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The ultimate guide to document version control

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

November 15, 2023

Ever been in a situation where you’re working on a report or a document and suddenly realize you liked the previous draft better? Or perhaps you’re collaborating with a team and everyone has their own ‘latest’ version of the same file? This is where version control comes into play.

What is version control?

Version control is a system that involves recording changes to a file (or set of files) over time, so you can recall specific versions later. 

It’s like having a time machine for your documents. Whether you’re a single writer penning a novel or a team of engineers collaborating on a software project, version control allows for a history of changes to be kept, so you can see who made what changes and when, as well as your project’s progression over time. 

Graphics, code, spreadsheets, and other digital assets can all benefit from version control systems. 

Why is version control important?

Let’s explore the reasons.

1. Safeguard against mistakes

We’re all human, and mistakes are a natural part of the process. Whether it’s accidentally deleting a section, or realizing too late that a change wasn’t for the better, version control acts as a safety net. You can quickly revert to an earlier version, ensuring all those hours (or days) of work aren’t lost in a moment of oversight.

2. Streamlined collaboration

When working with a team, multiple people might need to edit a document simultaneously. Without version control, you end up with confusing filenames like ‘report_final_v2_JaneEdits’, or ‘report_final_REAL_FINAL’. 

With version control, everyone can work on the same document without stepping on each other’s toes (or you confusing yourself with too many ‘final’ docs. Changes from different team members are tracked and merged seamlessly.

3. Accountability

Version control logs who made which changes and when. This ensures accountability within a team. If something goes awry, or if you’re just curious about the rationale behind a certain edit, you can pinpoint the person and the exact moment of change.

4. Historical reference

Understanding the evolution of a document can give you insight into the decision-making process behind a piece of work. With version control, you get a chronology of changes, making it easier to review the document’s journey over time.

5. Peace of mind

Knowing there’s a systematic backup of all your iterations provides peace of mind. No more fearing major overhauls or experimenting with new ideas. Version control grants you the freedom to be bold, with a backup as your safety net. 

How does version control work?

Delving into the mechanics of version control can feel a bit like opening the hood of a car. At first, it might seem complex, but once you understand the components and their functions, it makes more sense. Let’s break it down. 

1. Repository creation

The journey begins with the creation of a repository. Think of this as a digital vault where all your files and their histories are stored. When you initiate a repository, the version control system starts monitoring the designated files.

Example: Sarah, a graphic designer, creates a repository for her design project, allowing her to track changes for all files related to it.

2. Committing changes

When you make changes to a file within a repository, the system recognizes the alterations. To save these changes, you ‘commit’ them. Every commit is like a snapshot of your files at that particular moment, complete with a unique identifier (often a combination of numbers and letters) and typically a message describing the changes.

3. Branching out

Let’s say you want to experiment with a new idea, but don’t want to mess up the main file. You can create a branch, make your changes there, and then, if you’re happy with the results, merge it back with the main file. Easy! 

Example: John, a software developer, wants to add a new feature to his app. He creates a branch, codes the feature, tests it, and once satisfied, merges it with the main codebase.

4. Merging and resolving conflicts

Speaking of merging, this action combines changes from one branch into another. However, what if two people made different edits to the same section of a document? This results in a ‘conflict.’ The version control system will flag it, and users will need to manually decide which changes to keep.

5. Pulling and pushing

In distributed version control systems, every collaborator has their own copy of the repository. To ensure everyone’s on the same page:

  • Pull: Before starting work, users pull the latest changes from the central repository to their local one.
  • Push: After committing their changes, users push them back to the central repository.

6. History and rollback

The beauty of version control is its ability to recall past versions. If you ever need to revisit a previous state of your file or even see who made what changes and when, the system has you covered. If an error sneaks into the latest version, simply roll back to a stable previous state.

Example: Lisa, an author, realizes that the edits made in the last three sessions don’t fit the narrative. She can easily revert to the version from four sessions ago and start afresh from there.

How to get started with document version control

Here’s how to implement version control and make the most of it.

1. Understand your needs

Before diving in, assess your goals. Are you a solo writer maintaining a book, or a business looking to keep track of project files? Your needs will dictate the kind of version control system (VCS) you need. (We’ll guide you through some important questions to ask in the next section.)

