Track Changes

Pavarti: Getting edits back is both the most exciting and most depressing point in the writing process for me. It’s the most exciting because things are moving forward, my work is closer to its awesome potential. The flip side is, of course, that now I have to face all the things that need to be fixed! At some point as I’m wading through the red littering my once pristine manuscript, I hit a wall of depression and wish someone could just deal with all of this for me.

But that wish is short-lived, because as much as I love and trust my editors, this is my work.

A good editor will work with the author to bring every paragraph, every sentence, even every word, to its best self. The relationship forged by working with someone on something as intimate as your art can be really intense and requires a level of trust deeper than just the casual working relationship. The groundwork of this is mutual respect. You must respect each other, but moreover, you must respect the work.

My background is in theatre. My training, specifically, was in dramaturgy. I know this is a lesser known term, but dramaturgs are theorists, historians, and the literati of the theatre world. When a dramaturg works on a play with a director or playwright, their responsibility isn’t to either. It’s to the work. Perhaps because this was how I was trained from the beginning I find that while I have less ego about accepting criticism and edits than others, I also expect that same high standard of respect for the work.

Recently, I wrote a Facebook post about the need for editors to use Track Changes. I wrote it just as a mini-rant on something that had annoyed me. Since then, I’ve been inundated by messages and emails from authors and editors alike complaining about this issue. It seems there’s a huge misunderstanding about how authors and editors best work together. When editor extraordinaire Crystal Watanabe contacted me, shocked that editors were actually refusing to use Track Changes when working with authors, we decided something needed to be done. Something had to be said!

And so, this ridiculously long blog post came to be. Here, we hope to explain both the author’s and editor’s role in the editing process as well the technical tools necessary for using Track Changes effectively across a number of formats and programs.

But first – for those of you who don’t know Crystal Watanabe, here she is, in all her shining glory.

Crystal: Geez, I feel like I should have dressed a little better to write this after such a glowing introduction. Thanks for that, Pavarti! As for everything you said about the respect for the work, I agree, and it starts with Track Changes, which not only conveys a basic form of respect for the work, but for the author.

As an editor, I consider myself to be an important partner, the silent support for an author that has something to say or a story to tell. But the key word there is “support.” The work is still the creation of the author, and the author has every right to know what’s different about their work, even if they’re hiring someone to make changes.

From my perspective, delivering an edit evokes similar emotions to what Pavarti described above. I feel excited to deliver what I hope will be a brighter, shinier version of the original, like a cool car I’ve just washed and buffed. I also feel dread. Will all the red shatter my author? Will they hate me and think that I’m saying in a long-winded, passive aggressive manner that I think they stink? (I’m not!) Some editors advise sending two versions of the manuscript back, one with all changes accepted and one with all the markup. This allows authors to view a clean version of the manuscript first before going through the edits.

That said, there’s no getting around the fact that there’s simply no excuse for editing without Track Changes.

I will admit, there is a time and place for making an edit with Track Changes off. Small things like double commas or two spaces between words in a sentence clearly doesn’t need an author’s approval for removal when you’re crunched for time. But there’s still the factor of human error, and for that you need some level of accountability.

Pav: As a chronic double spacer, I agree with this exception!

Crystal: As an author, it is your right to know what your editor has done to your work, and there’s no reason you should accept otherwise. While I wouldn’t have thought to recommend this before I saw Pavarti’s Facebook post, ask about how your editor works before entering into a business relationship with him or her. An editor that works with Track Changes is already striving to accomplish your editing task without compromising professionalism.

The Issue of Intellectual Property

Pav: When you take on the challenge of creating a work of art, you are pouring yourself into something external. You’re exposing a raw nerve, a living part of yourself, to the world to see. This is why so many authors refer to their books as their “babies” and why many have difficulty taking constructive criticism. While I’m often the first one to preach the “Toughen Up, Buttercup,” model when dealing with reviews, the editing process is emotional and even more exposing than letting people see your final work. It is OKAY to be protective of your work. It is okay to expect a certain level of respect.

Crystal: And as I mentioned, your editor is your support partner. That means you should communicate about your work. Track Changes is communication between an author and an editor. And while some of us editors can get a little snippy now and then, you shouldn’t feel as though you’re being bullied into changing your work into something it’s not. If you do, your editor may not be the right partner for you.

