Google Docs – Using Revision History & Comments to Promote Editing

My wife is a freelance copywriter and editor, and works from home. She never meets with her clients in person, and often works odd hours to complete projects or meet customer demands. Some of her clients are overseas, so even meeting online can become difficult due to time differences between the continents. Watching her add comments to yet another PDF document, or search for the last version of that same document, gives me a headache, even as she wastes valuable time.

I work with teachers and students in the classroom at multiple districts, and previously taught social studies at the high school level. I’ve spent countless hours grading essays, giving feedback, and re-reading work from students that needed help. Some of the time I could accurately remember what they had written before and was able to connect the two, but most of the time it was like reading an essay for the first time.

In the classroom today, due to time, we don’t take the time to truly help students edit their papers, rather one or two revisions is enough, and the final version of the essay is not always stellar, or not up to the student’s true potential. In the real world, this is not how it works.

In a similar way, my wife never creates work, submits it to the client, and everything is hunky dory. Rather, she keeps editing, keeps fixing, keeps tweaking based on feedback from the client, feedback from her writing partners, or feedback from test cases. For a normal project, in her world, it’s not uncommon to edit and revise 5-10 times for a few paragraphs worth of text. Shouldn’t we prepare our students in the classroom for this, too? Probably.

So, is there a better way?

Of course! Using Google Docs, with the ability to see revision history and add comments, allows you to truly edit documents with others, all while keeping old revision data handy, and with access to all comments from the beginning of the document.

First, how do the tools work? Let’s start with the Revision History.

Google Docs, and all tools in Google Drive, saves your work automatically – no need to press save, or worry about losing any work. Since Google saves your work constantly, the revision history has a record and can display your work step-by-step. At any time you can go back and access previous work, and can even revert back to that change if you’d like. Revision history makes it easy to travel backwards and forward in the document history, so if you need that paragraph from last week that was deleted, it’s simple to find it.

Click ‘File’, then ‘See revision history’. The revision history pane will open up on the right side of your document, and you can select which version of the document you want to see, and revert to if necessary.

Furthermore, if you have more than one person working in the document, it keeps all of that data – you can see who adds, deletes, and edits the document – all color coded, time stamped, and easy to work with.

In the classroom, it’s then easy to track what students do in a document. Did they do the edits you suggested? Did they share the work evenly on their team? Did they do all their work last night?

In the real world, it’ simple to track revisions from start to finish, and both clients and writers can watch the document come together. Remember, while you have access to the revision history, which is technically a bunch of separate version of the same document, you’re always looking at the latest version of a document anytime you enter and use a Google Doc.

Next, comments.

Comments in a Google Doc, and in all other Google Docs tools such as Presentation and Spreadsheets, allow you to leave semi-permanent comments and feedback regarding the work being done. Here’s how they work:

You can insert a comment in four different ways – it all depends on your workflow, and what you’re most comfortable with. I use the keyboard shortcut (CTRL+M on the PC, or ⌘+M on the Mac), but you can also insert a comment using the ‘Insert’ menu, the Comment icon on the toolbar, or by right-clicking, then inserting a comment. I always highlight what I want to leave a comment about, then insert it. That way, the reader / editor knows what I’m referencing, and the clarity of intent increases.

The great thing about comments is that they stay with the document, as opposed to a chat window conversation that disappears when you leave the document. The comments, once resolved, can always be accessed by clicking the grey ‘Comments’ button next to the ‘Share’ button in the top right hand corner. All comments can be viewed from there, re-opened if they were closed, and responded to.

Comments are an obvious way to leave feedback on a document, and my wife uses them all the time in her edit process. In the classroom, however, the edit workflow really changes the way we instruct and construct new things.

For example, instead of waiting for a whole paper, whether draft or final copy, and then assessing or grading it, a teacher can give immediate feedback on an intro paragraph, which will yield a much better final product. Why wait to give feedback and offer direction changes on a complete assignment when you can steer the student in the right direction within the first 20 minutes? Using comments, we can go from produce-turn-in-get-graded to edit, edit, edit. And that workflow matches the real world!

A final example of a way to use comments – I leave comments to myself, like those yellow sticky notes, and once all comments have been dealt with and resolved, I know I’m done with whatever I’m creating.

Now that you have a handle on revision history and comments, let’s combine the two, both in the classroom and in the real world.

Using the revision history and comments we can now keep total control over the entire edit process. By combining the power of revision history to keep track of all the changes, with the power of having access to all the edits required and feedback regarding the document, it’s easy to check what has been done, and what’s left out. In the classroom for example, when teachers give formative feedback on an intro paragraph, they can now verify whether or not the student actually took their advice and made changes. In the real world, it’s easy to move back and forward in the document while referencing clients needs and wishes in the comment stream.

The revision history tool and the ability to add and reply to comments are extremely useful in most situations. No more having to second-guess what was written and deleted last week, or to wait for a final product to leave valuable feedback for a student. And best of all – the edit workflow in the classroom matches that of the real world, so transition time and learning curves are minimized once a student leaves school.

So go on, what are you waiting for? Leave some feedback for a colleague or student, bring back that awesome paragraph you wrote last week but deleted by mistake, and improve your entire editing process for yourself and your students!