For the last lesson in this Geek School series, we’re going to talk about keeping track of versions in Word and comparing and combining documents.

The Versions feature in Word was removed in recent versions of Word. In Word 2013, the only way you can access previous versions of a document in Word is to open previous automatically saved (autosaved) versions of the document. You can also open recent unsaved documents. However, there is no formal versioning feature in Word. We will show you an alternative you can easily add to Word for free that will provide this capability.

If multiple people have worked on different copies of the same file, instead of using the Track Changes feature on one copy of the file, you can compare the two versions of the file to see the differences. Word contains a comparison tool that allows you to compare two files, as long as they have different file names. We will show you how to use this feature and how to read the results of the comparison.

In addition to comparing documents, you can combine documents after comparing them. We will show you how to merge two versions of the same document and also how to easily merge two different documents, in case multiple authors have worked on separate parts of a document.

Once all changes have been made, the necessary comparisons made, and combining of documents done, you can easily share your document using Microsoft OneDrive. You can also use OneDrive at any point in the collaboration process to provide access to the document for other reviewers.

Keep Track of Versions of a Document

Word used to have a formal versioning feature that allowed you to save different versions of a document within the document itself. That feature has gone away and the only way you can retrieve previous versions of a document is through the Auto-Save feature or by accessing unsaved documents, if available.

By default, Word automatically saves your document at certain intervals. This is the Auto-Save feature. To go back to a previously, automatically saved copy of your document, click the “File” tab and select an “(autosave)” item from the list under “Versions.”

You can also increase or decrease the interval for the Auto-Save feature in Word.

If you have closed your document by accident without saving, or you lost power and the computer unexpectedly turned off, you can recover unsaved documents. To do this, click the “File” tab and click the “Manage Versions” button on the “Info” screen. Select “Recover Unsaved Documents” from the drop-down menu.

If any unsaved files were available, they would be listed on the “Open” dialog box that displays.

Alternatives for Saving Versions of a Word Document

There are alternatives for adding a versioning system to Word. One is an add-in for Word, called Save Versions, and another is a plugin that works with an external version control program called Perforce.

The Save Versions add-in allows you to easily save numbered versions of a Word document from within the file.

Perforce is a version control program that is available for free for up to 20 users. They provide a plugin for Microsoft Office that allows Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Project files to be easily stored and managed in Perforce from within the programs.

Compare Two Versions of the Same Document

If a reviewer has forgotten to use the “Track Changes” feature, and you didn’t lock it on in the document, you can still compare the two versions of the document and accept and reject changes based on the comparison. All you need is your original document and the revised document. Each file must have a different name.

The “Compare” and “Combine” features are similar, but each has its purpose. If you only have two documents you want to compare, and the neither one contains tracked changes, use the “Compare” feature. If you have two or more documents that contain tracked changes, and you need to keep track of who changed what and when, use the “Combine” feature, described later in this lesson.

To compare the original and revised versions of a document, click “Compare” in the “Compare” section of the “Review” tab and select “Compare” from the drop-down menu.

NOTE: You can’t compare two documents if either of them is protected for tracked changes or has any kind of document protection applied. Remove the document protection to continue comparing the documents. See Lesson 2 for information on how to unlock the tracked changes feature and Lesson 4 for information about removing formatting and editing restrictions from a document and a password assigned to a document to open it.

On the “Compare Documents” dialog box, select the “Original document” from the drop-down list.

Select the “Revised document” from the drop-down list. Under the “Revised document,” specify a label to apply to the changes so you know who made them in the “Label changes with” edit box. It can be a user’s name or whatever you like.

Click “More” to access more options.

In the “Comparison settings” section, select the items you want to compare in the two documents. By default, all items are selected.

NOTE: The “Insertions and deletions” item is always grayed out and always checked. When you use “Compare” or “Combine”, insertions and deletions will always be compared.

In the “Show changes at” section, choose to compare character by character (“Character Level”) or word by word (“Word level”). “Character level” allows you to see the exact changes that were made. For example, if the original document has the word “to” and the revised document has the word “too,” to which an “o” was added, the “Word level” setting would show you that “to” was replaced with “too.” However, the “Character level” setting would show the fact that an “o” was added.

By default, the “Compare” feature puts the changes into a new document, as shown in the “Show changes in” section. However, you can choose to put the changes into the “Original document” or the “Revised document.”

Click “OK” once you’ve made your selections.

The comparison between the two documents is made and the changes are displayed in the specified document. In our example, we chose to accept the default of showing the changes in a new document. The “Original document” and the “Revised document” both display in a pane to the right of the “Compared Document” to be used for reference. They cannot be edited.

If you don’t see the pane containing the original and revised documents, click “Compare” in the “Compare” section of the “Review” tab. Then, select “Show Source Document” and then “Show Both.” You can also choose to “Show Original” or the “Show Revised,” if you don’t want to view both.

The “Reviewing pane”, discussed briefly in Lesson 2 and in more detail in Lesson 3, also displays to the left of the “Compared document.”

