How to Use Microsoft Word’s Compare Feature

If you’re on a collaborative team of workers, or you’re simply dealing with several revisions of your own work, it’s important to be able to track incremental changes. In Microsoft Word, the ability to compare every difference in two nearly-identical documents is built in to the Compare tool. Here’s how to use it.

First, open Word and any document file. (It can be one of the ones you’re comparing, another document entirely, or simply a blank project.) Click the “Review” tab at the top of the screen to open the ribbon menu, then click the “Compare” button—it will be near the right side of the menu.

Click “Compare” again if another menu opens. Then in the new window, select your two documents: the “Original” (or earlier) document, and the “Revised” (or later) document. If you don’t see either in the dropdown menu, click the folder icon on the right to browse to the document using your file browser.

Under “Label changes with,” you can set a note to help you keep track of which difference belongs to which document. Here I’m going to label mine “later” since it’s the latest revision of the manuscript. You can only add a tag to the revised document, but you can switch between them with the double-arrow icon.

Click the “More” button to see advanced option. Most of these are self-explanatory, and all options are enabled by default. Note the “Show changes at” option, which shows individual changes either one character at a time (very slow) or one word at a time.

Click “OK.” Word will open up a complicated-looking selection of panes in a single document. From left to right, you have an itemized list of changes, a full view of the “Revised” document with red marks on the left margin indicating changes, and a double pane showing the original and revised documents stacked. Scrolling with your mouse wheel will scroll all three of the primary panes at once, but you can use the scroll bars on the right of each to scroll the individual panes to each.

The Revisions pane is the most useful here. It shows each change, what was removed, and what was added, in order from the top of the document to the bottom. It’s a fantastic way to see the differences in the text and formatting at a glance. Clicking on any of the entries in the Revisions pane will instantly scroll the other panes to the relevant position. Neat!

Once you’ve used the Revisions tab to find the specific revision, you can right-click on the relevant text in the center pane. Click “Accept” or “Reject” (followed by the corresponding action) to keep or revert the change, respectively.

You can save this compared document as a separate file that won’t affect either of the documents you’re currently viewing. Just click File>Save as, and save it like any other Word document.

Note that the Compare feature isn’t available if either document has password protection or its changes are protected in Word. You can change this setting in the individual documents by clicking Review>Track Changes.

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.