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Not Just For Coders: Top Version Control Systems For Writers

Saikat Basu 06-05-2013

For years, my computer has been a chaotic jumble of documents with names like “work-document01”, “work-document01.1” and so on. I gave them a semblance of organization with timestamped folders. But that was just a false front for my lack of smart organization, or the more complete lack of knowledge about version control systems and how they can be effective for writers.


The mention of version control or revision control makes it seem like something for geeks. You will be surprised to know that version control systems have their place not only in academic writing but in anything that has to do with typing an alphabet on a document.

As writers, we know the word draft. But draft is a mere rough sketch and it doesn’t actually take us back in time to the incremental changes we make. With a draft, you would be lost if someone asks you to go back in time and show them the changes you made on a specific date. With version control, you can.

Why Should Writers Use A Version Control System?

Software developers use version control systems like Git What Is Git & Why You Should Use Version Control If You’re a Developer As web developers, a lot of the time we tend to work on local development sites then just upload everything when we’re done. This is fine when it’s just you and the changes are small,... Read More as essential tools. Git is a popular and advanced version control system which takes some learning. If you do try to learn Git, you will be introduced to terms like Repository or repo which is the main database for storing all files – current and historical — related to a project. Branch suggests that someone is creating a separate copy of a file for personal use or testing. Merge or patch denotes the application of changes from one file to another. Revision represents a version of the source code. While Head is the latest revision, Changelog lists all changes made to a file.

These few basic definitions should give you a basic idea behind a version control system and how a writing project can benefit from the organized approach of tracking changes with a VCS.

The benefits are not difficult to understand.

  • Track incremental backups and recover: Every document can be backed up automatically and restored at a second’s notice.
  • Track every change: Every infinitesimal change can be recorded and can be used to revert a file to an earlier state.
  • Track writing experiments: Writing experiments can be sandboxed to copies while keeping the main file intact.
  • Track co-authoring and collaboration: Teams can work independently on their own files, but merge them into a latest revision – common to the team.
  • Track individual contributions: Good VCS systems tag changes with authors who make them.

Once you get into using organized revisions, immediate benefits like overseeing the evolution of a document over time become apparent. The good thing is that you don’t have to use specialized tools like Git or Subversion. You can lean on some common tools to implement basic forms of version control that you already might be using as a writer.

Simple Version Control With Dropbox

My friend Bakari mentioned version control with Dropbox in passing when he said it’s one of the uses for Dropbox you may not have thought of Top 10 Uses For Dropbox You May Not Have Thought Of For many advanced computer users, Dropbox is the premiere cloud-based storage and sharing document service. It has replaced the Documents folder on my Mac, and is the primary way I sync files between my devices.... Read More . Using a cloud storage solution like Dropbox gives you an added dimension as you can access revisions from anywhere. Understanding the Dropbox version of version control is a no-brainer.

Dropbox saves snapshots of every change in your Dropbox folder over the last 30 days. If you are a Pro or Business user, you can avail of the Packrat feature to keep unlimited changes for unlimited time.

  • Save your document in the Dropbox folder. As you can see below, I have created a demo folder and a demo file and saved it in my local Dropbox folder that syncs with the cloud.

version control system

  • Right-click on the local Dropbox folder and browse to the Dropbox website. Another right-click on the specific file shows you the option to check any previous versions of a file.

version control software

  • Choose Previous Versions and Dropbox will display an online list of the various snapshots Dropbox has taken during the history of the file. Pick a time from which to restore; select the radio button to the left of the file and press the Restore button.

version control software

Points Of Note:

  • Dropbox allows you to share a file. Any modifications made will be recorded against the name of the person who has made it.
  • Dropbox does not have real-time synchronous collaboration features, so the first person’s name that saves a revision will be displayed. The other will be displayed as a conflicting copy.
  • Dropbox does not automatically save your document.
  • Dropbox does not merge changes.

Going To Google Docs

Google Docs Word Processing In Google Docs? 5 Important Tips To Keep In Mind For the majority of my life, Microsoft Word was the word processing tool to use if you were going to do any serious work. Sure, there were alternatives like Corel WordPerfect and later on OpenOffice,... Read More brings real-time synchronous editing to documents. Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides have a revision history pane that shows at a glance all changes made to a document by each co-author. To access revision history, follow these steps:

  • Go to File – See revision history.

version control software

  • The Revision history panel opens on the right with detailed timestamps and author name.

version control

  • Collaborative edits will be displayed like this:

version control

  • Changes made by specific collaborators are color coded in the body of the document in the color matched against the individual in the revision history pane.
  • Click on Restore this revision to display a version from a particular time.
  • Click the X in the upper right of the ‘Document History’ pane to return to the current version of the document.

