Track Changes.

Be Kind to Yourself

First, get comfortable. Your pristine, perfect manuscript is probably messy and overwhelming now. You knew it would be marked up, but you weren’t expecting this! That’s a completely normal reaction. Being comfortable, relaxed, and alert will help you establish a rhythm.

Accept that this will take a few sessions. You didn’t write the book in a day, so you won’t revise it in a day either. No one is expecting that. Just budget your time based on your due date, and work through it a piece at a time.

Working through edits usually isn’t a flow-state sort of process. You’re coping with the idea that someone has mucked about in your words, plus you have to figure out exactly what they meant, and then you have to figure out how (or if) you should fix it. It can be exhausting, mentally and emotionally, so be good to yourself. It may help to grab a comforting cuppa, and maybe a healthy snack. (Or chocolate, if that’s your thing.)

Finally, read your editor’s transmittal note, which probably discusses any overall concerns and may affect how you respond to individual edits. You’ll save yourself time and hassle if you start with that.

OK, deep breath! Let’s dive in and start wrangling that markup!

Understanding Track Changes

Let’s start by looking at a manuscript I worked on a while back. Just look at all that red (blurred to preserve confidentiality). Don’t worry. We’ll get through this together.

A screenshot of the Review tab and Display for Review setting.
Fig. 1—A heavily edited Word document. Your screen will look a bit different, because my ribbon and toolbar are extensively customized, but the labeled portions should be familiar.

We start with 1) the Review tab active. The Track Changes button is yellow, showing that it’s turned on. To the right of the Track changes button we see 2) a dropdown box (formally, “Display for Review”) set to “Final: Show Markup.” In later versions of Word the equivalent is “All Markup.” If you’re on one of these versions and Word starts out showing you Simple Markup—which hides everything except the change indicators—click the words “Simple Markup” and choose “All Markup” from the dropdown menu to see the full effect of editing. Then have a sip from your cuppa.

Below the toolbar, in the manuscript proper, we see 3) a particularly brutal edit. The text is blurred, but you can see the effect. Almost nothing is untouched. It looks worse than it is, though, because of the way Word displays changes.

A Clearer View of the Alternatives

You probably find this view very noisy. I know I do. It’s relatively easy to see that underlined text is new and struck out text is deleted, but it can take some practice to stitch together the new sentence. Fortunately, you can toggle these edits using the Display for Review dropdown (#2 in figure 1). Choose “Original” from that dropdown to see the text before editing.

The Original setting for the Display for Review dropdown.
Fig. 2—Choosing “Original” in the Display for Review dropdown. Think of it as a time capsule—but one that forgets the past when you accept the future.

Basically, this shows you what your document would look like if you rejected all the suggested edits. It’s a good way to roll back the clock and see what was there before the editor meddled with it. But keep in mind that once you’ve accepted an edit, Word will consider it “Original.” In other words, you can’t use this view to roll back edits that you didn’t want to accept. For that, you need Undo (Ctrl+Z).

If you want to see the effect of the edits without accepting them, choose “Final” from that dropdown (“No Markup” in more recent versions or Word for Mac).

The Display for Review dropdown set to "Final."
Fig. 3—When you set the Display for Review box to Final or No Markup, you can see the effect of tracked changes without accepting them.

Switching back and forth like this may feel cumbersome at first, but it’s very helpful. As you get used to it you can toggle this setting to put suggested edits in context. You can even add this dropdown selector to your Quick Access Toolbar so you can get to it without using the Ribbon.

In some versions of Word, you can toggle markup by clicking on the change indicators in the left margin, which look like red or gray vertical lines. Experiment with this and watch the Display for Review selector; you should see it change from Simple Markup to All Markup and back again. Handy, right?

I use these functions often, so I assigned custom keystrokes to make it even faster. (More on that in my next post.)

Accepting, Rejecting, and Amending Edits

Now that you can see the edits in context you have three choices for every edit: accept it, reject it, or amend it with your own changes.

Accepting an Edit

Highlight the edit you want to accept and click the Accept button on the Review tab. (You don’t have to highlight changes to accept them, but it will give you more control.)

A screenshot showing where to find the Accept button.
Fig. 4—To accept an edit, highlight it and click the Accept button on the ribbon.

Word accepts the edit, removes the ugly markup, and automatically moves to the next change.

The effect of Accept and Move to Next
Fig. 5—When you click Accept, Word automatically highlights the next change.

