These days, it’s rare to do any legal writing that doesn’t involve some collaboration. Especially if you’re the research person drafting a brief for someone else’s signature, there’s no shortage of opinions on how to phrase your arguments (or even what arguments to include).

The days of circulating a paper copy for review are pretty much over. Even senior partners are starting to prefer to review drafts in electronic form. So it pays to learn how to work Microsoft Track Changes to its full potential. Here are eight ways to work Track Changes like an expert:

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

Check your initials (and everyone else’s)

Your systems administrator should have taken care of this item during your PC’s setup, but if you’re depending on Track Changes to tell you who did what to your document, it doesn’t hurt to check. Click on the File tab in version 2010 (or the Office Button in version 2007). You’ll see a section called “Personalize your copy of Microsoft Office” in which your full name and initials should appear, like so:

If not, fill those in. If you’re going to be distributing this document to others for review, ask them to check this item as well so Word can mark who’s made what changes.

Set up your Status Bar

You always want to (a) know whether Track Changes is active and (b) be able to turn it on or off at will, without having to wander through the Ribbon to find it. Go to your Status Bar (at the very bottom), right-click on it, and make sure that there’s a check mark next to “Track Changes” (a little more than halfway down). From now on, you’ll see an indicator at the bottom showing you whether Track Changes is turned on or off. One click will toggle it to the other setting

Turn off those stupid balloons (and other options)

Okay, I admit this is a personal pet peeve, but I really think turning off the balloons and stopping Track Changes from tracking formatting changes (which 90% of the time are inconsequential and just junk up the printout) makes the “edit by committee” process a bit easier.

On the Review tab, click Track Changes, then click Change Tracking Options:


I recommend you do three things:

  1. Make sure both the Insertions and Deletions section have “By author” in the Color field
  2. Uncheck the box next to “track formatting” in the Formatting section;
  3. Set “Use Balloons” in the Balloons section to “Never”

Keep multiple drafts

If your document management system will allow you to do some type of versioning (usually, keeping prior drafts in distinct files with the same name with an extension like “-1” or the time and date, etc.), turn that feature on. Otherwise, if you or someone else inserts text into the document and then subsequently deletes it, it’s gone, baby, gone. (If, on the other hand, one person inserts and another person deletes, that change is tracked.)

Track Changes is a record of how the current draft differs from the original, not a complete history of the document’s edits. If you think you’ll need to backtrack and recapture an edit later, find a way to keep progress drafts safe in a folder.

Enforce editing restrictions

Did you know that you can actually lock down Track Changes with a password so that others can’t turn it off? Just click the Restrict Editing button in the Protect section of the Review tab to see this pane:


Depending on your position on the editing team, you may or may not want to do this. And if you do, you want to be transparent about it. But if you’re storing your file on the network or in the cloud and want to make sure that all changes are recorded, this is an option.

Compare drafts to ensure everything’s marked

If you’re in a situation in which you’re exchanging drafts and want to make sure you know every change that other editors have made, you can compare whatever you’ve received via email with the last draft you sent out. Open both documents in Word (close anything else you’re editing) and click the Compare button:


You’ll get this dialog box:

Use the left drop-down to choose the original draft you sent out and the right to choose the edited draft you’ve just received. If there are any edits that you don’t want to mark, just uncheck them below.

And, as you can see above, you can also choose to combine changes into a single document and get a more comprehensive report of what’s changed.


Learn to print

You don’t have to accept or reject all changes to get a clean printout of the document either before or after the markup. All you have to do is go to the Review tab and change the Display for Review field (the one with the drop-down in the middle of the Ribbon) and choose the printout you want:

  1. “Final Showing Markup” is the default setting and shows you the document with all of the markup intact. This is what you should choose if you want a copy (either paper or pdf) of the document with all changes marked.
  2. “Final” shows you what the document would look like if all changes were accepted.
  3. “Original Showing Markup” is essentially the same as “Final Showing Markup” if you’ve chosen to show all changes inline. If not,”Final Showing Markup” shows the Final version with additions underlined and deletions in balloons, while “Original Showing Markup” shows the Original version with deletions struck through and additions in balloons.
  4. “Original” shows you what the document would look like if you rejected all changes. This is what you should choose if you want a clean copy (either paper or pdf) of the document before it was edited.

Make sure your “clean copy” is truly clean

If you’re sending your document out to adverse parties, you need to make sure all the comments and revisions have been cleared out. That doesn’t just mean accepting all changes. To ensure nothing’s left behind, you need to use Word’s Document Inspector to scrub the document of any metadata. Just go to the File tab and find Prepare for Sharing on the Info tab:

You’ll get an opportunity to see what data can be scrubbed from the document:

The technology’s there … use it

If you’re in a group editing situation, Track Changes can be your friend. Learn your way around it (and teach others a few tricks), and editing by committee may become less painful.


7 responses to “How to Work Track Changes Like a Boss”

  1. Sam says:

    Great post!

  2. I’m no fan of track changes (see Legal Writing by Committee (or How to Manage the Cooks), Lawyerist, Sept. 12, 2012) but this is an interesting and useful post. There’s really no way of avoiding the occasional track-changes document. The best a person can do is keep the process as simple and clean as possible.

    • legalofficeguru says:

      I agree — there are better solutions out there. Particularly problematic is the inability to keep the entire edit history. (I’ve had more than one person stare at me agape when I tell them what Track Changes cannot do.) Still, if you’re stuck with a group that’s using the built-in tool, probably good to learn the ins-and-outs.

  3. Sterling says:

    We stopped using track changes a while ago, but this post makes me want to re-evaluate whether it’s worth using again in certain contexts.

    One great alternative is a program called Workshare Compare. It does a binary comparison between documents and shows everything deleted, inserted and moved. You can compare Word to Word; PDF to PDF; PDF to Word, Excel to Excel, and I imagine a bunch of others which I don’t use. Also, it hooks nicely into Worldox if you use that software for document management.

  4. Lawyer_on_Ls says:

    The “clean copy” trick is a neat functionality, but ultimately it encourages breaching of a golden rule of the paperless office if the document ultimately sends as a Word document – never send an editable document to anyone outside your office who doesn’t need to edit it. We print, sign, scan and send. Metadata? What metadata?

  5. Lisa Solomon says:

    Instead of e-mailing a document back and forth (as suggested in the post), use Microsoft’s Skydrive to store it in the cloud. That way, you know everyone is working on the same version of the document. If you want to use Track Changes, make sure you’re opening the Skydrive document in your desktop version of word, not editing the document in the Word Web App (which does not support Track Changes).

    As for keeping the edit history, I wonder if the new feature in Word 2013 that allows you to reply to comments and mark them as done addresses part of that issue.

    • Sam Glover says:

      This is a fantastic idea that will cause approximately 90% of lawyers’ heads to explode.

      With that in mind, it’s probably safer to use email, even it it’s less efficient.

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