No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft
June 23, 2012 5:43 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about document control for the beginner, without specialist software?

I've been working on a series of documents that work together - Chapters if you like, that add up to over 2000 pages. There are multiple authors and contributors. I'm supposed to be the formatter, but some of the issues that have arisen which require me to format and reformat are:

The documents are not complete when I first receive them, but the approving (external) organisation needs to see them at various stages so I can't wait until they are done to format them.

The figures (over 200, spread over 26 chapters and 20 appendices) can change name. They are produced in PDF form and added into the Word document at the end. Last Thursday, I asked permission to, and performed a check and it turned out that at least 10% of them had a different name to that referred to in the text. At the point, someone else noticed that the font sizes in the diagrams were not consistent, nor the margins, and this needs to be straightened out (but not by me, unfortunately) before the documents can be completed.

There are a series of conventions or styles, such as a space after numbers and before unit types, spelling of words that have two acceptable spellings, scientific terms and so on, that I have picked up as I've worked through and gone back and fixed in the documents I thought were finished. There may be other inconsistencies, but how do I know what they are?

There needs to be an overall contents page, and yes, I know supposedly Word does a Master document thing, and will work from that (supposedly), so I copy the contents pages from each of the docs, and paste it into a spreadsheet, so I can recreate an overall contents page, but then the document changes again. I can never be certain it is finished.

As the documents are being written, various authors need to refer to figures in separate documents. As these names change, it's possible there's errors in these references.

Sometimes an "editor" who has knowledge about the topic, but not about style conventions will correct what they think is an issue (e.g. placing semi colons at the end of dot points, when the document style agreed on does not use this convention) and I will have to go through and re-correct this.

Sometimes a decision is made about a convention (changing the placement of tables from left to centred) and I won't be told, and when I next fix the document, I will re-correct incorrectly.

I suspect it's way too late in the creation of this document to do anything useful in terms of consistency (but if there is, please tell me!), but in future, what can I do, or suggest to the project manager, to make this process better all ways around.

I can write complex(ish) Access databases, if a database is the way to go.
posted by b33j to Work & Money (1 answer total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, you need an Access database. That's a pretty good tool for this kind of thing; other possibilities are Bento (but I haven't used it for this) or FileMaker.

Ok, the concepts you're dealing with are when broken down:
  • A document record that doesn't depend on the name of the document. This is why databases use primary keys, by the way. So from now on, the document is referred to by it's key and not it's title.
  • A list of changes that have happened to the document that is separate from a changelog. For instance, you probably want to know at some point that the document's title changed, or you want to have a time/date record (possibly with PDF letter attachment) of the approval from the reviewing agency.
  • A list of authors of the document, or people who are involved with it.
  • Versions of the documents (drafts, pre- and post- editing and review processes, and finals) and their tables of contents.

What I would probably do is put the things that are bulleted above in an Access database, and then somehow hack the "report" functionality to output the final compilation instead of trying to do it in a Word document. So your Table of Contents, all of your cross-document References, and all of your final versions of Documents get dumped into one giant "report" with everything filled in and intact. I'm 90% sure this is possible using references, regular expressions, and a bunch of VBA hackery. My last in-depth experience with Access is about 12 to 14 years old at this point. You should also be able to, using the same reglar expressions and VBA hackery, be able to have the database automatically flag problems for you when you attach a document to it, since VBA in Access last time I checked can read the text of MS Word files.

A completely separate issue is the style guide. The style guide is probably appropriate for production on your own. What I would do is have someone besides you review a current draft compilation for inconsistencies. Then create a style guide based on the list of inconsistencies that you discover. Then distribute your style guide to your authors, with the caveats that if they do not follow the style guide their documents may be edited without their input.

My background is in Journalism and programming; like a true man with a hammer (journalism) and a really powerful screwdriver (programming), I tend to approach stuff like this as if I was back in the bad old days trying to automate our newsroom's workflow before specialized enterprise management tools had trickled down to the level where they were integrated into the word processing and page layout software. Everything looks like nails and screws, and I don't know what *your* problem is.

Depending on the size of this document and how long your project is going to last, it may not be worth the effort to figure out how to tackle the tasks that I've listed above. In that case, I'd probably keep a big hanging file folder for each document, with one specific folder designed for "metadata", including a log of interactions and changes on the document, cd/rw with all versions of the document on it, etc. and then subfolders dedicated to the document themselves. You could probably still deal with the "document ID instead of document title" thing by having your authors put in a keyword instead of the actual reference in their document, and using a Word macro to replace all of the keywords. Again, style guide is a separate issue.
posted by SpecialK at 12:04 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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