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Combining onscreen and online editing: discussing changes online with distant authors

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2012. Combining onscreen and online editing: discussing changes online with distant authors. Copyediting Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013: 9-10. <>

Many editors work with distant authors more often than with an author in the same office. To accomplish this, we edit documents in Word using revision tracking (i.e., onscreen editing), email files to authors, and leave them to accept or reject our revisions. If necessary, they respond to our comments, add tracked changes of their own, and return the documents for a final look. Though this works well, it lacks the conversations that are some of the most satisfying parts of our work. Restoring the missing interaction is where online editing is useful: displaying the document on the web, and then discussing it over the phone or through chat software.

Unfortunately, no online solution currently provides onscreen editing features as sophisticated as Word’s tools. Even basic revision tracking tools are missing. Fortunately, two alternatives can provide what we need. In this article, I’ll discuss one commercial option and a clumsier homemade solution so flexible that you may prefer it.

Commercial options

The two main commercial options are Microsoft’s Office 365 and Google’s Google Drive (formerly Google Docs). Office 365 will be somewhat familiar to Microsoft Office users, but it’s a cloud service: the software, your documents, e-mail, a shared calendar, and teleconferencing are hosted on Microsoft’s Web site. Though you can edit the documents using a Mac or Windows Web browser while colleagues watch and contribute their own edits, Office 365 is a pale shadow of Word. The online word processor lacks macros, AutoCorrect, and revision tracking, and the team interface is cumbersome and obscure. This is exacerbated by the worst online help I’ve dealt with in years. In addition, fees start at $6 a month per user. Small or larger businesses that have full-time support staff and that are based on Microsoft technology may find it useful, but it offers few advantages for freelancers or Mac-based editors.

Google Drive is hosted by Google, and there’s no monthly charge for up to 5 GB of storage per user. The interface is much cleaner and easier to understand, and the online help is better (though still not great). There are useful extras such as e-mail (Gmail) and shared calendars (Google Calendar). Documents can be edited online using your Web browser or offline if you use Google’s free Chrome Web browser; however, the interface differs from Word, so you must learn new software, and Word documents must first be converted to the Google Docs format. Files will lose Word-specific features, such as revision tracking, and there’s a small risk of file corruption after repeated format conversions. Google Drive doesn’t integrate with Microsoft’s SharePoint, but it would be a good choice for anyone who hasn’t standardized on Microsoft products. There’s also a chat feature that lets you discuss a document while it’s visible on your collaborator’s screen (Figure 1), but you need to use Google’s Chrome browser to use the feature. Google Drive is free and flexible and will meet most needs, so I’ll focus on this option.

Screenshot of Google Drive and its editing interface

Figure 1. Online editing using Google Drive.


In both Google Drive and the homegrown solution I’ll describe, the heavy editing should first be done in Word, using the standard editing tools. After implementing edits that don’t require discussion, the author sends you the file, which you upload to Google’s site or your website to display the document during the discussion. Skype or a regular phone will let you talk while you work but requires a speakerphone or headset to keep your hands free for typing. In addition, if several people participate, you’ll need to arrange a conference call, which can be tricky and expensive. However, Skype now offers conferencing and online-only options such as FreeConferenceCall may solve this problem for many editors.

In contrast, chat software lets many people participate simultaneously with little fuss. With foreign colleagues, chat is a better approach because most people read and write their second language better than they speak it, and you can copy and paste text into the chat window instead of retyping it. Chat also eliminates the problem of rapid speech, strong accents (even native speakers have them), and clumsy pronunciation (e.g., my appalling abuse of tones in Mandarin).

The Google Drive solution

Collaboration in Google Drive starts with creating a new document (File > New) in Google’s word processor or uploading an existing document. Though you can upload documents containing tracked changes and view them in the word processor, Google doesn’t offer revision tracking, nor does it offer tools for finding, accepting, or rejecting revisions. (Instead, Google saves previous versions of a document so that you can revert to them if necessary.) There are no macros, so you can’t migrate your Word macros, though a systemwide macro tool such as Macro Express for Windows or Butler for the Mac, or even Apple’s AppleScript, will permit some automation.

Instead, you use standard formatting tools, such as boldface, italics, underline, and strikethrough, to communicate proposed changes; these formats immediately become visible to your colleagues as you apply them. If necessary, you can describe what you’re doing and why in the chat window. You can’t define new paragraph styles, but you can edit some of the styles you’re unlikely to use (e.g., headings 5 and 6) to contain formats such as boldfaced red text for insertions and strikethrough red text for deletions. You can insert comments (Insert > Comment) when you need to defer discussion of an issue. Clicking on a comment allows you to respond or click Resolve to conceal the comment once the issue is resolved.

The interface offers limited customization: you can set the language, the time zone, your user ID, and whether documents open in the current window or a new window. With a document open, Tools > Preferences lets you create, enable, and disable shortcuts similar to Word’s AutoCorrect options; however, they’re weaker than AutoCorrect because they don’t store complex formats or line breaks, and they lack the size, power, and flexibility of AutoText.

In theory, you can use Google Drive from any mobile device with a Web connection. In practice, this won’t work well on a small screen that lacks a good keyboard.

A homegrown solution

Building your own solution requires three components in addition to Word: a Web site where you can upload documents, a tool such as Dreamweaver that lets you upload HTML documents to that site, and chat software that lets you discuss the document. Using these components:

  1. Save the document in HTML format (i.e., as a Web page), upload it to the Web site, and send the author the document’s address
  2. Ask everyone to load the document in their Web browser, and then to open their chat software in a window beside the Web page (Figure 2).
  3. Decide who will guide the discussion of proposed changes or unsolved problems; copy and paste text from the web page into the chat window to save typing, revise it, and then explain your reasoning.
  4. When everyone agrees, copy the final text into the Word document, and then upload the file again so that everyone can see and approve the change.
  5. Repeat until you’re done.

Online editing using chat software and Web pages

Figure 2. Online editing using chat software.

The advantage of this approach is that your only limit is your Web site’s storage limit; you can store as many documents as you want at no additional cost. You can also use any Web browser and chat software you want.


Online software may suffer from availability problems, as the 365 in Office 365 suggests: what about day 366 in leap years? Even software that’s available 99.9 percent of the time will be unavailable for up to half a day annually—unacceptable if you face tight deadlines, though building a one-day safety margin into your schedule solves the problem if you can do this.

For commercial software, the biggest problem is currently the lack of features. In addition, the host controls all updates, and updates sometimes break software in pernicious ways. With desktop software, you decide when (or if) to install updates. I always wait a few weeks in case there are problems. The host also handles security and virus control. Because large sites such as Office 365 are more attractive targets than personal sites, security may also be an issue, but at least they have full-time staff watching for problems.

Worth trying?

It’s still early days for online editing, and it shows in the software’s immaturity. But when you need to discuss a document with someone distant, there’s no substitute for the author’s being able to see the document as you’re changing it and to discuss those changes. That’s doubly true if you don’t speak the same language, but you can both get by with the same written language.

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