Word Track Changes and co-authoring in real time
January 28, 2014 9:38 AM   Subscribe

I am in a graduate class that requires deadline-driven group work from students who are all working together online. We have four groups members and will be collaborating on editing projects using Word's Track Changes feature (Word is required). The problem is that we can't figure out how to be in the same Word document at once while preserving the functionality of Track Changes. Am I overlooking an obvious solution?

We tried Google Docs, but if you upload a Word file into Google docs you lose the Track Changes functionality, as far as I can tell. I also looked into the Microsoft's Office Web App product (a Google Docs competitor), but it also looks like Track Changes isn't possible there. Is there some other tool that will allows us to do this, or a way to share someone's desktop in a way where we can then all edit and see the same document? We'd need to preserve both any in-text edits and be able to make margin comments.

Otherwise, what we end up having to do is work individually, merge our Word files together, and then go through and clean-up the redundancies/points of disagreement. It would be so much simpler if we could all see the work at the same time, as many of our assignments are due the same night we receive them.
posted by megancita to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Could you use Dropbox? It will still be a problem though if multiple people are working on the document simultaneously. I'm not sure how Track Changes would deal with the doc being open on two machines at once.

Do you have to pass in a Word file with the Track Changes? Or is that just for your convenience while you work? Because otherwise I'd just do it in Google Docs and then convert into Word when you're done.
posted by mskyle at 9:53 AM on January 28, 2014

I'm an associate at a law firm. If there was a way to do this in Word, we'd be doing it. Sadly, there isn't.

General best practices: one person "holds the pen," (meaning controls the overall document) and other people are assigned specific sections which they send to the person holding the pen who incorporates into the master document. Once all sections are submitted, the pen-holder circulates the document for review to one person at a time. The reviewers send changes in Track Changes to the pen-holder who incorporates and sends out to the next reviewers.

In a law firm, it's easy to determine the order of reviewers: you go from least senior to most. In a graduate school group, this could be harder. Perhaps once everything's in the master document, you can all get in a room together and read through the document, agreeing on changes as you go?
posted by ewiar at 9:54 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is an article about simultaneous editing in Word for Mac - I can't find an analogous article for Windows, but I have to believe that same functionality exists?
posted by desjardins at 9:56 AM on January 28, 2014

My mostly Windows office has not yet discovered any way for multiple people to work on a Word doc simultaneously - though it looks from the article that desjardins linked, it's possible if it's on Windows SkyDrive. I can't tell if that allows for track changes, though.
posted by rtha at 10:15 AM on January 28, 2014

Apparently Word Web App is the way forward.

Colour me a bit skeptical though. MS Word is a fickle beast, prone to corruption or crashing when put under stress, and the simultaneous collaboration guidance comes with a health warning that there are things you can't do, and things you shouldn't do. I don't know if you can do track changes while collaborating (although I suspect not) but I would guess if you can it will make your document very volatile because you've got x editors being tracked and all of their work being shadow tracked as well.

I would suggest that if you do collaborate as Microsoft suggests then use as little formatting as possible, avoid big cut and pasting into the document while others are using it, and that you still maintain some document versioning discipline.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:24 AM on January 28, 2014

The only solution I can think of that offers both simultaneous real time edits for multiple editors and support for versioning is using SharePoint server to manage the version tracking (not quite the same functionality as Track Changes, but you can use compare version and there is a quite a bit of redlining). I do not believe there is any way to both have simultaneous cooperative editing and the traditional Track Changes functionality. As you noted, you can work simultaneously in Word Online or Google Docs, but you don't get the Track Changes functionality. I know that this feature has been requested by many users of Word Online, but I have no idea if they have any plans to implement it in the future. The infrastructure required to support a SharePoint server is fairly considerable, so I don't know if it is a practical alternative for you. Here is an article to get you started. You can find a lot about the process of comparing versions in SharePoint on the web. It won't show the changes your editing partners are making in real time like Word Online does, but it will indicate the sections they are working on -- it posts the changes to your version once they save.
posted by Lame_username at 10:25 AM on January 28, 2014

Can you clarify in what way Word is a requirement? Could you work in Google Docs and then export to Word once finished (leaving a little time to clean up formatting if that is an issue)?
posted by ssg at 10:53 AM on January 28, 2014

Response by poster: The final assignment needs to be submitted to the professor in Word with edits and comments made using Track Changes. I suppose we could work in Google docs first, but I've never "exported" to Word afterward to see what that looks like. I can play with that see how it works. I suppose that's a workaround if we just want to capture the in-line edits; my memory of Goggle docs is that there isn't an option for margin comments, though that may have changed. I'll check that out too.

It does seem like the magic bullet I was hoping was out there doesn't exist, so we'll need to develop some other collaborative process. Thanks for the suggestions so far.
posted by megancita at 11:14 AM on January 28, 2014

The purpose of Track Changes was originally to make it easier to figure out which version of a document you are working with and to see what changes had or had not been incorporated.

Modern options like Google Docs or Word's web app are meant to provide one master document. You don't need track changes or multiple versions because everyone is editing the actual document in real time. They don't offer track changes, because frankly it's considered outdated and only marginally useful for their users.

Maybe you can track your own changes in Google docs - use strikethrough instead of deleting and if margin comments aren't available use colored text in parentheses instead. You'd all have to remember to do this, but it would have the same effect in the end.
posted by trivia genius at 11:48 AM on January 28, 2014

If you don't have to work simultaneously, you should be able to maintain the track changes from person to person. So if Bob does his edits, emails the team, and then Janet does her edits, let't the team know, and Steve does his edits and all of their changes are noted in the track changes with their names or the names they have given themselves in the Word document.

My committee did this with my dissertation and we just emailed the file back and forth.
posted by teleri025 at 1:15 PM on January 28, 2014

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