Points Of Note:

  • Google Docs automatically saves your document.
  • Google Docs has a Show more detailed revisions option to display finer revisions.
  • Google automatically deletes revisions after 30 days or 100 revisions to conserve space.
  • Don’t forget, with Google Docs integration with Hangouts, this rudimentary version control becomes more useful.

Manage Versions & Track Changes With Microsoft Word

While MS Word does not have true version control, you can automatically save versions of your file while working on them with the AutoRecover feature. It’s more of an emergency feature in case of a crash rather than an explicit way to manage versions. I had shown you how to auto save documents with AutoRecover in MS Word 2007 How To Autosave Docs with AutoRecover in MS Word 2007 Read More . The idea remains the same. You will find the AutoRecover setting in MS Word 2010 and 2013 under File – Options – Save. By default, it is turned on.

version control

  • To recover a file, go to File – Info.
  • Under Versions, choose the file you want to recover according to the timestamp.

Not Just For Coders: Top Version Control Systems For Writers vcs Word02

  • On the yellow bar which appears at the top of the document, click on Compare. Clicking on Restore overwrites any earlier saved versions. Clicking on Compare gives you this review screen:

Not Just For Coders: Top Version Control Systems For Writers vcs Word04

  • The Manage Versions dropdown also helps you recover draft versions or delete all draft versions of a document.

version control

The Track Changes feature in MS Word allows a reviewer to make changes to a document, and Word keeps a track of the changes proposed. Its real value comes up when two or more people are working on a document – let’s say a writer and an editor.  It is also an essential tool for co-authoring documents.

Here is a YouTube video which shows Track Changes in action:

That’s the closest you can come to a method of versioning with MS Word.

Points Of Note:

  • Implementation of version control in MS Office documents needs the help of add-ins like TortoiseSVN which is a Subversion client for Office.

Draft – Because Nothing Else Cuts It

Nathan Kontny, who is the man behind this writer’s tool, calls Draft a better version control system for writing. He felt shortchanged by Google Docs and doesn’t like the learning curve of Git. Draft is the version control system for writers which removes the complexity and actually makes collaboration smart. Though, Draft deserves a full review, for the sake of brevity I will stick to its core features.

  • It starts with a simple sign-in. The Draft interface is like a minimalist text editor. Simply start writing.

Not Just For Coders: Top Version Control Systems For Writers vcs draft01

  • You can mark changes and save them as drafts. You can have multiple drafts. Changes from one to the next are color coded. You can restore or delete any draft.
  • You can compare all your drafts and see how it has changed with time.
  • With collaboration, writers work on their version of the document, and the main writer gets to accept or ignore each individual change.

version control system

  • Import your documents from Dropbox, Evernote, Box, and Google Drive. Changes can be auto-synced back to the cloud services. You can transfer a file via FTP or upload it from your desktop. Image uploads are allowed.
  • Draft allows you to leave comments and notes.
  • Draft has a Chrome extension that works on any turns any text area on the into an editable block.

The full features on Draft are well explained. It definitely is a tool you should have in your arsenal if you are a writer.

If you appreciated the simple elegance of Draft, then it’s easy to see how it stands out from any of the other tools. When it comes to version control for a writing task, I personally like to keep things simple…with the focus on writing. Draft ticks the “write” boxes. What about you? Do you use version control consciously? Give it a thought and come back to us with your comments.

Image Credit: Abstract White Masks via Shutterstock

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  1. Swampy
    January 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    Thanks for the insight and leads to helpful software. I hope you add to this post (revise it) in the future.

    Revision control for writes seems most appropriate for documents that are complex and/or large. So take a book in economics or thermodynamics as an example. Typically it will be written in something like LaTeX and combine multiple files -- not just separate .tex files, perhaps one for each chapter, but also diagrams, pictures, perhaps code, and so on. It will also include references, certainly from bibtex but also perhaps coming from a tool like EndNote or Zotero.

    Furthermore, LaTex admittedly is great for typesetting and automating documents, but it's not great for composing them. So the author of the book is likely to use a LaTeX-friendly front end, such as Scrivener or LyX. It would be files saved from these apps that need to be monitored, along with the pdf, png, R, and other files inserted in the document plus changes to the bibliographic database. (E.g., the only difference between versions 1.1 and 1.2 might be that 1.1 uses an earlier edition of a reference, but 1.2 uses a new, revised version.) Furthermore, there should be an easy (automatic) way in put the revision number in the document's footers. If the book is being written collaboratively, then perhaps the footer should also give the name of the contributor responsible for the latest revisions.

    A storage solution like Dropbox might be able to keep multiple versions of the files, but not all the ancillary information (e.g., why were changes made). AFAIK, these solutions also provide no way to insert revision numbers in the document(s).