Pav: Now, there’s a difference between being defensive and demanding to be respected. I’m not suggesting that you as the author have any right to abuse your editor or that you should expect to be given kittens and rainbow tongue kisses over every brilliant word you’ve written. Again, when it comes to the real work of editing, toughen up, buttercup. But that doesn’t mean that any editor or publisher has the right to walk all over you. You own your work. You have a copyright on it simply by writing it. It is yours and no one has the right to make unilateral changes to your property without your permission.

Crystal: Yes, be nice to your editor. 🙂 If you find yourself feeling particularly combative about a particular editing suggestion, try talking it out. If there’s no explanation, ask for one. Again, nicely, as there’s no need to throw a bunch of “WTF IS THIS?!” comments into the manuscript unless you’ve already established a relationship that welcomes that level of banter. To keep things neat, you can even reply to specific comments, which is very handy for keeping conversations about specific edits neatly organized. (more on that later)

Pav: Personally, I find the very idea of editing something without Track Changes or the explicit permission of the creator offensive, but to each their own, I guess. However, if you’re like me and you don’t like the idea of someone changing your words without notifying you of exactly what they’ve done, you can stand up for yourself. This isn’t an unreasonable expectation—it’s industry standard. Anyone who tells you they can’t do it is lying. There are free technologies available that provide this function. We’ll go into the technical details and different programs later, but for now, just know that you are within your right to expect that your work be respected in this way.

The flip side of this is have the same respect for your editor. Do not print out your work, mark it up with a pen, and scan it back to them (OMG Shoot Me!). Do not send PDFs or image files for editing. Respect your editor’s time and expertise in the same way you would like yours to be.

Technical Points

Pav: It’s important to note here that most of our comments here are going to be about Word. You can find track changes under the “Review” Tab. However, Word, Libre Office (a FREE Open Office word processing program), Pages, and Google Docs ALL have track changes capabilities (Google’s is called “Suggest Edits”). Again, anyone who tells you they can’t track changes due to program limitations is lying or ignorant about the technology they are using. Even if you don’t have the same program, most files can be opened cross-program (i.e. If one of you is using Word and one of you has Libre Office, you can still pass documents back and forth and you can still use Track Changes.

If all else fails, Google Docs is free and can do both comments and track changes. To turn on TC all you have to do is click on the little pencil icon on the right hand side of the task bar. Select “Suggesting” and every change you make will be tracked and notated so it can be approved. Google Docs is free. It can be a little clunky at times, but it works and requires no software or payment. All you need is an email address and access to the internet. You can even work at any computer! Show me your excuses now.

Crystal: Now that we’ve made it clear just how important Track Changes is, it’s time for us to give you some tips for going through edits with ease. I only learned this first tip last year, so I can sympathize with any authors or editors thinking right about now what a complete pain in the ass it is to go through edits. If you’re on a PC, I’ll bet you’ve had many moments of frustration trying to right click the mysterious invisible change, without much luck. The ‘Next’ button is your new best friend.


On the right, you can see the ‘Previous’ and ‘Next’ buttons, which are key for going to… you got it, the previous or next editing suggestion. You can also use the ‘Accept’ and ‘Reject’ buttons, which will automatically snap you to the next change when used. Using the right click accept/reject option is still useful if you want to stay at the text you’re working on (versus being flung forward to another paragraph or page) so don’t discount that method of review.

Pav: Shortcuts are great – my favorite is Ctrl+Alt+M. Hold down those three buttons and Word (and Google Docs!) will insert a comment wherever your cursor is located. No mouse required!

But not all shortcuts are created equally.

There is an option in track changes to “Accept All Changes.”  DEAR GODS, DON’T DO THIS.  You might as well just hand over your copyright then and there if you do that!  Read through the edits, think about them.  You may end up accepting them all, but by reading through them you will learn about your craft and you will catch things you and the editor may have missed.  There are times when the editor makes a change that looks good from the outside, but you know what’s coming later in the story or some piece of backstory that makes the change ludicrous.  You can’t trust that your editor knows everything in your head.  They aren’t magic (although many do seem to possess inhuman powers).  And ultimately YOU, not the editor, but YOU are responsible for the content of your work, so take the time to look through everything.

Crystal: To add to that, a good editor won’t want you to just make a blanket approval of everything. Sure, it would make me feel trustworthy, but I’d also be wracked with worry. Sometimes I misinterpret a meaning, and while I may have been wrong in what the author intended, it also says that the sentence could be misunderstood by readers and needs the careful consideration of the author. A good editing relationship involves clarification and discussion, which is where comments come into play.

