“Where on earth did this come from?”
“What was she thinking when she wrote this?”
I’ve been repackaging information from one audience for another for over 25 years now, so I’ve participated in my fair share of written conversations using track changes. This Word feature helps teams collaborate efficiently, allowing more than one person to review and edit documents, and allowing all to see each other’s contributions.
Used thoughtlessly, it creates more work for authors who struggle to make sense of comments, mediate contradictory suggestions, and tread carefully through project team disagreements. Used cruelly—like the true-story examples above—track changes sours relationships and dilutes the quality of the end product. Microaggressions through track changes do not motivate anyone.
Sadly, my colleagues and I have noticed a steady decline in the etiquette of track changes over the last few years, and I’m guessing we’re not alone. We’re seeing an uptick in vague, curt, nit-picky feedback; we rejoice when we (occasionally) receive respectful, clear, and precise edits.
It’s easy enough to surmise how this lack of workplace courtesy came to be: social media, anonymous apps, texting rather than calling or interacting in person, anonymous comments sections, rushed employees with too much to do in too little time. Those reasons, however, are no excuse to use track changes like a troll.
So I’m appealing to all L&D managers to start noticing how their teams give feedbck in track changes, and to help foster respectful workplaces by insisting on better etiquette for track changes.
Here are my seven suggestions to share with your teams, including subject matter experts, to help make our workplaces a bit more courteous, one track change at a time.
1. If the information is accurate, complete, and appropriate for the target audience, resist the temptation to rewrite it
Too many edits fall into the “personal preference” column. An editor’s job is to respect the structure, approach, and voice of the author, and to limit interventions to correcting inaccuracies, improving clarity, and heightening the impact of the author’s words. If the information as written is accurate, complete, and appropriate, let it stand (STET in editor’s lingo). You would want others to do the same to your words, wouldn’t you?
2. If you do need to rewrite, add a comment to explain why
Authors learn from edits, so if the revision is not self-explanatory, by all means explain why it’s necessary to add, remove, or change the information as written. A good writer will keep note of your edits and build them into future documents.
3. Don’t tell the author what to change: change it yourself
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received comments in track changes that spell out instructions along the lines of, “Move the second word to the end of the sentence, add this new word in between the fourth and fifth words, and remove the fourteenth word completely.” Since you’re already using track changes, go ahead and make the change you want to see: it’s faster for everyone that way.
4. When you read something you like, say so!
Too often, people use track changes as a “mistake finder.” In fact, it’s a tool to communicate with the author. So please, when you come across something you like, let the author know! They’ve worked hard to repackage the information provided and will appreciate the compliment.
5. Consolidate edits and settle differences among different reviewers
When an author (or team) asks you to consolidate all track changes, they are not asking you to simply combine all comments and edits into one document. Instead, they need you to curate the comments and provide instructions in case of conflicting opinions. Remember: Just because a reviewer has asked for a change doesn’t mean it must be incorporated! Consider whether the majority of reviewers asked for or with a change, and decide accordingly.
6. Add please and thank you to your suggestions
In track changes as in life, these small but powerful words go a long way to establishing a good rapport with the author.
7. Remember that the author can see your comments!
When adding a comment, ask yourself how you would react to that particular feedback yourself. Clearly, the different teams who directed the track-change comments I mentioned at the beginning of this column did not realize that a) I would end up reading their look-how-smart-I-am-but-you’re-not commentary; b) all the information cited had been supplied by them, so if it was WRONG!, so were they; and c) I was thinking, as always, of doing the best job I could with the information and time available to me.
The tone and extent of our edits in track changes are not always a direct indication of the quality of the author’s work; rather, they are a direct reflection of our own need for control and communication skills, which includes giving feedback. Even if you pride yourself on your ability to give “radically candid” feedback, remember that for it to be effective, you first need to care personally (about the author) before you challenge directly.
Since so much of our job as L&D practitioners entails collaborating with others to support performance improvement in the workplace, the least we can do is to show courtesy when communicating with our collaborators, with better etiquette in track changes.