Version Control — Don’t Send Out the Wrong Document

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With earnings season upon us again, it’s a logical time to look at the issue of version control. This phrase, which will make sense to anybody who’s worked through draft after draft of press releases, scripts, op-eds and the like, simply refers to the mundane task of keeping track of edits.

Mundane, but terrifyingly important.  You only need to send out the wrong version of a press release once to understand the danger of poor version control.

What is good version control? Ideally, it’s a foolproof system to make sure you don’t miss, skip over or otherwise misplace a set of edits as you draft and redraft critical documents. This can be very hard to do when you’ve got edits coming in from 4, 5, 6 or more individuals. I’ve had clients where the number rose to the dozens!

So, how is it done? Let’s first look at inadequate methods of version control:

  • Change the file name to reflect the draft number, such as earnings_release2.doc, earnings_release3.doc.
  • Change the file name to describe the change, such as earnings_release_table_update.doc.
  • Change the file name to describe the editor, such as earnings_release_bill.doc.

Each of these fails due to lack of specificity and the possibility of duplicates. For example, the draft number is no good if two people are simultaneously working on draft 2 … or if someone makes a “small” change that “doesn’t warrant a new draft.”

The descriptive change doesn’t work as there’s no way it can be descriptive enough. The last fails the second time the named editor reviews the document.

Better is to be specific about when the edits were made. For documents that won’t be edited very much, you might be able to simply date-stamp the file name, such as earnings_release_4-9-06.doc. That way you know by date which version is the most recent.

However, for heavily edited documents, I prefer a combination of the date-stamped file name and a time- and date-stamp in the document itself. So, for the document named earnings_release_4-9-06, you might find inside the document a header like the following (I picked this syntax up at Robinson, Lerer & Montgomery, the agency I worked for before founding my own):

DRAFT
Earnings Release
April 9, 2006/1:15 p.m.

Now, you’ll always know exactly when the document was updated.

Of course, the danger always exists that someone will edit the document without updating the header or the file name — wrecking your foolproof system. In this case, the only way to sort it out is to compare the time and date modified data in the document’s properties.

Editing functions like the “track changes” mode in Microsoft Word will help you figure out who has made the edits and actually see the changes. But with enough edits on each round of documents, it will be very difficult to figure out which were made when.

So a good time and date stamping method is critical. There are other ways to accomplish this, I’m sure. The key is to understand the importance of having a system in place — and then stick to that system.

One other trick: Before I send a press release out, I always check to make sure the very last change I made is in the document. If it is, I know I’m OK.

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