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For a better document collaboration experience, try these tips

If you collaborate with others on documents, there are some things you might want to keep in mind to avoid problems and save a lot of time and effort.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Woman working on laptop in coffee shop
Oscar Wong/Getty Images

I collaborate a lot. Most of the time those collaborations go off without a hitch. Every once in a while, however, things go seriously awry. 

It might be a missing document, lost paragraphs, formatting issues, or even being unable to open a document. Over the last 25 years, I've pretty much run the gamut of issues when collaborating. 

Back in the late '90s and early 2000s, one of the biggest issues was finding a middle ground with a document file-type format that everyone could use. I was working with StarOffice, OpenOffice, Corel, AbiWord, and any other word processor I could install on Linux. These days, those types of problems shouldn't exist, right? 


Sadly, they still do.

Also: The best collaboration apps

For instance, right now I'm co-authoring a new book series with someone who strictly uses Microsoft Word. I've been using Google Docs for first drafts for years, and I have only had minor issues with editors who prefer to toil away in one of the many incarnations of Microsoft Word. Recently, my editor reached out to say there have been serious formatting issues with this series. 

Let me describe the workflow.

  1. I write a chapter in Google Docs.
  2. My collaborator writes a chapter in his locally installed Microsoft Word and then does a quick copy and paste into Google Docs.
  3. We go back and forth until the first draft is done.
  4. I export the draft as a DOCX file and send it to the editor.
  5. The editor opens it in Microsoft Word and sees a world of formatting issues.

It was only recently that I discovered my co-author has been using Microsoft Word 2010, which reached its end of life in 2020. What does that mean? 

End of life means the software no longer receives updates. In effect, any piece of software that's reached EOL should be considered unsafe and shouldn't be used. 

Also: How to use Google Docs on Android to create MS Word files

But it's not my place to tell a fellow writer how to do his thing. Writers are a very funny bunch of people. We can be superstitious and cling to what we know as though our lives depend on it. If Microsoft Word is comfortable in that author's hands, then more power to them. Because of this recent issue, I thought I'd offer some advice on how best to collaborate with such documents.


Use the same tool

This is an "if possible" situation. I know it's not always possible for all collaborators to use the same office suite. I say "possible" quite loosely, because it actually is possible. In this day of cloud-based office suites, there's absolutely no reason why anyone should have to struggle with the whole, "You need to use the same tool I'm using!" thing.

That's no longer relevant because you can always use Office 365, Google Docs, or iCloud. There are enough cloud-based options that are free and user-friendly enough that anyone can get up to speed on using them in no time.

I also understand the need for privacy. Some people feel rather dubious about saving their files and information to a third-party cloud host. If that's the case, then a locally installed application will be necessary. 

If all involved in the collaboration don't have Microsoft Office or Apple Pages, you might consider having everyone install a free solution like LibreOffice. Using the same tool will avoid a lot of problems.

While you're at it, make sure you're using the latest version of whatever tool you have. If you're using a version that is two iterations out of date, you're missing out on not only security updates and new features, but also formatting updates and file compatibility fixes. 

Use copy and paste only when absolutely necessary

This is probably the biggest issue I've had to deal with. I'll be collaborating with someone in Google Docs, only to find out they are writing their portion in a locally installed word processor, and copying and pasting it into the Google Doc. 

Also: How to automatically convert Google Drive uploads to Docs format

My first piece of advice here is that if you're using a service that was built around collaboration, all parties should be using the same tool (see above). 

The problem with copy and paste is that it can cause problems with formatting. If you absolutely have to copy and paste, I would recommend you paste without formatting by using [Ctrl]+[Shift]+[V]. In some word processors, you can right-click and select Paste Without Formatting. If you do that, you'll have to go back through what you pasted and reformat for things like italics and bold. The reason you should consider this is the formatting in one word processor probably won't match up to the formatting in another. Although it may "look" the same, it's not. 

So, if you must copy and paste, paste without formatting.

Use the same file format

Don't mix and match your file formats. If you are working in LibreOffice, saving as an ODT file, and your collaborator is working with MS Word and DOCX, you're going to have problems. LibreOffice can easily save in DOCX format and Office 365 can work with ODT files. 

Also: How to configure LibreOffice to default to MS Office file formats

Or, if you want to use a format that's better capable of going back and forth between applications, save as an RTF (Rich Text Format) file until the collaboration is complete. Once finished and properly formatted, you can export that RTF file into whatever file type you need, even PDF. If you use a mixture of file types, you will inevitably run into issues.

Use the cloud

Ultimately, the best way to help yourself is to use the cloud. I know some people prefer not to host their work on a third-party site, but those cloud services are so dominant because of how easy they make collaboration. And with tools like Google Docs, you can control how each collaborator can interact with a document. You can give some users read-only access while others have permission to edit. 

But the most important reasons to use cloud-based services (such as Google Docs, Office 365, and iCloud) cover every base we've touched on here. Everyone is using the same tool, you're working with the same file type, and there's no need to cut and paste from a desktop app.

Also: How to install a cloud service at home: It's easy with Linux 

While you're at it, if possible, make sure all parties are using the same web browser. The reason for this is some cloud-based services work better with certain web browsers. You might think this unlikely, but I've experienced it firsthand. For example, Firefox doesn't always work the same with some web-based editors as Chrome. And when collaborating on longer documents in Google Docs with Safari, Apple's web browser can tend to bog down because of memory issues. 

It's a very frustrating issue when so much of what we do happens within the cloud. Every web browser should function and interact in the same way with those tools. Alas, there is no guarantee that will ever be the case.

Collaboration doesn't have to be a hair-pulling experience. With just a bit of planning and maybe a slight change to your workflow, you can collaborate on documents without having to deal with the formatting or incompatibility issues that often trouble those who must work together to complete a project.

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