Version Control

What is version control?

When you're in the process of updating, editing and revising your work, it's always advisable to try and retain old versions of your work. If you're a technical writer or freelancer, this is particularly important, as you never know when you might need to revert to an old version.

When you've edited and changed your document significantly, it can become difficult to track what's changed, why and when. If you're a creative writer, this might not be important; the evolution of your work is all part of the creative process. If, however, you're a non-fiction writer or an article writer, you might want to revert to old versions of articles or text to see where you've added to, or changed, the content.

Version controlling is sometimes referred to as configuration control, or content management, but it could be argued that each of these is subtly different in what it controls and is meant to achieve. Version control is actually about traceability: traceability of older versions and changes made.

Everyday MS Word Tools

Track Changes

There are many tools out there that can help you with version control; from the very simple to the hugely complex. One of the most widely used tools is the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word. Despite what many will say about MS Word, it's still one of the most powerful and widely used word processing packages available. The Track Changes function allows you to see changes in your document before you 'lose' the old version.

Track Changes won't keep older versions of a document available though. Once changes are 'accepted' the older version is lost.

Versions

Of more use in tracking versions within MS Word, is the Versions function. This allows you to save a version of a Word document at a specific point in time. You can then revisit the document at this version later. This doesn't, however, save a separate file for you and the version you've saved remains within your 'master' document. Saving multiple versions will make the file size of your document increase significantly. MS Word has been criticised in the past by users for having issues when using large files. It might, therefore, be an idea to use the function sparingly.

Frankly, the best way to learn how to use these is to have a look at the online help within MS Word for instructions on how to use the Track Changes and Versions functions.

Manual processes

You can control your versions without using software to do it for you. It can be difficult and since none of us are perfect, you will get it wrong sometimes. Think about when you save your files. Make use of the Save As function and implement a simple file naming and archiving convention to help you. Find out about Style Guides as they can be for much more than just managing style. Add your own file management and version control process to your own style guide. However simple or customised it might be, writing your convention down will ensure you are able to follow it consistently... when you remember.

Decide at what points you need to keep a version of your work. It could be every time you start to edit or revise your work, you keep an unedited version for reference. Or, if you're particularly prolific, you might want to make a version at a specific time, either of the day or week or month, depending upon the type of project you're working on and the amount of change.

Useful Links

If, like the rest of us, you head straight for Wikipedia when you want to know something, you could have a look at Wikipedia's page on version control (it redirects you to revision control. The only trouble is, the page isn't very useful and over-complicates the subject somewhat, focusing on software development rather than writing.

Of much more value is an excellent 3-part article series at 52novels.com, entitled 'The Version Suicides'.

Betterexplained.com has 'A Visual Guide to Version Control' that's definitely worth a read. While, like many other discussions on the subject, it relates more to software development than the writer's craft, there are many parallels that should be apparent to you.

The University of Edinburgh Records Management Section, in Scotland, has published an excellent and simple guide for its students and staff involved in producing multi-version documents and files.

Go to the Editing and Revising page