Version Control: Word vs. Google Drive

Recently I’ve been using Google Drive a lot more than usual. I thought I’d take up today’s entry on the technical writing business to talk some more about using live, online documents for handling version control.

First, a little background

Having used Microsoft Word for 25 years, I confess to being a bit “old school” and “analog” in my thinking about documents. Generation X might be the last such generation to have this approach to docs, as future generations will be more accustomed to products that are electronic and continually changed. My mindset about content that goes into a single document has been based on print–books, reports, three-ring binders. What this approach means from an operational point of view is that someone must be the owner of the “master” document, the official copy, the latest version, call it what you will. If you are that person, you are the “book boss.” There is, as evidenced by the title, a certain ownership or management view of documents.

The analog/physical approach to document control means one person has the “master” copy and everyone else receives a copy. More to the point, with paper, eventually revisions eventually come to a stop, and there will then be a final version, and that final version then goes to print.

Mind you, even if you’re handling Word documents and exchanging them via email, the “final” electronic document can go through several iterations before it finally goes to print or the archives or wherever. Microsoft-based networks do not allow two individuals to “own” (work with) a document at the same time. If two people access a document from the same shared drive at the same time, often one version will get dumped when one user (usually the second person to get access) attempts to save their version under the same name. To my knowledge, MS Word still doesn’t allow concurrent editing of a document. As they say in Highlander, “There can be only one” document owner.

Then, in 2006–yep, ten years ago–Google their own version of Microsoft Office: a set of spreadsheet and word-processing software available online that would enable multiple users to access the same document at the same time and edit in real time. This was a major paradigm shift for many people, including me, who had one vision of document control. Google Docs, now Google Drive, has democratized document “ownership,” and the process is still ongoing.

Pros and cons

(I was going to break this up into separate sections for “Pros” and “Cons,” but I found my thoughts overlapping as I thought about my experiences with the software, so bear with me.)

Hey, I was working on that!

Some individuals like the ability to do concurrent editing. I’m still finding it to be a headache. You still need to coordinate who is doing what, or you could find yourself facing situations where one person is doing a content review of a section and starting to make changes only to see that content get deleted entirely right before their eyes.

Fortunately, Google Drive does have little colored squares with initials in them at the upper-right of the screen showing who is accessing the document at the same time you are. Right next to the individual name icons is a little chat box you can click to communicate with others accessing the doc. So I suppose you can message them and say, “Hey, you just deleted section 3.3. I was working on that” and let the argument take off from there.

Who gets the last word?

One concern I’ve had with Google docs (meaning documents handled in the Google Drive applications) is ensuring/enforcing a “hands off” policy when whoever owns the document says it’s now official, leave it alone (note: that much hasn’t changed). This is of particular importance when you’re delivering something on a deadline, like a proposal. Ideally, everyone is in communication, so once the word has gone out, the document is exported to Office, Adobe, or a printer, and everyone keeps their keyboard and comments off the document. But what if someone wanted to make a change to the document of record after the fact? I suppose if one were paranoid, it would be possible for the document creator/system administrator to change everyone’s access to read-only once it’s been locked down.

You can’t do that in Drive

As I mentioned in my post on version control hairballs, while it can accept and upload from/download to Microsoft Office, Google Drive just doesn’t have as many features or as much flexibility as the Office products. It’s little things that most folks wouldn’t notice, like formatting tools, layout, and handling tables or images. If you’re just throwing something together in a hurry, Drive applications are probably fine. However, if you want things to look or function a certain way, there’s just no substitute for the extensive set of tools Office has included over the years. It’s an industry standard for a reason, and those of us who have grown up with the tool–Windows 3.0 and forward for me–can get irritated when another program isn’t as capable (don’t even get me started on Apple’s Pages app). If I want to do a really good cleanup of a document and get everything exactly the way I want it, I still need to export it to Word, make the necessary adjustments, and then re-upload it for the shared directory. Fortunately, the changes do upload when I make them.

Version control

Yes, here’s where I’ll go back to my analog/book-boss mindset and grouse about the lack of authority in this democratized editing environment. Eventually, someone (usually a technical writer or editor) is going to have to go into the document last and put a final imprimatur on it. This includes clearing out or addressing all the comments. What if the comments come from someone higher up the food chain and they haven’t been resolved yet? Who has the authority to accept or decline a comment? The bureaucratic reality is that just because everyone can touch the document at once doesn’t mean that territoriality has gone away.

Mind you, you can go back through the revision history and see who did what, but do you have any idea how much of a headache that is?

Final thoughts

My preferred method of editing, again perhaps as a function of my age and experience, is to have one person own the master copy and let everyone else mark up a copy and send it back to me for integration. The advantage of that is simply that a single document owner can keep an eye on the big picture: the overall content and flow, what’s in, what’s out, what’s missing, and how things need to be said to ensure that the document sounds like one person wrote it, not a dozen. If a single “book boss” cannot be designated because everyone wants to put in their two cents, then there still needs to be a hands-off deadline, beyond which only one person is allowed to access, edit, format, and finalize the document content and appearance.

A dozen people can have a dozen good ideas, but it still requires the skill of one writer to bring those ideas together in a single, coherent, consistent story that the audience will want to read. If that means I end up using Microsoft Word to keep other people’s paws off my work, that’s what’s going to happen.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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