Editing Tips: Version Control

Organizing your versions is like doing disaster planning

Version control is one of the most insidious dangers of being an editor. Editors run in panic at the mere mention of the term. But what is it, and why should you care?


If you’ve ever written something, left it aside, and come back to it later . . .

If you’ve worked with more than one beta reader who send comments on the same version at widely different times . . .

If you start over, revising partway through what you’ve already written . . .

Or if you keep trying out eight different first chapters, and you realize you like number three best, but don’t know which one that is or if you even saved it, you may need to pay attention for a minute here.

Version control is a system by which through careful labeling and/or other tracking systems, you register a new version every time you sit down to edit or write.  If you don’t pay attention to version control, you run the dangers of losing improvements you’ve made, getting in trouble for not making a requested change, or just wasting time trying to find a single passage you want to extract from a discarded version.

There are a large number of cloud storage systems and writing packages that automatically take care of a certain amount of version control by saving frequently and marking each version with a date and time stamp. That is minimally helpful.

If you are ambitious, a spreadsheet works great, as does a tree structure to your file folders. I use the latter. I create a folder for each piece, then I create a subfolder in it for the draft version. Every time I complete a chapter, I save that version with a number that shows which chapters are finished within that file, (e.g., Bauble 1-3). When I get feedback from someone, I do what is called “versioning up.”

Versioning up means I create a new folder for Revision 1, and then nothing more gets put in the draft folder. When I get more feedback or just decide on my own that I want to move things around more substantially, I create a folder for Revision 2. About the time I create the Revision 2 folder, I start putting notes in the folder in a document called “version notes” about what is in the folder. You can make it as long a description as you want, for example:

Revision 2 notes: Begins with Draft version “Bauble 1-6.” Newly drafted chapters 7 and 8 so far, including Nina’s back story moved from Bauble 1-3 to Bauble 1-7.

Another strategy you can consider is to use the Properties tab in Word to do more than check your word count. There are also fields you can fill in for Category, Keywords, and Comments to serve as your version notes. Just describe, perhaps in the document’s comments section, what you did in preparing that version, for example:

Made most of the changes Leslie suggested in chapters 1 and 2, didn’t do anything to chapter 3, drafted chapter 4 a couple of times, and set it aside for a few days.

Think of it sort of like a diary entry you will actually go back and read some day!

2018 TB coverVersion control was essential in a particular novel I was working on with the working title Time Bump. First off, I got about 18 chapters into it, and I didn’t like where it was going. I set it aside for almost two years. When I eventually went back through my versions, I was looking for the last chapter I thought was still suspenseful and well written and had decent stakes. I started writing again from there with a shorter plot arc, and periodically I would go back to the discarded versions and pull out scene descriptions and bits of dialogue to use in the new chapters. Imagine if I had been less organized, and I suddenly had two Time Bump 1-15 files, and the date I’d last worked on them didn’t help me distinguish which one was more current. I’d been in both of them on the same day.

In addition, Time Bump can be read as a nonlinear narrative, in which I shuffled the chapters. Each shuffle of the chapters had a unique identifier, like Chapter 10 First, Chapter 12 First, 10-1-14-12, 6-7-1-25, etc. And still I ended up with two chapter 25s in the version I sent out to beta readers.

The longer the piece of work you’re revising, and the longer you work on it, the more you need to think about version control. It is an investment you make in disaster planning.


This is the second post in a short series in which I share some of the tricks and best practices I learned in my decades of being a professional editor. If you found the above useful, you may want to check out last week’s blog (Editing Tips: Style Guides) and come back next week for a new post on “Bad Advice.”

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