Dealing with Comments

Pav: There are two ways to see comments in your document. This is really a question of personal preference. In Word, comments can be seen either “in-line” (meaning inserted in with the text, usually in red) or as a “bubble” (Think thought bubbles in comics) linked to the section of the document being commented on. Personally, I prefer bubbles because they don’t interrupt the flow as you are reading the text, but whatever works for you is what you should do. You can change your settings under the Review Tab by selecting the Balloons icon.

Crystal: If comments are showing up as balloons, but require mousing over, you may need to hit the Show Comments button.

When comments are in the sidebar, you should be able to reply to them. Simply mouse over the comment and hit the little paper button with the arrow on the side to reply and your comment will be indented to represent your conversation.


This is my own personal preference, so you should probably talk it over with your editor, but once a comment has been addressed and there’s no further clarification needed, it should be deleted. It makes me sad to get back a reviewed edit to see all my comments still in the sidebars!

Mark Ups

Pav: As you’re going through your editor’s notes, you’ll invariably make some changes of your own.  You’ll read something you think you’d like phrased differently or you’ll decide to add a little something here or there.  As authors, many of us find it physically impossible to not continue to tinker with our work.  

Here is the place where Track Changes on your end can help your editor.  You may think “I won’t leave this in TC it just makes the document look messy, plus the editor is going to have to read over the whole thing again anyway.”  But, when your editor reads it again, they’re doing so with a goal, either addressing the items you’ve discussed or a line edit focusing on grammar.  If you make changes, leave Track Changes on, otherwise your editor won’t know to pay special attention to that section.

This goes for large changes too.  When working on Two Moons of Sera I rewrote entire chapters.  At first I thought leaving Track Changes on would just make it overly complicated as I moved sections around and rewrote chunks, but for my editor, it was easier to have the changes notated so he could make sure we were accomplishing the goals we’d set out.  If you aren’t sure, just ask what your editor prefers.

Crystal: If you’re the type of author (or editor) that simply can’t write with the distraction of underlined colors in your document, you can write in Simple Markup mode, which will place a red vertical mark on each line that contains a change, but will display clean copy to you, allowing for a smooth workflow and yet still keeping track of the changes behind the scenes. Just don’t forget to turn Track Changes on, since with a clean changing document, it can be easy to forget! When it comes time to go through the edits, you can switch to All Markup, which will show you everything your editor has done to the manuscript.

As for why you should leave it on when tinkering? If you don’t have another full pass of editing scheduled, if you leave Track Changes on while tinkering, your editor can simply review the changed sections, ensuring that things are in tip-top shape and ready for proofreading.

General Dos and Don’ts

Pav: Now for a gentle reminder. Remember your editor is working, there’s a lot to do, and fast doesn’t always = nice. By no means do I mean you should allow your editor to be abusive or rude, but it also doesn’t mean that they need to kiss your ass to make you feel better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much of a temperamental artist as the next author. I have been known to IM my editor saying things like: “Tell me I’m pretty and that you like my shoes or I’m deleting this whole damn book.” Sorry about that one, Philip Lee, I was drunk. Maybe…

It’s okay to need reassurance now and then. Editing is a lot like therapy at times, but as much as your editor is there to reassure and support you, they are not there to wipe your ass. So toughen up, buttercup. No one’s here to kiss your booboos. Try to read comments that may seem mean or negative through the filter of your editor working, hard.

Crystal: On the flipside, as an editor I feel that a little positive reinforcement now and then doesn’t hurt. While editors are technically there to tell you everything you did wrong, there’s nothing wrong with giving a little praise now and then to make the experience better for both parties. Sometimes if I see a particularly great sentence, I’ll note it and tell the author that I love it or give a personal reaction to it. However, if you start to see most of your editor’s comments being more of the type you’d expect from a fan, it might be time to reevaluate whether they’re able to look at your book’s content objectively.

And while we all love to joke about doing things while drunk, I don’t recommend going through edits while intoxicated, dead tired, or in a general bad mood as it not only paves the way for more human error, but also hurts both your monetary investment and your editor’s work. You’ve paid for a professional’s time and effort, so make sure you’re of sound mind when you go through and review it. When you’re done, that’s when you bust out the booze. You’ll probably feel like you need it anyway.

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