Document version control best practices and examples

Document version control best practices and examples

When you share documents for review and approval, your versions multiply like bunnies. And without a standardized process for document version control, you can quickly find yourself with three files like this:

  • Document Name v7
  • Document_Name_final_2
  • Document-Name-new

Which one is the latest? Which ones are out of date? It’s anyone’s guess. But by introducing some simple best practices or setting your team up with document approval software, you can wave goodbye to this issue – and all the wasted time that comes with it!

In this article, we’ll cover four document version control best practices that you can start using straight away. But before we get to that, let’s look at what we mean by document version control.

What is document version control?

Document version control is a system (or series of systems) to help you keep all your files and versions organized. Done well, it takes the thought out of naming documents and makes sure everyone knows which version is the latest.

Here are a few ways a document version control system can save you time and money:

  • You don’t need to waste time opening each version and hassling your teammates to work out which version is the latest
  • You can avoid accidentally giving (or getting) feedback on old versions of your documents
  • You don’t have to think about what to call your document or which suffix to use (more on that later)

We’ll dive into some document version control best practices in a second. But first, let’s talk about the two giants of docu-land and why they fail when it comes to version control.

Why Google Docs and Microsoft Word are a nightmare for document version control

Don’t get me wrong, I love Google Docs. And I’ve got a soft spot for Microsoft Word too (my first love as a writer).

These tools are incredible for writing and collaborating on documents. But when it comes to document version control, they cause a lot of headaches.

How autosave killed document version control

When autosave first came out for Google Docs and Microsoft Word, it took this writer a good few months to stop hitting Ctrl+S every sentence. My computer had crashed midway through far too many essays, so I made that little left-handed gesture muscle memory. Like changing gear in a car.

In a lot of ways, autosave is a brilliant feature. But it’s a nightmare for document version control.

Here’s why:

  • Your documents are constantly evolving, so there’s no line between one review round and the next
  • Once a comment is resolved, it’s difficult to check who said what and which part of the document they were talking about
  • Reviewers can edit documents directly without making it clear what they’ve changed or why
  • Anyone can make a copy of your document to make edits and start circulating that version instead

In short, autosave makes it difficult to know what’s been changed, who made the changes, and which version is the latest.

But you know that already, right? That’s why you’re here. So let’s get into it with our four document version control best practices – including handy examples to help you get the most out of them.

Four document version control best practices and why they’re important

Here’s a quick overview of our four document version control best practices:

  1. Define naming conventions to make sure everyone knows which version is the latest
  2. Draw a clear line between versions so everyone knows when to stop giving feedback
  3. Collect feedback and collaborate in one place to avoid version duplication
  4. Make it easy for reviewers to compare versions so they can easily see what’s changed

And if you’re looking for document version control software to automate everything for you, look no further than Filestage. It’s a review and approval platform with version control built in.

1. Define naming conventions to make sure everyone knows which version is the latest

Setting up naming conventions is the first and most important step for taking control of your document version control problems.

This simply means coming up with a consistent format for naming your files and versions – and communicating that format across your company (that’s the important bit!)

Here are a few issues that naming conventions help to solve:

  • Accidentally overwriting the previous version of a document
  • Not knowing which copy of a document is the latest version
  • Not knowing which version you (or someone else) has approved
  • Giving or getting feedback on an out-of-date version of your document
  • The time and money wasted doing all the above

Now, let’s look at the solution.

Document version control examples: naming conventions

There are three key features of great document naming conventions:

  1. Using the same file name throughout the life of the document
  2. Using the same characters to separate words in the file name (usually spaces, dashes, or underscores)
  3. Using a consistent suffix to indicate the version number of the file (usually v1, v2, and so on)

So let’s put all that together. Here are three ways you can set up your naming conventions, using a Legal Policy document as an example:

  • Legal Policy v1
  • Legal-Policy-v1
  • Legal_Policy_v1

All of these naming conventions work, it just depends on what you and your team prefer. Once you’ve decided on your preferred naming conventions, all you need to do is save a copy and update the suffix after each review round, like this:

  • Legal_Policy_v1
  • Legal_Policy_v2
  • Legal_Policy_v3

And whatever you do, never, ever, ever use the suffix “_final”. It’s cursed. Before you know it, you’ll be working on “Legal_Policy_final_final_maybethistimeitisfinal_v9” wondering where it all went wrong.

Take control of your document naming conventions with Filestage

Filestage automatically stacks your versions so everyone knows which one is the latest. You can hop back to previous versions in seconds to check the content and comments. And if anyone opens an old version to give feedback by mistake, a message pops up to let them know.

