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How To Manage Manuscript Versions Or Revisions

version control In a ghostwriting project I completed recently I acted as the liaison between the author, copy editor and book designer. That is, I was responsible for entering all corrections and keeping the master manuscript copy.

As so often happens in a project like this, the author found half a dozen simple changes she wanted after what we all thought was the final manuscript had been sent to the book designer.

I typed those up more or less like this:

Sam, we’ve got two changes:

on page 21, change the name in the second paragraph from Smith to: Jones

on page 30, the last sentence of the last paragraph should read: She was surprised that she hadn’t finished last.

Things went well until I spotted another error. I got back the .pdf with that change, but the first two had been lost. I realized that the book designer had probably scrambled versions and we soon sorted it out. I also realized that since I hadn’t used this book designer I should have had a conversation with him in advance about how he wanted corrections, and maybe even version control.

There are two versions of version or revision control. The formal and the informal.

Formal Version Control

The formal involves keeping a separate copy of each revision. The goal is to be able to get back to an earlier version if something goes wrong. This approach can also be used to track who makes what changes – more appropriate, probably, when designing bridges or software.

This mean each revision gets its own, unique, filename. Numbering is probably the most common. Something like Annesms – 1, Annesms – 2, etc. I’ve also used dating and appended my initials. The problem for me with this system is when I get tired; it’s awfully easy for me to forget to rename the file. I’ve found if I do that as my very first action I’m much more likely to have a complete record.

If you’ve got multiple authors and a big project how you approach version control is critical and you may want to adopt at least some of the conventions developed in engineering.

Informal Version Control

Left to my own devices and assuming the author doesn’t need to see every single change, I don’t try to control the versions at all. What I want, after all, is the most recent iteration.

It’s heresy to some, but I simply overwrite the manuscript with each change. I keep the manuscript itself in it’s own folder; its title includes the abbreviation, ms after the client’s name, like this: annems.doc

I evolved this simple system because I find it so hard, particularly toward the end of writing a book, to remember to save each change as a new file. This way the one file is always the best.

Since I use an automatic offsite backup system I do have a way to get to the almost most recent copy if my computer crashes.

However you do it, finding a way to be sure you’re working on the correct version is a must.

How do you handle revisions?


{ 6 comments… add one }
  • jorgekafkazar

    On my own large (but relatively straightforward) m/s projects, I rarely overwrite a file intentionally, unless the changes have been extremely minor. Bad things can happen that way. Instead, since we’re no longer limited to short file names (ala DOS), I use this file ID scheme: Name of Project#’Draft’#Date. For example, I have a sequence of script files where the last one is named: Midnight in the Temple Draft 4-16-10. For ordinary (minor) changes, I often add a suffix, e.g., Midnight In the Temple Draft 4-16-10a. The suffix gets dropped on the next full revision, which gets its own date.

    How do I ensure that the file gets renamed? Whenever I open a file, I immediately do the rename. I do not type anything, I do not delete anything, I do not pass GO, I do not collect $200; I SAVE the blinkin’ file with a new name right away!

    When anyone else touches the file, I require that they use the MSWord Review feature AND rename the file by adding their initials to the file name. E.g., Midnight In the Temple Draft 7-12-09aEAP. I check to make sure they’ve done this before I save their markups, which I put in a different file from the master copy. No one but me is permitted to save the file without initials.

    There are other tricks, including avoiding branches in the manuscript review process, yatta-yatta. My favorite is to change the color of all obsolete versions (using MSWord’s [Page Layout][page color] feature). If I see a green page on my word processing screen, I know it’s not the current file. I sometimes also add color to markup copies, as well.

    For more complex documents, special software is advisable or even mandatory. Check the Internerd for examples, such as http://www.qualitydigest.com/june02/html/doccontrol.html

    I save to the hard drive frequently and save to a memory stick after every rename. I sometimes clean out the very oldest versions to make more space, but I’m not in any rush to do so.

    • Anne

      That makes sense Jorge.

  • I use informal, overwriting each revision, but found recently that I have to be careful about saving things to the right place. It’s a little disorganized and a pain to remember to overwrite to all the places I keep a backup.

    Recently I was working on a story at lunch and saved my revision, only I saved it to another folder by mistake. When I went back to open the file, I discovered an older version WITHOUT all my changes, and freaked. I only just found the revised one today, in the wrong folder. D’OH!

    Time to find a better system. I think I need to blog about this and invite suggestions!
    .-= Elizabeth West´s last blog ..“Tell me about yourself” =-.

    • Anne

      Jorge’s suggestion in comments is probably the best one.

  • Jennifer McKasson

    Thanks for all the great information. I manage versions to client by an X.X system. It really saves my sanity!

    In my latest project, for a corporate client, we had many reviewers at different stages of the project. Any time it went through a major revision cycle (entire paragraphs or multiple people’s worth of input incorporated), I changed the whole number when it went back. Minor revisions changed just the decimal. Initials got appended by each reviewer, so I knew exactly which reviewer looked at which version and sent back feedback. (Deliverable 1.0; Deliverable 1.0 JM). This system helped me know exactly which one was the most recent version. Once we were at final and being translated into 10 other languages, the file number became “Translated-Language” instead.

    Another deliverable for the project had many fewer minor revisions and long gaps between times they saw it (four months between wireframes and draft final version). For this deliverable, I used the deadline to name my version and the other naming convention to send to the client (043010 Deliverable.pptx for my working copy; Deliverable Draft 1.0.pdf to the client). I renamed it by deadline when I started to work on the version for that deadline. That one did not require that I keep incremental revisions in working copies, though.

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