However handy the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word is, it’s also a minefield for the unsuspecting. Learning to use Track Changes intelligently can help you not get tripped up by it. Here are three potential mines and how not to step on them.

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

Know When It’s On

The first mine you could step on is a simple lack of awareness. Yes, it actually is possible for Track Changes to be on (and recording every change you make) without you being aware of it.

Your first line of defense is your Status Bar. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: right-click on it and turn the Track Changes monitor on. (As an added bonus, this will also allow you to turn Track Changes on or off with one mouse click.)

But that’s not the only clue available. Microsoft Word can also alert you to the presence of tracked changes whenever you print or save the document. You’ll want to be sure this has not been disabled in your Word installation:

Instructions for Word 2010

  1. Open Word | click on File tab | click on Options on left-hand side.
  2. Click on Trust Center | Trust Center Settings | Privacy Options.
  3. Check the box “Warn before printing, saving or sending a file that contains tracked changes or comments.”
  4. Check the box “Make hidden markup visible when opening or saving.”

Word-2010-privacy-options-warn-before-saving-tracked-changes

Instructions for Word 2007

  1. Open Word | click on Office Button | click on Word Options at the bottom.
  2. Click on Trust Center | Trust Center Settings | Privacy Options.
  3. Check the box “Warn before printing, saving or sending a file that contains tracked changes or comments.”
  4. Check the box “Make hidden markup visible when opening or saving.”

(For instructions on finding these settings in earlier versions of Microsoft Word, click here.)

Printing With or Without Markup

Part of the reason you might not know Track Changes is on is that Word will allow you to display and print the document in one of four ways by changing a setting on the Review tab:

Final Showing Markup. Usually the default, this shows the edited document with all changes marked.

Final. This shows the edited document (with all changes), but the changes are not marked. In other words, the document is displaying as though all changes have been accepted. Do be aware, however, that the markup is still saved; it’s just temporarily hidden.

Original Showing Markup. This is a sort of mirror image of Final Showing Markup. The difference is that, in Final Showing Markup, the additions are underlined and deletions in balloons, while in Original Showing Markup, deletions are struck through and additions are in balloons. If you have “balloons” disabled by clicking on Balloons and choosing “Show All Revisions Inline”, then both views are the same (additions underlined and deletions struck through).

Original. The original, unedited document is displayed.

Obviously, these views can come in handy if you want to see the document “before and after,” but if the Final view is chosen, you’re not seeing any revision marks, so you may not have any clue they’re being tracked. To be safe, set it on Final Showing Markup and leave it there unless you need a different view for a specific purpose.

Accept/Reject All Changes and Scrub Your Document Before Sending Out

If everybody’s edits are okay with you, the quickest way to remove the revision marks is to click on Accept and choose Accept All Changes in Document. If you need to review the changes one by one, use the Previous and Next buttons to navigate through the changes and click Accept or Reject as required.

Once you save the revised document, though, don’t forget about scrubbing the metadata out of it. If you’ve got a third-party application to do that with, great; otherwise, use the Document Inspector to scrub not only any Track Changes data but any other potentially problematic meta data the document may have.

Powerful Tools Require Knowledge and Respect

Any powerful software feature has its pitfalls. But the most effective way to get that power working for (rather than against) you is understanding where those pitfalls are. Get to know how Track Changes works, then decide if it’s a feature you can deploy safely and effectively in your own practice or whether you’d be better off using Word’s Compare feature or a third-party redliner.
(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lemsipmatt/3775976592/)