The argument for making changes silently, not tracking them

The argument for making changes silently, not tracking them

I espouse making routine copy editing changes silently; that is, without tracking them in Word. From editors, I hear a few common concerns about this:


  • What if the client wants to see every little change?
  • What if the edits introduced errors?
  • What if we really want the client to know that we did all that work? Will invisible changes go unacknowledged and, in the end, unappreciated?


sample of how tracked changes in MS Word quickly gets clutteredAbove all, do what works for you and for your client. There is room for many valid work styles among editors.

The idea of making changes silently came to me from Carol Fisher-Saller, one of the more prominent editors at University of Chicago press. I’m in good company on this point, and her post explains it well. But then again, she does call herself The Subversive Editor.

I’ll tell you why I like silent changes and when they fail in a moment. First, let me say that there is no room for the editor’s ego in editing. The emotional need to have our work appreciated does not trump the client’s preferences for efficacy. Strike a balance in your methods or get a dog to fill your appreciation needs.


Three reasons not to track a change


flying monkey lights
Track changing double spaces to single and I WILL dispatch the flying monkeys.
  1. Sometimes there are so many changes it is literally panic-inducing for the client.
  2. The volume of tracked changes can hide what was actually done. There’s always the “view final” option but, then, why track the changes? It will still be near impossible to make sense of all the tracking if the need arises.
  3. Having to review every single instance of changing a numbered list to use brackets instead of periods is a colossal waste of my time (sometimes I am the one approving an edit). It drives me batty, and it drives up the cost (my time is billable). I prefer the copy editor to just make the change that is required by house style and not bother me with it.


When silent is deadly


I always hesitate when I say “don’t track changes that are routine.” My current editing assignment serves as a case study: iff is not a typo in this field, where it means “if and only if.”

This is why I advocate tracking a change once, noting it in a comment, then making all such changes silently from that point forward. So, for instance, this work of philosophy would track the first change of “iff” to “if”, and I’d comment “This change made silently henceforth.” Then, the author is alerted to the change and can tell me to stet it.


Take the oath


Which leads me to repeat one of the cardinal rules of editing — from the Code or Oath, if you will: When in doubt, look it up. When you are sure, look it up. As often as not, I find the author is using some word or structure correctly, though perhaps in an obscure or archaic way. Then I simply flag it for consideration and suggest alternatives.



To get more wisdom like this, and a discount rate on flying monkey minions, sign up for my e-Editing in Word course. It’s delivered in 4 parts, at your convenience — online in written lessons and video demos. There’s a mailing list sign up on the Training page if you’d like to be notified of the next offering (June 24, 2014).


Editing in Word 2016 (cover)Turbo boost your skills and get Word to do the heavy lifting for a change.

Buy the full self-study course and get 115 pages of editor-specific instructions for making the most of MS Word 2016 (365). Includes 24 demo videos for both Mac and PC users. Field tested over 7 years with editors around the globe.

Peek Inside the Book

One thought on “The argument for making changes silently, not tracking them

Leave a Reply