Using Microsoft Word to Edit by Committee


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Few things can cause as many headaches as “editing by committee” (otherwise known as “death by redlining“). It’s hard enough to get everyone to agree, whether it’s to the terms of a contract or the wording of a joint stipulation, but gathering all this input and getting it into final form is even worse. Fortunately, Microsoft Word has some tools that can help make this task a little easier.

Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows.

1.    Using AutoFormat to clean up bad formatting

Microsoft Word’s AutoFormat often gets a bad rap. To some extent, it’s deserved. After all, the last thing you need when you’ve got a looming deadline is the computer deciding what you really meant to type.

But in a pinch, AutoFormat (as opposed to AutoFormat As You Type, which is a different feature) can help do a little quick clean-up where others’ word processing skills are, shall we say, lacking. For example, if someone has tried to “fake” a hanging indent by using hard returns at the end of each line and a tab at the beginning, AutoFormat can at least help you get rid of the extra hard returns and tabs all in one go.

Trouble is, in the 2007 and 2010 versions of Microsoft Word, AutoFormat is nowhere on the Ribbon. To get to it, you’ll need to add it to either a menu or the Quick Access Toolbar. I recommend the latter, mostly because it makes it easier to find later. Just click on the downward facing arrow at the right hand end of your Quick Access Toolbar and click “More Commands”:

Once you’re in the Word Options dialog box, get the list of “Commands Not in the Ribbon” and find AutoFormat. Click on it, then click Add to place it on your Quick Access Toolbar. You can always move it up or down using the arrows on the far right.

When you got it placed where you need it, click OK. The next time you have a block of text that needs a quick fix, select it with your mouse and click that AutoFormat button. Since Word can’t read your mind, you may not get 100% of the result you were looking for, but it can save you a lot of repetitive deleting etc. If you really don’t like the result, just click ALT-Z to undo before saving the document.

2.     Salvaging corrupted documents

Emailing documents back and forth can sometimes result in a corrupted Microsoft Word file. Of course, if the sender or someone else on the editing committee has a clean uncorrupted copy, that person is your first defense. But even if you can’t grab a copy somewhere else, you might be able to salvage that Microsoft Word document (assuming you can open it).

First, save the document under a new file name. If there are any graphics or other embedded objects in the document, be sure to save those files individually in a safe place, just in case.

Then, try re-saving the document as an Rich Text Format file, a Web Page, or (if all else fails) Plain Text. Select (CTRL-A) and copy (CTRL-C) the text from that document, start a new document (CTRL-N), and paste the text into that (CTRL-V).

Save the new document as a Microsoft Word document (with a .doc or .docx extension). This process will often strip out any corrupted codes that may have found their way into the document. It’s not without a price (you’ll often lose some of your formatting and anyone Word-specific features like a Table of Authorities), but you’ll at least salvage the basic text.

3.    Using Compare to view changes between versions

If you’re not blessed with a bunch of colleagues who all know how to use the Track Changes feature, you can compensate for their lack of skill by tracking their changes for them.

On the Review tab, hit the Compare drop-down:

Using the open file folders icons, find the document you sent them (Original) and the document they sent back (Revised).

By default, Microsoft Word will put the comparison in a new document, rather than markup your original or revised document (although you can choose that if you wish). Review the comparison settings, uncheck any boxes for items you don’t want marked up, then click OK to start the comparison.

What you’ll have at that point is a document that has Track Changes embedded in it, and you can use the Review tab to review each change and accept or reject it.

Above all, don’t panic

Assuming you save your documents often and turn on safety features like AutoRecover, your chances of losing much (if any) of your and your colleagues’ hard work are slim. Take sensible precautions and familiarize yourself with some basic tools and techniques, and Microsoft Word will be the least of your problems during your next group edit.



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  • Nice post.

    I think Pages for Mac is a superior program, but I’m inclined to use OpenOffice for this reason – the need to collaborate on documents is more important. Clients don’t like me sending them a .PDF and saying “mark this up in red pen, scan it, and email me a copy.”

  • Paul Pinkerton

    Microsoft and Google’s online offerings certainly make group editing a fairly easy process – in fact simultaneous editing. However, handling those formatting things can still be challenging. My favourite trick is to simply convert everything to plain text and format from scratch – I’ve found that actually takes a lot less time than fixing other’s formatting. The other is to user the Styles dialogues, define the styles I want to use and then using the ‘Styles in this Document’ selector, convert the unwanted styles out.

    • Using Styles is definitely the way to go there. Great suggestion about using the “Styles in this Document” feature to remove the unwanted Styles!