Version Control: Don’t let your versioning get out of control

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Content Marketing

Losing control of changes in a file is the stuff of nightmares. You know the deal: You craftily create copy, send it around for review amongst your peers, and then everyone starts sending back separate files with their comments. If you accept their feedback, you start implementing the changes in one of the documents – your ‘master’ – as you continue to bring in additional comments and edits from other people. But if the feedback loop is long and you’re at all distracted, it can be terrifyingly easy to lose track of which document is the master.

I’m sure you’ve lived the nightmare of overwriting important changes or renaming a file incorrectly, only to realize the mistake many revision rounds later. I have, and it’s crazy-making. Please see my other feedback/edits, says a colleague. I swore I made those changes, I think.

Worse yet: The thing is printed or published before you catch it; you only realize later that it was a non-final version. Horror.

Version control – or lack thereof – can take down any well-meaning marketing organization. Losing track of what round you’re on, which is the working version, and where changes went, is maddening, frustrating, and inefficient.

So how to wrest control of this beast? Let’s talk about how to keep track of your versions … where to store them, how to name files, how to follow changes, etc.

Establish file-naming conventions

One simple but tremendously effective first step is to establish file-naming conventions across your organization.

If you take away nothing else from this article, heed this: Establish a simple but consistent naming system for your files and stick to it. This may include a combination of numerals or initials or dates. And you must use it militantly, with each and every revision.

Personally, I use different methods depending on how many people are involved in a project. If it’s just me working on a file, like the draft of this blog, I keep a simple file-naming strategy. I label everything with version number only: “v1,” “v2,” etc.

But once more people get involved, I get more granular. When multiple people are reviewing, I find it handy to append a file name with initials so I can easily see whose review I’m working with or scan my desktop to see who’s already given input. I also like to add a date to the file name, such as FILENAME_060717. (True, most word processing programs provide a revision history in the file details – but that doesn’t stick if you later re-open a file and make a tiny change. The clock resets.) And when working with extensive, fast-paced edits – inputting multiple changes in a day – I like to timestamp the actual file name with “morning revision,” “afternoon revision,” or even “2pm revision,” etc., to keep it all straight.

Set up a clear creative workflow

Another step to gaining control of the beast is to set a strategy of who reviews what, and at what stage. Having some kind of plan that is documented – fancy or intricate – can help you keep control of files. These are the hallmarks of a creative workflow, which is another process I advocate. In fact, you may be able to marry the two into one process, an efficient fell swoop. But again, like the naming convention, you really need to stick to the plan and enforce it.

Get everyone on the same page

So you have a file naming system and a plan. That’s great – for you. But if you need to loop others into that plan, it’s critical to get everyone working on the same proverbial page. This means implementing rules and process, not just for yourself, but for the whole organization.

Establish an efficient cross-functional workflow and get someone to wear the Type A hat. This person can document the process, send instructions to colleagues about how to name and label their files, hold mini training sessions, and spot check to ensure and enforce that the process is adhered to. Doing the stickler-for-details routine is not a lot of fun, but it will save time in the long-run.

A “Word” on track changes

There’s nothing that sparks ire in me like receiving a clean file from a contributor. I think, “Hey, wow – they had no changes” … only to start reading through and realize, with horror, that they have made legions of edits without notating them. It’s when I’m in the weeds, reading line by line to compare the old and the new to catch changes, that smoke comes out of my ears.

Change-tracking tools, like the one in Word or Google Docs, provide an easy way to annotate, edit, and mark up. This helps me quickly see who made what change and when.

I don’t just track changes when working with others. I turn the function on while doing my own work to keep tabs on what I’m doing. I love that the program keeps a record of my changes and easily enables me to stet and revert if my edits aren’t so stellar after all.

A cousin of track changes is the comments tool, which I equally love. I use comments to remind myself of status, things I need to come back and complete, or thought process. I also use comments to explain to others why I’m making certain wording changes, why I rewrote a passage for tone, and so on.

I know what you’ve heard in the past about track changes – and it’s true. It’s a visually overwhelming beast to wrangle. But the programs have evolved in a way that makes this manageable. Now it’s possible to mark changes but hide them as you go, so your page stays clean and easy to read and you can focus on just the flow and look of the copy.

Caution: Don’t stamp it “final” until it really is

There’s something magical – and not in a good way – that seems to happen when I append a file name with the word “final.” It’s like a cue to Murphy’s Law: The moment I proclaim a file to be finished, inevitably a host of edits and further changes trickle in.

To trick myself (and Murphy), I’ve learned to not use the word “final” on my files until the thing has shipped, launched, and left the proverbial building. Instead, I keep on keeping on with the naming conventions above so I know which version is the latest. Only later, once all is done, do I come back and make a copy of the One That Went To Press and rename it “Final.”

How to get to “final” stage? Provide a window for internal client review. And then, when it’s closed, it’s closed. Unless it’s a legal issue, ship when you say and stick to it. Your clients will fall in line.

Create an archive

Archiving – on your desktop or a cloud drive – is another great way to keep track of versions.

As I work on multiple files, I stash them in a folder on my desktop called “Previous Versions.” This way, when I open my main working folder, I only see the absolute latest. It helps keep me from being overwhelmed or from scanning through and grabbing the wrong file. It also makes for a nice archive. When I work this way, I create a folder that captures all of the edits and revisions along the way. So, if I ever need to revert to a previous iteration, it’s easy to find.

When all is said and done, I may have three or 300 versions of revised files. Much like tax records, I like to hold on to these for a spell … at least until my files are out the door. This way, I have a clear archive of all changes that have been made throughout the revision process – something to look back to should I need to revert to a previous iteration, see where a strange change or unfamiliar edit was introduced, etc.

I also love working with cloud drives – like Google Drive or SharePoint or Dropbox. In fact, I almost exclusively work on files out of these systems these days. That way I know I’m always working on the latest version of a file, and I can do my work from any computer, versus having to email myself copies of the files. Multiple people can contribute, edit, or revise simultaneously. And it keeps an automatic archive.

Parting thoughts: Be alert when making your edits

One last word of advice: As much as possible, try to limit your distractions when working on files and changes. Close the door, drink some coffee, and turn the music off (or on, if that helps you focus). There’s nothing worse than making a host of excellent changes, only to realize later that you made them to the wrong version of a file and need to redo your work. Or, you’ve saved the changes in a strange place and the file has now gone missing. So pay attention.

And that’s final.

What is your favorite way to keep version control? Or what file-related horror story do you have to share?