Naming conventions

2. Draw a clear line between versions so everyone knows when to stop giving feedback

If you’re creating content for a client, you’ll probably have a fixed number of review rounds in your contract to avoid overservicing them. But this can be a problem with live and collaborative documents.

Here’s why:

  • There’s no clear point where feedback stops and editing begins
  • Reviewers give feedback while you’re still working on the next version
  • Reviewers make edits directly without you realizing

This can create a situation where you feel like you’re constantly juggling feedback and replying to reviewers. But on paper, it’s all just one big review round.

Let’s look at what you can do about it.

Document version control examples: separating versions

Here are a few steps you can take to avoid blurred lines between each version of your document:

  • Set a deadline for feedback and let your reviewers know when the feedback window has closed
  • Save a copy of your document before you make any edits (make sure you use the naming conventions we talked about earlier)
  • Restrict the editing rights on your documents so you’re the only one who can make changes

Set feedback due dates and send automated reminders with Filestage

Filestage lets you set due dates for each document review, triggering automated email and chat reminders as the deadline approaches. You can also switch the review status of your document from “In review” to “Needs changes” at any time, blocking any further feedback until you share the next version.

Set due dates for documents

3. Collect feedback and collaborate in one place to avoid version duplication

If you really want to take your document version control system up a notch, you need to look at centralizing feedback from your stakeholders. 

Here’s a quick snapshot of what can happen without a centralized feedback process:

  • You email a document to five people asking for feedback
  • Two reply privately with a bunch of conflicting comments
  • One makes a new version and shares it on the original email chain
  • Another adds comments directly to the new version
  • And your fifth reviewer, just for fun, downloads a copy of your document and adds comments on their own private version

And just like that, you’ve gone from one version to three. Now imagine what can happen with more complex approval processes spread across different teams or departments.

Luckily, centralized feedback makes sure you never have to deal with this problem.

Document version control examples: centralized feedback

When you ask reviewers for feedback on your document, make it clear where they should share the feedback. That will likely be in one of three places:

  • In the comments of your Google Doc
  • In the comments of your Microsoft Word document
  • In the comments of your PDF (but only if it’s set up for collaborative comments)

If someone ignores you and sends feedback by email or makes a copy, remind them of your original instructions. It may seem harsh, but it’ll help to make centralized and collaborative feedback part of your team’s culture.

Or, there is another way… 

Make feedback more transparent and centralized with Filestage

Filestage lets you invite people to add comments and collaborate on your documents, all in one place. From one-page Word documents to sprawling whitepaper PDFs, your reviewers can add highlights, strikeouts, and annotations right on top of your document. And when you share a new version, it’ll be shared with your reviewers automatically.

Collect feedback from all your reviewers on documents

4. Make it easy for reviewers to compare versions so they can easily see what’s changed

Your reviewers are only human. So when you share a new version of your document, there’s a good chance they forgot which parts they were happy with and which parts they wanted you to change.

This gives them a couple of options:

  • Try to track down the previous version and comments
  • Review the document from top to bottom to be safe

Both of these options are time-consuming and unnecessary. Let’s look at how you can make it easier for your reviewers to compare versions and check their previous feedback.

Document version control examples: comparing versions

If you collect feedback using Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or a collaborative PDF, make sure you save a copy of your document before making edits. Then, when you’ve finished editing the new version, you can share both copies so your reviewers can compare the content and comments.

The only downside here is that you can’t tick off any comments from the older versions because you need your reviewers to be able to see them. 

Compare versions and comments side by side with Filestage

Filestage makes it easy to compare versions side by side and see what’s changed. You can click on comments in the previous version to jump to that point in the document. Then you can make sure the changes meet your feedback in the new version.

Compare versions

Why is version control important in documents?

Version control is important for keeping the quality of your documents as high as possible. A strong document version control system also helps you minimize wasted time and money across your company.

How do you version control a document in Google Docs?

You can version control a document in Google Docs by going to File > Version history. From there, you can either browse through your version history or name the current version of your document.

This would be a useful feature if more people knew where to find it. But it falls down when it comes to feedback and document reviews because the comments don’t appear when you hop between versions.

How do you version control a document in Word?

You can version control a document in Microsoft Word by clicking on the file name at the top of your window, then click “Version History”. A sidebar will appear on the right with all your different versions.

Click on a version to open it in a separate window as a read-only document. You’ll then have the option to compare or restore that version and any changes that have been made.

This feature makes it easy to spot the differences between one version and the next. But since Microsoft Word creates a new version after each edit, you could easily end up with hundreds of versions to search through to find the exact one you want.

Final thoughts

I hope this article has given you everything you need to take control of your team’s versioning chaos. There are lots of tips here that you can apply straight away. But if you’re on the lookout for all-singing, all-dancing feedback and document version control software, give Filestage a try.

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