Have you ever spent hours editing a document only to be handed a new version to work from instead, requiring you to start over? If so, the problem is version control, or rather the lack of it: One or more versions of a document have been placed in circulation for comments or editing, and now the work is multiplied. Furthermore, reviewers may still be looking at the first version and commenting on it, and the author meanwhile may be creating a third version, with additional differences.
The way to get versions under control is with a system. “A version control system is mostly based around one concept, tracking changes that happen within directories or files,” wrote Chris Nagele in his Beanstalk guide, An Introduction to Version Control. “Depending on the version control system, this could vary from knowing a file changed to knowing specific characters or bytes in a file have changed.”
One popular system for controlling document versions is Microsoft Sharepoint. With it, authors, reviewers, and editors can access and share documents, which can be checked out, like a library book, to only one user at a time. Sharepoint also maintains an archive of previous versions, so that older content that may need to be retrieved or examined won’t be overwritten by changes to the current version.
If all the people working on a document are within the same company, then maintaining the documents on a system such as Sharepoint may be the answer for you.
However, if the authors, editors, or reviewers are working independently, then a document management system such as Sharepoint may not be the solution. People may not be able to connect to the system; computer security policies may prohibit them from gaining access.
In that case, what can you do when someone hands you a new version to work from? Is all your previous editing wasted?
Perhaps not. First of all, the new version may not be different throughout. With Microsoft Word, you can compare documents to find the differences. First, make temporary copies of the new document and the original you received to work on (always make a backup copy of the original document and edit a renamed duplicate version). Accept any tracked changes in the temporary files. Then you can compare documents and view the results. (In versions of Word that use the “ribbon” with tabs at the top of the screen, go to the Review tab and click on Compare; in older versions, on the Tools menu, click Compare and Merge Documents.) You may find that the author’s changes in the new version are small and can be incorporated into the older document that you were editing.
What if the new version is massively different? You might not have to do all your editing over again. Some of the heavy lifting, such as verifying bibliographic entries, may not need to be repeated; you may be able to copy your corrections into the new document. Likewise, you may not have to redo any corrections you made that required looking things up: names or quotations you verified, for example. If the author has used the same names or quotations, you can copy any corrections from your edited document, and you won’t have to look up correct content that you have already verified.
These solutions are ways of dealing with an emergency. However, even if you cannot control versions with an electronic system such as Sharepoint, you still can have a system to prevent emergencies: make sure everybody involved with a document knows who has the latest version, and instruct them to wait till they have the latest version before making any changes. If an author or reviewer simply must submit a change in the meantime, ask that the revision be recorded via Track Changes or submitted as a separate document with instructions on where to place the new text.
The important thing is to have a system so that versions are controlled.