In the “Compared document,” you can go through the tracked changes, just as discussed in Lesson 2, accepting or rejecting each change.

Then, save the compared document with a different name and you’ll have a document containing changes from both the original and revised documents.

Combine documents

When you have multiple documents containing tracked changes that you need to compare, it helps to be able to keep track of who made which changes and when. The “Combine” command allows you to merge the tracked changes from each document, two at a time, until all changes from all documents have been incorporated into one document.

NOTE: This is not the best way to review documents and incorporate changes. It’s best to share documents and have other people review them sequentially, using “Track Changes.” However, if that was not done, the “Combine” feature can help you gather and incorporate changes made by all reviewers.

Also, as with the “Compare” feature, you can’t combine documents if any of the documents are protected in any way. Remove protection from the documents before combining them.

Combine Multiple Versions of the Same Document

To start combining the first two documents, click “Compare” in the “Compare” section of the “Review” tab and select “Combine” from the drop-down menu.

The “Combine Documents” dialog box is essentially the same as the “Compare Documents” dialog box discussed in the previous section.

For the “Original document” select the earliest version of the original document and then select one of the reviewers’ versions of the document as the “Revised document.” Enter labels for the “Original document” and the “Revised document” using the corresponding “Label unmarked changes with” edit box. This allows you to see who made which changes.

Just as you did when comparing documents, select the “Comparison settings,” the level for “Show changes at,” and which document to “Show changes in.” When combining more than two documents, it might be a good idea to show the changes in the “Original document,” making sure you make a copy of it first, and use the same original document when comparing to each reviewer’s document. This allows you to “gather” all the changes into the original document.

The “Combined Document” displays with all the changes tracked and marked with the specified labels and times. If the changes in the “Revised document” were not tracked, the revision time will be the time the documents were combined, which will be essentially useless.

You can wait until combining all the reviewers’ documents before reviewing and accepting and rejecting editing changes. However, before combining additional documents, you must resolve all formatting changes because Word cannot retain multiple formatting revisions.

The easiest way to do this is to use the “Show Markup” menu to only show the “Formatting” markup. Select “Comments,” “Ink,” and “Insertions and Deletions” so there are no check marks to the left of those options. Only the “Formatting” option should have a check mark. Then, review all the tracked formatting changes and accept or reject each change.

NOTE: If you’re not using tablet, the “Ink” option is irrelevant. It does not matter if that option is on or off.

Once you have resolved all the formatting changes, you can compare the new original document with the next revised document. Continue until all the revised documents have been combined into the original. When this is done, you’ll have a version that contains all of the changes and each change will be marked with who made it. Again, the times when the changes were made are only accurate if the changes were tracked in each revised document.

Now, you can show all the markup using the “Show Markup” menu (turn “Comments” and “Insertions and Deletions” back on – turn on “Ink” only if you are using a tablet) and review all the changes, accepting or rejecting each change.

Merge Two Different Documents

There may be times when multiple authors are working on different parts of a document and you need to combine those separate parts into one document. That’s easily accomplished in Word. Open the main document into which you want to add the other documents and place the cursor at the point where you want to insert another file. Click the “Insert” tab.

In the “Text” section, click the down-arrow on the “Object” button and select “Text from File” from the drop-down list.

On the “Insert File” dialog box, navigate to the location of the file you want to insert, select the file, and click “Insert.”

NOTE: You can also insert a link to a file, which is recommended if that file is going to change. Instead of clicking the “Insert” button, click the down-arrow on the “Insert” button and select “Insert as Link.” An “INCLUDETEXT” field code is inserted, rather than the file’s contents.

When you insert the contents of a file using the “Text from File” option, the styles of the current document are applied to the contents of the incoming file. If styles were used in the incoming file, the formatting of the inserted text will most likely change to the formatting of the current document. However, any information about paper size, orientation, margins, and other Page Layout settings will be discarded and replaced with the settings from the current document.

Share a Document Using Microsoft OneDrive

You can use OneDrive to share your document with other reviewers. A document can be saved to and opened from your OneDrive account directly from within Word, as long as you’re signed into your Microsoft account. To share your document with others, simply click the “File” tab and then click “Save As” from the list of options on the left. On the “Save As” screen, click the “OneDrive” option and then click the “Browse” button on the right.

As long as you have an internet connection, the “Save As” dialog box displays showing you the files and folders in your OneDrive account. Choose a folder in which to save your document (or create a new folder), enter a file name, and click “Save.”

For other people to be able to access the document on OneDrive, you must share the file, or the folder containing the file. See the help on OneDrive’s site for information on how to do this.


And that’s it for the How-To Geek School’s Guide to Using Word in a Team Setting!

It’s been fun, we’ve learned a lot, and hope you did too! If you missed any part of this series, or simply want to review something again, you can easily do so by clicking any of the links in the table of contents at the beginning of the article.

Profile Photo for Lori Kaufman Lori Kaufman
Lori Kaufman is a technology expert with 25 years of experience. She's been a senior technical writer, worked as a programmer, and has even run her own multi-location business.
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