When to Make Silent Changes

When routine changes like turning two spaces into one are tracked, it creates a sea of markup that obscures the changes that 1) actually are negotiable and 2) really matter. It can lead to absolute overwhelm, resulting in a client who just “accepts all” without a meaningful review; or who literally wears out their mouse clicking “accept” on a myriad of non-negotiable changes to house style.

Do we need to see every change? No. That’s just narcissistic and punitive: like rubbing the cat’s face in the mess it made of its draft. It can make a manuscript look like it was torn to shreds rather than polished with a soft cloth.

To avoid giving the writer a panic attack and to increase the efficacy of the writer’s vetting of the edits, sometimes editors make required, routine changes silently—without tracking them.

Word Tracks too Much

MS Word can track and show every little change an editor makes to a manuscript: every preferred spelling, every moved comma, every tab replacement and font or alignment change. (And more!)

When such changes are instead made silently, not only is it easier to see the important changes that should be vetted, we also prevent the writer from rejecting non-negotiable changes that are necessary for house style. Tracking such changes gives the writer the mistaken impression that they can choose whether or not they’re made.

What Not to Track

Here are the kinds of changes an editor might make silently:

  • two spaces to one
  • multiple tab marks to a single tab set or paragraph styled
  • spelling variants to preferred dictionary or style (such as deleting the S on towards)
  • automated bullets/numbering to manual (or vice versa)
  • font and style changes
  • manually typeset table to a true table
  • official names, after commenting on the first correction
  • punctuation to inside quotes or parentheses (or outside of them, as the situation or style warrants)
  • margins and line spacing
  • hyphens to dashes in number ranges
  • en dashes or hyphens to em dashes (or variation thereof)
  • spaces to non-breaking spaces
  • straight quote marks to curly ones
  • apostrophes to prime symbols (and x to × or – to minus, etc.)
  • single quotes to double ones (British to North American style)
  • corrections to the editor’s own name in the acknowledgements

Pitfalls of Silently Tracking Changes

The reason not all changes are made silently is that what seems like a minor, obvious typo to the (occasionally mistaken) editor might actually be of critical importance: like changing all the skinks to skunks (lizard vs stinky mammal) or taking the second F out of the correct logic term, iff. Or even making a clause restrictive when the writer didn’t mean it to be.

The principle editing rule holds true: if you know for sure, look it up [anyway].

This skink is not a fluffy stinker.


If you choose to not track spelling changes, leave a comment on the first change, noting that they’ve been made throughout, or list these changes in the transmittal letter. Perhaps such a note isn’t needed to changes like towards to toward, but tracking (or a comment) is definitely needed if you’re changing the IE in my name to Y! And before you change sylphon to siphon, check a technical dictionary.

For those clients who insist on seeing Every. Single. Change. it’s easy to just leave tracking on from the start. And when they can’t read through the red-lining, they’ll have to use Word’s View > No Markup option.

If you forgot to track every change, or would like to provide two versions (one with some silent changes), finish your edit with some silent changes and then run Compare Docs against the original draft to provide a second, fully marked-up file.

If you’re wisely using macros or a plug-in to make such routine or non-negotiable changes, briefly change your user name while running those. (You could even embed that user-name change — perhaps to “non-negotiable house style change” — into the code for the macro!) Then change the user name back to your preference for the main editing that really needs review. This gives any user the option of hiding those [user’s] changes, showing only those, or accepting them all at once! (Or rejecting them, mind you.)

If, however, the editor’s motivation for tracking every move is to prove their worth, it’s time to evaluate what best serves the client vs massaging the editor’s ego.

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© This blog and all materials in it are copyright Adrienne Montgomerie on the date of publication. All rights reserved. No portion may be stored or distributed without express written permission. Asking is easy!

Skink image by Harmony Lawrence from Pixabay

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