How to deal with the ‘track changes hellstorm’

Anyone who has shared their written work recently will probably have received back a document with comments and edits inserted using the ‘track changes’ function embedded in word processors. This can be hell on earth. A hellstorm. The first time I saw it was in 2005 when I returned from doing fieldwork in South Africa. I sent a draft of a paper to my adviser and promptly got back a document with hundreds of changes and comments. I’d never seen it before, had no idea what to do with it, and basically nearly had a heart attack.

Today, my heart still skips a few beats when I open a document and see everything leaping out at me. I suspect most academics feel the same. And for students who are new to this whole thing I’m sure it can be difficult to know what to do. So here are five tips to think about it. They work for me. If you have further suggestions, let me know in the comments.

  1. Step away from the computer. Go do something else. Let your heart beat return to normal.
  2. Go back to the computer. Scroll through the whole document and get a general sense for what’s going on.
  3. Accept or reject the editorial changes. A lot of times this will be about agreeing to corrections of grammar or typos. I suspect that, with time, you will see fewer and fewer of these. But even experienced writers make stupid mistakes or write passively when they should probably write in active tense; and so on. We tend to think faster than we type and so it’s normal to miss out a word or get the grammar wrong in some way. Don’t feel bad. But do make yourself (and the person who’s reading your work) a promise. Say: “I won’t make that mistake again.” And don’t. If there’s one thing I know from commenting on other people’s work, it’s incredibly – and I mean, like, totally unbelievably – annoying if mistakes are repeated time and time again.
  4. Read all of the comments, which are usually located on the right margin. Don’t delete any. But take a piece of paper and note which comments are going to be the easiest to deal with. Then work your way through them. One by one. Next, make a start on the harder ones. A lot of times this means doing a ton of extra work. That’s life. But if you’ve cleaned the document of typos, and if you’ve worked your way through the easier comments, you should find that your brain will find the energy and the ideas to sort out the bigger issues. Yes, in many instances this is going to mean you need to completely re-think. Sometimes it can mean the document will need to be entirely re-written. Tough. But writing is about precisely this iterative process – back and forth, changing, reflecting, adjusting, improving – and the point of having someone else read your work is to enrol them in this activity. I’ve been fortunate to know two academics who consistently make excellent, thoughtful comments on my written work. You also need to find good readers and editors. Working with, and gaining from the experience of using, track changes can pay off big time. Keep the faith.
  5. Go get a drink.

Alistair Fraser

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5 comments

  1. 1 and 5 are of absolute critical importance.

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  2. If you are one of my students, this blog is really helpful!

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  3. Aoife Delaney · · Reply

    I can still remember the heart attack I had the first time I received an essay back with track changes and comments. Overtime, I have learned to embrace track changes and have developed quite similiar steps as the ones above for dealing with them. They can be quite helpful when the don’t turn your brain to mush!

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  4. Spent the summer writing and had two reviews………yes, I agree, track changes can be very stressful. I had many typos which when stripped out left it easier to deal with the more serious editorial suggestions. Of course typos are also serious if not corrected!!!!

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  5. […] not least in an emotional sense: reviews can be harsh. Even when they aren’t, that moment of seeing what your peers make of your work can be tough going. To top things off, we’re also […]

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