Microsoft Word revision – the best solution yet

Yesterday I took delivery of a Microsoft Surface Tablet, yes the cheaper one running the cut-down Windows RT that the tech press have largely been so rude about. I’ll write about it in some detail later but it’s clear to me already that the tech press have got the wrong end of the stick here. You only have to read what real people – actual users – are saying about the thing to understand this.

A quick play with the Surface has made me re-examine the way I revise my own work. This is a crucial process for me, one I’m trying to refine as much as possible. Since I abandoned paper for digital editing a while back the system has come down to a two-part process. First I export a manuscript file to pdf. Then I read it and mark it up on my Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, using the digitiser pen. After that I pull the pdf back into the computer and go through the revisions line by line against the original Word file.

You can scribble notes and amendments in Word if you have a digitiser laptop. I’ve tried this before and never enjoyed it. Word doesn’t handle ink terribly well, even in the latest Office 2013 Windows beta which is what I’ll be writing about here. It’s fiddly and worst of all I hated the job of trying to deal with ink annotations in the same page I was working on. The side-by-side approach of a pdf on the left and a manuscript on the right seemed to work much better.

But what if you could handle that much more proficiently inside Word itself, without the fuss of a pdf export? It can be done and here I’ll show you. I’ve pulled the final version of The Killing into the Surface and scribbled a few bits on it to give me something to work with. The Surface automatically syncs the revised version back to Skydrive from the tablet when I’m done. So I simply open the same file within Word on my desktop to see the ink annotations.

What we’re going to do now is set up the computer so that you can see a version of the manuscript with the ink on one side of the screen and one with a clean copy, free of annotations, on the other for the actual editing. And to make things even easier I’m going to set these two versions of the same document to keep in visual sync as I work through the manuscript, so scrolling one also scrolls the other at the same time.

First go to View and choose New Window. This will give you a new window with the same document in it. I always edit in Print view but without headers – you can get rid of them and page breaks just by double clicking the gap between pages (don’t try this or anything else here on the Mac because it may not work by the way).

new window

Now choose View Side by Side (if you can’t see this in the ribbon you may need to widen the window). Your two takes on the same document should now appear next to each other. Make sure the lines align and that they both have the same view. Then select Synchronous Scrolling.

side by side sync scroll

Now turn off the markup for the window in which you want to edit.

no markup

All the ink in that window will disappear. It’ll stay in the other one and you can scroll through both documents through a single scroll bar, editing as you go along like this.

Both pages

Before you deliver your manuscript you will want to get rid of all that ink of course. I can’t see a delete all scribbles button. But you can do this through Inspect Document in the File Menu. The first option here will get rid of all comments and annotations leaving you with a clean, finished document.

inspector remove ink

For me this looks better than messing round with a marked-up pdf, which has to be scrolled separately to keep it in in place. It lets me sit on a train or plane and read and scribble on the very document I’m working on without any fuss. Then when I get back to the desk or the laptop the results are there already.

I need to play with inking on the tablet and Word a bit more to find out how useful that will be. I’ve always been of the opinion in the past that you need a proper digitiser pen for mark-up. The Surface RT just has the usual finger-style stylus we know and rarely love from the iPad on. With a fine red line it’s actually quite visible for personal mark-up. The logjam is Word itself which still handles the pen clumsily – and does even with a digitiser tablet. Microsoft have work to do here.

But this is for personal mark-up and I’m less fussy there because most of the time I know what my own scribbles mean. I’ve doubts whether the Surface has the accuracy to manage mark-up for professional revision for other people, say with typeset documents. But I’ll be checking in the days to come.

Expect some more thoughts on the Surface in a little while. For now let me just say… I’m impressed. On eBay, with a type cover from John Lewis, and a micro SD card to take the storage up to 64gb, the whole thing cost me £445. About the same as a 32gb iPad 3 with a keyboard too, and much more usable for work.

The tech press may not be impressed. But I am.

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