This allows you to step through edits quickly, but Word is highlighting consecutive edited text—which isn’t necessarily what we would consider a coherent edit. It may grab a portion of a sentence, or even a word, or most of a paragraph, depending on what changes were made. So step carefully and be sure the right thing is highlighted. If you accidentally accept something, just press Ctrl+Z to Undo it (Cmd+Z on a Mac).

This highlighting behavior is unique to the ribbon button, which is technically called “Accept and Move to Next.” If you add the Accept Change button to your Quick Access Toolbar it won’t work the same way; it will just accept the change, without highlighting anything new. So if you customize your toolbar, make sure you grab the button that makes the most sense for the way you work. (Customizing the toolbar is beyond the scope of this article, but I may cover it in a future post.)

Rejecting an Edit

Sometimes you may prefer your original, or you want to revert to your original before making a different edit. In that case, you can reject an edit: STET, we call it. Just highlight it and click the big Reject button on the ribbon.

Finding Word's Reject and Move to Next button.
Fig. 6—If you decide you don’t like a change, you can use the Reject button to throw it away. This removes all traces of the highlighted edit.

Word erases the edits and leaves your original text in place, then steps right to the next batch of edits.

Satisfying, right?

Amending an Edit

Sometimes you will agree that an edit is needed, but not with the way it was done. Perhaps you don’t like the editor’s solution to a confusing passage, or you have to edit something to address a query. In this case, just make sure Track Changes is turned on and make your changes. Word will track your changes in a different color, preserving a mostly complete history of the text.

Why “mostly complete”? That history has some limitations. If your editor deleted a phrase and you replace it with a different one, or if they add a phrase and you replace it with a different phrase, you may find that “Reject” erases both changes instead of restoring your editor’s change. So use the “Final” and “Original” settings to keep track of what you’re doing, and remember the Undo (Ctrl+Z) option.

Most of the time, you shouldn’t worry about this—just revise and feel the enormous satisfaction of watching your book take shape. If you have to dig into a really messy passage, you may want to set your view to Final and just write. Word will track everything, and your editor won’t be intimidated by a messy markup.

Should I Keep Track Changes Turned On?

Some editors or publishers may require you to work in Track Changes; if so, they may lock the document so you can’t make changes without it. Otherwise, if your editor is OK with it (I am) you can click that big yellow button to turn Track Changes off. Word will still show the suggested edits, but it will treat anything you do as final.

You may prefer to track your changes in some places (because you want your editor to pay special attention to something new) but not in others (because you’re moving and changing a lot, and it’s too messy). Just be sure your editor clearly understands what you’re doing and why, and that you’re consistent when you do it, so you don’t step on each other’s toes or cause confusion.

Revise and Revise and Revise Again

That’s all there is to it! Have a sip from your cuppa, give yourself a pat on the back, and look at your next edit. Accept, reject, or amend, and step to the next, and the next.

As you work, you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing that messy markup disappear and a new draft start to take shape. Before you know it, your writer brain will kick in, and you’ll be barreling through. Remember to save frequently so you don’t lose any of your work!

If you review edits while you’re tired you may miss important nuances, so try not to work for more than 30–40 minutes without stretching and resting your eyes, and try not to work for more than three hours without taking a real break to rest your brain. Those are just guidelines—if you need more frequent breaks, take them. If you feel your attention drifting, or if you find yourself reacting by reflex (simply accepting or rejecting everything to get it over with), take a break. Get back in the right headspace before you tackle it again. This is one of those “slow down to speed up” situations. It may help to set a timer for the first few sessions, so you get in the habit of taking breaks. You should respect whatever project schedule you’ve established with your editor or publisher, of course, but you need to be in the right frame of mind to revise well. As with so many things, balance is key.

If you find your schedule was too aggressive and you’ll need more time, let your editor know right away. Yes, they may be frustrated by a scheduling delay, but they will be even more frustrated by an unexpected scheduling delay. And generally, most people will be understanding.

In my next post I’ll walk you through creating custom keystrokes so you can work even faster. And as soon as I talk myself into installing my copy of Office 2016 (soon … soon …) I’ll provide an updated version of this post with screenshots from that version.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got other questions about how to manage Track Changes, share them in the comments. I’d love to help you.

Posted by DeAnna Burghart


Gillian Hill

Thanks, this is incredibly helpful! As an editor, I haven’t often discussed track changes with my clients, as most know what they’re doing, but I’ll save this and point clients in this direction if they do need some guidance on how to use it.

You’re welcome! Glad you find it useful; I hope to update it with screenshots from later versions this summer.