2. Choose the right tool

There are two broad categories to choose from:

  • Centralized Version Control Systems (CVCS): These require a central server where all the files are stored. Team members ‘checkout’ files, make changes, and then ‘check-in’ the updated versions. 
  • Distributed Version Control Systems (DVCS): In these, every user has a complete copy of the entire repository on their local machine. Changes are made locally and then synchronized with the central repository. Git is one such example. 

For smaller, more straightforward projects, a centralized system might be enough, offering a simple and intuitive interface that can streamline the development process. 

Larger, more intricate endeavors might benefit from a distributed system that offers features for handling multiple simultaneous contributions and complex histories. 

3. Set up the VCS

Once you’ve chosen your tool, it’s time to set it up. This might involve:

  • Installing software on your computer or server
  • Setting up a repository for your files in your project management software 
  • Defining access controls if you’re working with a team.

Don’t be intimidated by the initial setup. Many tools come with user-friendly interfaces and documentation to guide you.

4. Start with a test

Before diving headfirst into version controlling all your documents, begin with a test project. It could be a dummy document where you practice adding files, making edits, reverting changes, and syncing with the central repository.

5. Document your process

While version control tracks your document changes, it’s equally important to keep notes on how you’re using the VCS. Outline a basic workflow. For instance:

  • How often should you commit changes?
  • What’s the protocol for collaborative edits?
  • What are your file naming conventions?

6. Train and onboard

If you’re implementing this in a team setting, make sure everyone gets the system. A short training session will help everyone use the VCS efficiently.

7. Stay updated and seek feedback

Version control isn’t a ‘set it and forget it’ endeavor. As you use the system, you might discover new features or better methods of doing things. Regularly check for software updates and encourage team members to share feedback. Adjust and refine your workflow accordingly.

Questions to ask before deploying a version control strategy

Before you dive in, there are some key questions to consider. These questions help frame your approach, ensuring that your strategy is tailored to your project’s requirements.

What are our primary goals with version control? Are you aiming for better collaboration, clearer document history, or perhaps both? 

Example: A research team might prioritize clear document history to trace the evolution of their research findings, while a content creation team might focus on better collaboration.

Who will be the primary users? Are they tech-savvy individuals familiar with version control, or will they need some training? 

Example: An IT department might be comfortable with a tool like Git, while a team of writers might prefer a more intuitive document-focused tool.

How frequently will documents be updated? Some documents might be updated daily, while others may see changes only once a month. 

Example: Daily newspapers might have a high frequency of updates, necessitating a robust version control strategy.

How will we handle conflicting changes? Decide on a protocol for handling them. Who will be responsible for resolving them? Is there a hierarchy in decision-making?

Example: In a collaborative book project, the primary author might have the final say on conflicts related to content, while the editor handles grammatical or structural conflicts.

What are our primary goals with version control? Are you aiming for better collaboration, clearer document history, or perhaps both? Your goals will guide your choice of tools and the specifics of your strategy.

Example: A marketing team might want their version control tool to integrate with their project management software, ensuring every document change aligns with a specific task or goal.

Do we need to integrate with other repositories? Consider if your system needs to work in tandem with other repositories, like Git or SVN.

Example: A dev team might want their project management tool to integrate Git, so they can track changes and bugs, get notified during push and pull events, and navigate to branches and commits all from one place. 

What’s our plan for training and onboarding? Plan how you’ll bring everyone up to speed. Will you have training sessions, written guidelines, or perhaps video tutorials?

Example: A magazine’s editorial team might benefit from a hands-on training session where they can practice using the version control system with dummy articles.

How will we review and iterate our strategy? Will there be periodic reviews? How will you collect and implement feedback? 

Example: A corporate documentation team might have quarterly reviews where they discuss challenges faced, new feature requirements, and potential improvements to their strategy.

How to use document numbering in a version control table

Document numbering in a version control table isn’t just about keeping things orderly. It’s about clarity and maintaining a coherent history of your documents. Here’s a step-by-step guide.

1. Start with a logical baseline: Begin with a simple format like ‘1.0’ for your initial document. This represents the first complete version. 

2. Increment for minor and major changes: For smaller edits, like grammar fixes or slight wording changes, increase the decimal by one, e.g., ‘1.1’, ‘1.2’. For more significant updates, like adding a new section, increment the whole number, e.g., ‘2.0’.

