Avoiding clutter when tracking changes

My friend and agent Dave Fessenden, who is a writer and editor, wrote:

Steve, I wanted to ask you a question on tech writing: do you use [Microsoft Word’s] track changes in your job?

I have to [format] documents with tracked changes/comment balloons all over the document. I have tried turning off the tracked changes, but since they are still there (though invisible), I have great difficulty doing things like moving an image to another page.…

What are your thoughts on this?

Dave

Yes, I always track content changes. That’s the key. I turn off Track Changes when moving an image, refreshing a table of contents, setting the whole document to U.S. English, or anything else that doesn’t need tracking or could be messed up by tracking (moving, or just editing in front of, a footnote reference in the text, for example). Generally I try to do all the formatting and layout first with Track Changes off, then edit, and always, if possible, work with “no markup” as the choice of what to show.

Whether to track changes and what markup to show are separate choices in the Track Changes menu. If you track the change when you move a picture, then when you show the markup you will see the picture where it was deleted and where it was pasted. If you track changes while refreshing the table of contents, the markup will show the old table of contents and the new one. The markup for these changes and for alterations in paragraph formatting and font size can really clutter up a document to the point where neither the author nor editor can easily see the important content changes. Even showing the content changes can make the text hard to read, which is why I usually edit with Track Changes turned on but not showing the markup as I work. After I’m done editing I normally go through the document with markup showing and review my editing, and I check the comments to see whether they all have been addressed and whether my own comments and queries are understandable and make sense.

By the way, before editing anything, I make a backup file of the original, in case I really mess something up, which happens more often than I care to think about.

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