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Versions: Getting the Story Straight in Word 2003

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How many different copies of a document can you keep around your hard drive before you accidentally delete the "real" one with the last set of changes? If you're like Laurie Rowell, that "oops" has happened once too often. Using Word's versioning, you should be able to keep better track of document changes and ensure that the final document is really final. But is the versioning feature worth the risks it poses?
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Revisions in Word seem like such a sensible idea. My original intent in this document was to explain why you might want to use them. Now I’m not so sure you do.

A few weeks back I opened my files, ready to snail-mail a copy of my novel to the slush pile of another publisher. (an exercise about as likely to result in publication as stuffing the pages into a large bottle, tossing this container off the pier in Seattle, and wishing it well on its way to New York.) To my horror, when I checked my files, I couldn’t tell which of the many revisions I needed to send. The file with the most recent date had errors I knew I’d fixed; the one with the funny opening had a character in it that I couldn’t remember creating. In short, my data files were a wreck. At that moment, I decided it might be time to really learn the versions feature in Word, which I’d abandoned trying to use once before.

In theory, using versions saves you from filenames like these:

  • Cat story11_Rev4John_vers2.doc
  • absolutely_the_newest_resume_rev28.doc

Supposedly it prevents the clutter of Word files from being scattered all over the old hard drive, like jeans and T-shirts clumped on a dorm room floor. You can name each version something memorable and comment at length on what it contains. You save space because only the changes—not the whole document—are archived each time. As a collaborative tool, the Versions function keeps the team share tidy while allowing records of changes to be passed from writer to writer. The problem is that there are a few dark considerations in the use of versions, which I’ll address later. Let me say now, however, that versioning in Word 2003 is awkward to use, and I managed to corrupt my document with it while writing this article. Frankly, if you don’t have to use it, consider giving it a pass.

Now, if you’ve rolled up your sleeves to jump into this game of versioning with me, make sure that the feature is available to you. If you don’t see it in the File menu, as shown in Figure 1, even after you’ve clicked the double arrow at the bottom to extend the menu, you might not have versions capability. You need Word 2002 or higher, but even then, if you’re working with documents on a SharePoint site, the feature might be disabled. This can be pretty exasperating if you were planning to use versions as a productivity tool for collaboration.

This is just the first of those dark considerations I mentioned: A collaboration feature is pretty darned limited if isn’t available on the team share. Even if that’s the case, however, if you have Word 2002/2003, you should have the versions feature available for your personal use.

Happily, versioning is darned easy to implement once you’ve walked through it. So let’s take a stroll.

Implementing Versions

First, keep in mind that there’s one frustrating problem with the procedure to save a version. You click to save before you name the thing you’re saving. Let’s go through the business once; then I’ll give the steps of the procedure at the end.

Second, note that you can save versions either automatically or manually. I’ll cover both, but most of what I’ll be discussing will be manually saved versions.

Let’s say I’m writing a touching memoir called "How I spent My Summer Vacation"—a tender recital of how I spent those critical three months between high school and college. After typing the title, I save the document in a file called summervac.doc.

So far, so good.

But halfway through the first paragraph, the whole story begins going pear-shaped. I’ve started off with a hammer-smack, but for this audience I really want the powder-puff touch. Only, I hate to toss the opening. After all, whenever Fate and Stupidity have conspired to cause a power shortage when I haven’t saved, or a spate of temper has caused me to rip up some subsequently priceless manuscript, whatever text was lost was more fabulous than the mythical trout slipping from the hook.

Clearly, I need to save both openings to a version instead. On the File menu, I click Versions, as shown in Figure 1, to open the dialog box shown in Figure 2. Notice that there’s no place to type a name for this version, so click the Save Now button, which opens the dialog box shown in Figure 3.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Find the Versions feature on the File menu.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Click Save Now in the Versions dialog box.

Figure 3

Figure 3 Enter the title of the version and any comments.

Observe that there’s still no field for typing a version name. Instead, there’s a Comments field. If you think this is for entering detailed notes about this version of the document, you’re right, but the first comment line will show up as a title for that version (see Figure 4). So make sure that what you type will alert you later to the key feature(s) of this version. In other words, it makes more sense to begin with whatever you want to use as a version name, press Enter, and then type the notes.

Figure 4

Figure 4 Select a previous version from the list.

To recap, to save a version manually, follow these steps:

  1. On the File menu, click Versions and then click Save Now.
  2. In the Comments box, type a descriptive title, press Enter, type any notes you find relevant to this version, and click OK.

To save a version automatically, here’s the process:

  1. On the File menu, click Versions and then click Automatically Save a Version on Close.
  2. Click Close. Now, each time you close your document, a new version will be saved.

So what happens if I want to check out an earlier version and recover that attention-grabbing start?

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