Dave Pelland Writing and Editing
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Insights on Content Production and Marketing

Creating a Strong Version Control Process

One of the common frustrations with collaborative content projects is a breakdown in version control - a problem caused by three members of a project team revising the third draft of a document while someone else is making further revisions to the second draft.

This challenge can be difficult to avoid without coordination of the drafts and, in many cases, manual comparisons of drafts to unify everyone's edits.

Effective version control is like a sports referee - it's most effective when you don't notice it. The people contributing to the project see drafts flowing back and forth smoothly, and may not realize or understand the work that's involved in coordinating the drafts and making sure that everybody's working on the latest version.

The most common cause of version control problems comes when members of a thought leadership project team -- say, subject matter experts at a services firm, marketing professionals and an outside writer -- are swapping drafts of Word documents via email.

Those subject matter experts, whose insights are critical to the document's content, are contributing to the project in addition to their regular duties. In a lot of cases, they're working on a document while traveling or in a hotel room, so it's easy for them to disrupt the smooth flow of edits and drafts accidentally.

Let's say Sally, Rick and Steve are consultants collaborating on a whitepaper. They each receive a draft on a Monday from their marketing professional, Bob. That evening, Sally sends edits to the rest of the team. Rick then makes further edits to Sally's revisions, while Steve sends some changes to the unrevised draft.

Now Bob, or the writer supporting Bob, has to blend these changes -- most likely into Sally's draft -- to create a new version.

Interesting variations on this theme include Rick submitting untracked changes to a Word document, or Steve sending edits to half of the document on Monday night with a promise to send more changes later in the week.

Process Over Technology

Technology can help improve the version control challenge in some circumstances. Large engineering or law firms, for instance, that depend on people collaborating on multiple iterations of files, often use document management software that allows one person to edit a document while locking out edits from other team members. This preserves everyone's edits in one document so they're easy to review and discuss.

On a more basic level, firms can use online word processing tools such as Google Docs to enable collaborative, real-time, editing of one document that can later be exported into another tool for layout.

This approach can streamline the overall process, once people get past the somewhat unsettling effect of seeing someone else make changes to a document on their screens.

But some firms don't allow access to online word processing tools, or the firm may rely on swapping Word files out of habit. When you're trading Word files, you need a process to help mitigate the risk of people losing control of who's doing what and which draft they should be doing it in.

File naming conventions, such as some using the "save as" command to add their initials and the date to a draft as they edit it, can be helpful -- but you can't assume people are going to remember or apply those standards. Some will, but you'll also get files back with the same name you sent out.

Instead, it's helpful at the start of a project to talk about how you'll be exchanging drafts. Looking back at the consultants we mentioned earlier, it's more effective for each subject matter expert to send their changes to the marketing professional for integration, instead of to everyone.

The marketing professional can then integrate the suggestions, highlight any comments or questions, and circulate a new draft.

Define Coordination Roles

Probably the most effective way to reduce the risk of version control confusion is designating someone to coordinate which versions are being circulated and keeping track of which version is the latest. This can be a confusing job, but someone is going to have to do it.

If you're a marketing professional who's working strictly with internal resources, you're probably the best person to handle that role. If you've engaged a contract writer to provide editorial assistance, feel free to outsource the version control coordination to them while you maintain overall project management responsibility.

If you're the outside writer, congratulations -- you've just picked up a role. Perhaps the best way to think of this contribution is as a value-add service that you're providing to your clients. It's potentially a pain, but it saves a ton of confusion and allows your client's professionals to focus on what they know and do best.

Regardless of who is coordinating those changes, it's important to accept or reject the edits, add any comments or questions, and send a new version that's as clean as possible. Sending tracked changes to two or three versions of the same document results in a colorful mess that's all but impossible to decipher.

If worse comes to worst, you can use Word's "compare document" feature to examine everyone's submissions against a master version, then combine those into what then becomes the latest working draft.

It's not ideal to have to resort to this feature, though, when a well-defined process for revising and sharing your edits can reduce the risk of version control problems derailing, or at least delaying, your thought leadership initiatives.