Comparing Drafts

As an editor, I frequently review the evolving stages of an author’s manuscript. Yet I don’t need to read every word of the manuscript multiple times. I already have notes taken during a previous draft about scenes that haven’t changed. For that reason I use a Microsoft Word function called Compare Documents. It asks which two files I’d like to compare, and once they are selected, it produces a third file that shows only the changes made from one draft to the next. I should note that other word-processing programs may have similar functions.

Since many authors are unaware of this tool, I’d like to point out how useful it can be for you as you are working through successive drafts. After all, the process of revision usually takes place over a long period of time, and you can forget what you did a while ago. If you are making a key change for a character on page 300, say, and you know you already made a change in an earlier scene, you can spend fruitless minutes looking for that change, in order to make the two align. With Compare Docs, though, you can skim through the text, looking only for the highlighted (track-changed) material.

Using the function also helps clarify what types of changes you have made in the draft. You can be under the impression that you changed a ton of stuff in a scene, but it still doesn’t seem to work the way you had planned. That may be because the changes you made were picayune, or they didn’t address the basic problem you wanted to address. By using Compare Docs, you can review what in fact you did—and see if the changes hit the intended target.

One other aspect that may prove very helpful is: do you like the changes you made? I don’t want to return to the days of writing out drafts longhand, but I do miss being able to see exactly what I changed. The line was crossed out, and I wrote in words above the line. I would say that half the time, I decide to keep the original. With Compare Docs, all of the changes are highlighted. You can compare the two, and maybe decide that the first stroke was the right one.

“I can't write five words but that I can change seven.” —Dorothy Parker

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine

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