    So perhaps revision systems like Git are the only practical alternatives. If so, I'd really like to see a follow-up post addressing issues such as those described above and providing a brief primer on how a writer should get started using Git, or an alternative.

    I can't see how any of the cloud storage solutions can address this. They mostly break the rule of doing (only) one thing well. Docs, Word, and Draft all combine document composition, formatting, and revision control in one document.

    • Saikat Basu
      January 22, 2017 at 6:13 am

      Thanks so much for the detailed comment. And yes, that's an idea for a future post.

      Also, all our old articles are in the process of being updated and re-written. We might include your feedback in an update to this one.

      As we are in our tenth year, it is a huge project :)

  2. fsdfgsdfs
    December 14, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Version control is a must in everything (source code, documentation). It is worth investing to learn how to use version control. It is like an insurance policy. Whatever happens, you can always retrieve anything as long as you checked it in the version control system.

    • Saikat Basu
      December 15, 2015 at 12:57 pm

      Well, it is at the core (or should be) of any good collaborative system now. It is so important for doing any ‘due diligence’ checks in any kind of development.

  3. NSA
    April 10, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    We like cloud data.

  4. Jenny
    October 16, 2013 at 12:09 am

    Draft control rocks! I used it when I wrote my applications for college. When I needed to see my old edits, I totally could.

    • Saikat B
      October 16, 2013 at 3:47 am

      What I like about it is it's minimal without losing out on the essentials.

  5. Chiranthaka
    May 14, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Useful for Project Managers

  6. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    May 10, 2013 at 10:31 am

    I don't really use version control. If I get new idea over piece I'm working on, I'll copy the part I'm going to change and save it in my clipboard manager. Then I'll change that part, add annotations and compare both versions side by side. I can manage since I work alone and I keep a notebook to brainstorm before I write.

    • NotoriousZeus
      May 18, 2013 at 8:33 pm

      If you compare files try BeyondCompare. It will save you loads of time and its very efficient

    • Saikat Basu
      May 19, 2013 at 5:27 am

      Hi Lisa,

      You seem to be just the right candidate for a version control system :)

  7. Melroy D
    May 7, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Although GIT is my favorite and the most popular one there are multiple options available. Some are listed

    Subversion : (Popular)

    Monotone : (Focuses on changes)

    Mercurial :

    Bazaar : (Easy to Use)

    LibreSource :

    Whichever you choose. you cannot go wrong with versioning.
    Enjoy !!

    • Saikat Basu
      May 8, 2013 at 3:36 am

      Thanks for the links. Some good ones there.

      • NotoriousZeus
        May 12, 2013 at 4:03 am

        Hey your posts help me everyday. Just returning 1 of the many favors :)

    • juan
      November 28, 2016 at 11:50 am

      What if I don't want to spend time commiting, pulling... but just something automatic that keeps track of every change, such as google docs does but local. What would you suggest?

  8. Nevzat A
    May 7, 2013 at 10:50 am

    Versioning and backing up is extremely important for content producers, whether it's a program code or your precious document, art or whatever you produce. Everyone should learn at least the basics and use it.

    • Saikat Basu
      May 8, 2013 at 3:36 am

      Absolutely. As this article shows, it is easy to set up a basic one with the cloud tools we have. I think students should be early adopters and bring it into their workflow. Senior academics (the ones I know) are strangely not aware of versioning in my country; I am not sure what the status is elsewhere.

  9. Justin Winokur
    May 6, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    I only skimmed the article because I am a coder and all of my writing is either code or LaTeX so normal version control is ideally suited. But, thank you for bringing version control to more people's attention.

    I feel like it is such an under appreciated tool in all communities and could be so beneficial. Unless you're working on huge files, the storage overhead is so low (and storage is so cheap) that there isn't a good reason to have many, many versions. And it makes tracking your work so easy! I was working on my PhD dissertation (or at least starting it) and I was able to basically recreate everything I had done over the past few years. I could see codes and documents develop and improve.

    And that doesn't even scratch the surface of the collaboration tools! It is just so useful in so many enviorments!

    • Saikat Basu
      May 7, 2013 at 4:15 am

      I also wonder about it, especially when you see that collaboration is far more prominent than version control. One thinks that version control should be a default part of any collaborative project.

  10. Jeff Palmucci
    May 6, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    For online documents, I recommend you try the Revisionator at [Broken URL Removed]. Unlike Draft, it is WYSIWYG, no Markdown required.

    It also supports a larger set of revision control features. For example, if you want to try a writing experiment, you can branch a document. Later, if you'd like, you can automatically merge it back into the main document.

    • Saikat Basu
      May 7, 2013 at 4:12 am

      Looks really nice. I may try it out. Thanks for the link; I didn't know about this one.