Despite my love for technology, I have some habits and opinions that prove that I grew up before the Internet. I capitalize and punctuate my texts. I still don’t know if Facebook and Twitter are good or bad. I still like the concept of the two-page memo (not the 1,000 word email).
I conducted a writing workshop recently at which I was forced to face a technology I thought I hated: track changes. I left with a new perspective on the feature. Track changes could actually work for me.
First, let’s get my complaints on the record:
1. Among the many traits of good writing, I think clarity and voice are two of the most important. I’ve found that they are also the first things to suffer from track changes. Documents with a dozen editors may be factually accurate, but they are usually bland and soulless.
2. Everyone gets to weigh in, and everyone does. There’s a difference between correcting factual errors (which I welcome) and changing words randomly (which I don’t). Invariably, random wording changes complicate the original sentence (see point #1 above).
3. All edits look equal. If a colleague makes several edits to a document, how is the original author to know which ones are musts and which ones are suggestions? Without thoughtful use of both edits and comments, the accept or decline process is very complicated and can cause conflict within teams (Why didn’t you take my edits?)
4. It’s demoralizing to open a document and see that five of your colleagues have deleted/edited/changed/rejected 50% of your copy. I hate sending clients a document that shows every change I made to their stream-of-conscience brain dump. My role for most of them is to take their ideas and turn it into a good document, so I just send them a clean first draft.
5. Track changes hampers the learning process for young writers. When I was starting out, my bosses used to circle an awkward sentence and write “???” in the margin. Message received. They would circle the first two typos, write “clean draft please” and hand it back to me. Message received. With track changes, managers are too quick to fix their employees’ typos and grammar errors and rewrite awkward sentences. After all, it’s faster.
Given these biases, I was pleasantly surprised during this writing workshop to help develop some rules-of-the-road for a communication team that would reduce the above flaws and embrace the tool that we all know isn’t going away.
1. When you send an edited document back to someone, save it in Show Final view before attaching it. This will preserve the tracked changes, but the viewer won’t be smacked with a rainbow of edits when it is first opened. Then, include an explanation of your edits in the body of the email so the reader knows what you were thinking. (John, please see attached edits. I preserved your thesis and main points, but I reordered them to flow better. I also rewrote several sentences that seemed a bit long and awkward. I think this new draft is a lot tighter. Let me know if you have any thoughts or comments.)
2. Managers should not fix their employees’ grammar or typos. This is hard, especially for teams that work on short deadlines. But managers that are willing to accept and fix dirty writing will forever get dirty writing from their team.
3. If you re-write an entire paragraph or section, add a comment to the edit that explains why you rejected the original text. (John, I think we need to get to the heart of America’s healthcare crisis in the first paragraph. Consider my alternative text and let me know if you disagree with this approach.)
4. Don’t change language that doesn’t need to be changed. I edit my own documents every time I open them. Editing is never over; there’s always another (but not always better) way to say something. When you make an edit or suggestion, have a rationale for the change besides “I would have said it differently.” Writers like to have their ideas and approaches honored and respected.
I’m sure there are other great ways that groups can make track changes a more useful workplace tool. If you have any, post them in the comments.