3. Include dates for reference: Next to the version number, include the date of the update. This gives readers an idea of how fresh or dated the information is. Example: ‘1.1 — 23/06/2023’

4. Add a brief description: In your version control table, alongside the version number and date, include a succinct description of the changes made. This is invaluable for readers who want a quick summary of what’s new or different. Example: ‘1.1 — 23/06/2023 — Added clause about remote work guidelines.’

5. Keep it consistent across all documents: Whether you’re working on internal reports, client-facing materials, or any other type of document, maintain the same numbering format. Consistency makes it easier for everyone, regardless of their department or role.

6. Archive outdated versions: Make sure older versions of the document are archived and accessible only to those who need them. This way, the most recent version remains front and center, but there’s still a trail of the document’s evolution.

7. Automate where possible: Some document management systems allow for automated version numbering. This can be a time-saver, especially for documents that are updated frequently.

8. Educate your team: Ensure everyone involved understands the numbering system. A short training session or guide can help in ensuring that the system is used correctly and consistently.

Bonus tip: Use ‘v’ for ‘version’. When you first come across a file named ‘Report_v1.3’, that little ‘v’ might seem insignificant. But seasoned document managers and collaborators know just how powerful and useful this tiny letter can be. By placing a ‘v’ before a number in your document’s filename, you’re immediately signaling to everyone that this isn’t just any draft—it’s a specific version of it. 

5 document version control best practices (and why they’re important)

These aren’t just arbitrary rules but rather guidelines honed from the experiences of countless professionals. Here’s a list to get you started:

1. Commit frequently with meaningful messages

It’s tempting to work on a document for hours, or even days, and then make one giant commit. Resist the urge! Smaller, frequent commits are more manageable.

Why it’s important: Frequent commits ensure changes are systematically recorded, making it easier to pinpoint when a particular change was introduced. Also, a concise, descriptive message accompanying each commit helps collaborators understand the rationale behind each change.

Example: Instead of a vague message like ‘Edited file,’ opt for something more descriptive like ‘Revised introduction paragraph for clarity.’

2. Use branching wisely

While branches are fantastic for experimenting, having too many can make the repository chaotic.

Why it’s important: Keeping the number of branches manageable ensures clarity. It’s easier to track the purpose of each branch, and reduces the chances of conflicts when merging.

Example: If you’re redesigning a website, instead of having separate branches for every tiny design tweak, have one for each major design overhaul or feature.

3. Keep a clean history

It’s good practice to maintain a clean, linear history. This means avoiding unnecessary merge commits or ‘rebase’ operations which can clutter the commit history.

Why it’s important: A clean history makes it simpler to trace the evolution of a document or project. It’s akin to having a well-maintained diary rather than a jumbled collection of notes.

4. Set and follow naming conventions

Decide on a naming structure for your commits, branches, and files, and stick to it.

Why it’s important: Consistent naming conventions remove ambiguity. For instance, if everyone on the team knows that bug fixes are labeled ‘bugfix/[issue-name],’ it’s easier to identify and review them.

Example: For a project about sustainable energy, a branch dedicated to solar energy-related content might be named ‘topic/solar-energy.’

5. Regularly pull and push changes

If you’re working in a distributed environment, ensure you’re regularly pulling the latest changes from the central repository before starting work and pushing your changes once done.

Why it’s important: Regularly synchronizing ensures you’re always working on the most recent version, minimizing potential conflicts. 

Using a tool with built-in document version control

As anyone who’s struggled to maintain cohesion saving docs on a server knows, manually keeping order can be a challenge, to say the least. 

This is where a project management tool steps in. 

With Backlog, our own PM platform, you can maintain clarity and continuity in project management. From tracking changes to documents over time to automatically recording changes in your wiki, collaborate effectively without the risk of overwriting each other’s work. Historical data is preserved, providing valuable context for decisions and changes, and making it easy to revert to previous versions if needed. 

  • Keep a centralized repository for all of your documents
  • Archive work for easy reference 
  • Track changes effortlessly via built-in repositories and automated saves
  • Automate merges and highlight conflicts
  • Collaborate seamlessly 
  • Set access controls for improved security 
  • Use easy rollbacks when needed 
  • Compare branches with a click
  • Track issues 
  • Keep important wiki pages up-to-date 

Having a document version control tool isn’t about adding another software to your arsenal. It’s about streamlining processes, reducing errors, and improving collaboration. In today’s dispersed work environment, having a system to manage all those contributions isn’t just handy — it’s essential. 



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