If you've ever opened a document that had more strikeouts than a beer-league ballplayer, you're familiar with Microsoft Word's "track changes" feature. It's one of the most useful tools for collaboration, but in practice a marked-up document can quickly overwhelm with its tangle of additions, deletions, and comments all displayed in multiple colors--one for each contributor. It's enough to make you want to put a big red "X" on the whole thing.

But before you do, read through our guide to safely--and sanely--navigating a multi-authored document using track changes. We're confident that by the time you're done you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.

Review, accept, and reject changes

Once you've opened the document you'll be reviewing, select the Review tab, click the Track Changes button, then select Track Changes from the list box to turn on this feature. When the All Markup option is selected, the tracked document displays with all changes by all users, with each users' edits in a different color. Also, notice the gray vertical track lines in the left margin, which indicate a change on the adjacent line.

All those visible changes can be distracting when you're reading a document. Fortunately, Word 2013 offers an additional option called Simple Markup, which is now the default choice when you turn on Track Changes. Simple Markup just displays a red vertical track line adjacent to each line of text with changes. As you read through the text, click the track line to toggle between All Markup (line turns gray) and Simple Markup (line turns red). Now you can review the document with the multi-colored edits on or off as you prefer.

In fact, this is the quickest and easiest way to get through the process. Skim the document toggling between Simple Markup and All Markup. When you see a change you don't like, place your cursor anywhere on the marked change, click Reject, then choose Reject Change from the list box. When finished, click Accept > Accept All Changes to globally accept all the remaining edits.

If for some reason you don't agree with most of your colleagues' changes, click Accept on the ones you want to keep and choose Accept This Change from the list box. When finished, choose Reject All Changes to globally reject all the remaining edits.

When you're finished, save the document with a new filename to denote the modified version. This is particularly important when collaborating with a large group. Also, to turn off track changes, click the Track Changes button again, and it changes from blue back to white.

Adding and managing comments

When you're reviewing a collaborative document, comments are often necessary to explain or suggest an edit. Comments can also be used to issue formatting requests to the layout team, graphic design crew, or printer. 

To add comments, first determine how you want the them displayed. The options are Show Revisions in Balloons, which displays comments in a balloon to the right of the document); Show All Revisions Inline, which highlights the text inside the paragraph between vertical lines followed by the initials of the editor; and Show Only Comments and Formatting in Balloons, which displays the comment text on the right connected by dotted lines. Click the preferred option (you can change them at any time), and you're ready to add comments.

Next, highlight the text where you want the comment inserted, then click the New Comment button under the Review tab. Word opens a Review Screen panel on the right side of the page with a vertical line that connects your selected text to a comments box. Enter your comments in it, then press the Esc key to exit when finished.

To edit or reply to another user's comment, click the appropriate balloon on the right side of the page adjacent to the highlighted text. To edit, just make the changes and click the X to close. To reply, click the page curl icon at the top right, enter your reply, then click the X to close.

After the comments are reviewed, you can easily delete them with a few clicks. Toggle the Show Comments button until the balloons appear on the right. Right-click the comment balloon you want deleted. When the comment box appears, place your cursor anywhere on the commented text, click the Delete button, and then select Delete from the list box. If you want to wait until you've reviewed all the comments, click the Delete button, then select Delete All Comments in Document from the list box. They're all removed in one easy step.

Once you get familiar with the capabilities of Track Changes, you'll probably develop your own workflow. Share your favorite tips in the comments, and stay tuned for more Microsoft Word tips.