OOo Off the Wall: That's Your Version--Document Control in OOo Writer

Learn how to use Writer's version control tools to keep track of who made which changes and when, without diving into big CMS applications.
Using Compare Documents

The simplest tool for document control in Writer is Edit -> Compare Documents. The Compare Documents tool works with the current document and any file with which you want to compare it. Obviously, though, the tool doesn't have much point unless you use it with an earlier or later version of a document, or perhaps one edited by someone else. The documents can be in any format that is readable by Writer.

When you select the Compare Documents tool, it opens a file manager for selecting the second file. Both files then are presented in the first document, and the Accept or Reject Changes window opens for your use.

Again, as you go through the diffs in this document with the Accept or Reject Changes window, it is important to remember how these options work. To save content unique to the first document, you need to accept it. However, to save content unique to the second document, you need to reject it. Confuse the source of the material, and your fingers will need to fly to the Ctrl+Z keys, as you hope you have set the Undo levels high enough to repair the damage.

Using Changes

Edit -> Changes works for changes within the same document. Some people prefer to use Changes even if no one else is working on the document. Using it allows them to find changes quickly and revert to earlier content without worrying about how many levels of Undo they have enabled. Others reserve it for times when more than one person is writing or editing a document.

Either way, to use changes, you need to turn on Edit -> Changes -> Record and Show. Depending on the situation, you also may want to select Edit -> Changes -> Protect Changes so nobody without the password can accept or reject changes.

When you are ready to deal with changes, select Edit -> Changes -> Accept or Reject to open the standard window. If you prefer, you may select Merge to sync the current file with another one of the same name.

Using Versions

In Writer, versions are copies of a document saved within the same file. If you look at the compressed collection of XML files that make up a Writer document, you can see a master list for versions and a Versions folder for storing them.

To save a version, select File -> Versions instead of File -> Save. Selecting the Save New Version button opens the Insert Version Comment window, allowing you to add a plain-text comment to the version. Most likely, the comment is a brief note explaining the unique features of that particular document version. The date and time, as well as your name--if you have filled out the User Data in Tools -> Options--are added automatically to the version.

If you want to save a version each time you close the document, you can check the "Always save a version on closing" box. The drawback to this option is the only comment it saves reads "Automatically saved version", which may not be too informative later on when you look back through several versions.

In addition, File -> Version lists all existing versions of the document. In the same window, you can select a version and:

  • Open it in a separate window

  • Show its comment

  • Delete the version

  • Compare it with the currently open version, using the Accept or Reject Changes window

Fair warning: versions are highly addictive. Remember that each one adds substantially to the size of the file, so you periodically should delete unneeded version. Provided that you are sure you no longer need the versions, you can use File -> Save As to dump the saved versions and save only the current one. In short, without some form of regular pruning, loading, saving and closing the file may slow to a crawl, especially if your computer has limited memory. You even may find that the document crashes regularly as the file grows out of proportion.

Extending the Usefulness of the Tools

Even used together, Compare Documents, Changes and Versions give only rudimentary version control to your work. However, you can extend their usefulness with a little ingenuity. For example, you can use comments in Versions to add a manual version number. Similarly, you can set up something like a development tree using directories, creating new branches and using Changes or Compare Documents to merge files as necessary.

Most likely, the first reaction of programmers is to rebel against these makeshift workarounds. However, people who are working with regularly enough to need these tools are unlikely to be programmers. In fact, for these users, the mention of something such as CVS may make them panic stricken. Furthermore, files are not easy to store in many other versioning tools. For these reasons, instead of criticizing these Writer tools for their very real shortcomings, consider them to be a way to establish some basic order with minimal on-the-job training. In many cases, the alternative may be no version control at all.


-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)


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Changing Designated Author Color in Open Office Writer

Lisa's picture

Hi Bruce,

Thanks for your helpful article. Two questions. I'm editing a document that has been edited by several editors, each with a different color. My edits must also be tracked and I have been asked not to reject or accept previous editor's changes.

One: How do I change the designated color of my edits? The default is a puke brown (excuse my language) and I would prefer my edits appear in a less revolting color.

Two: When I copy and paste a portion of text into another document, the entire portion appears in my edited color, thus loosing the colors of the previous editors' ... In other words, the whole section appears as one big edit by me. What's worse, when I delete text in this pasted section, it actually deletes it and doesn't strike through it.

Help? Thanks so much!


Merging documents - only in OOo native format?

Robin Grindley's picture

What I would like to do is have a multi-reviewer process. A single master review copy goes out to multiple reviewers, who all make their markups. They send it back to the review owner, who then merges all the changes back into a single review copy, showing everybody's changes.

I saw that OOo has Edit->Changes->Merge Document. In theory, this should allow what I want - go serially through each reviewer's marked-up copy and merge them all back into a single copy. But I'm trying to do this in MS Word format, and it keeps saying that the merge is not possible. I think the Merge feature only works with OOo native format, but I couldn't find anything in the Help, Docs or web to confirm this.

Changesets need.

Tim Webster's picture

What we really need is opendocument integration of with software change management tools. svn, bzr, cvs, etc

To do this we need is a way to seperate a openoffice document into a document container "odf" and collection of changesets "odf" into document containers. Next we need external diff and merge tools for
creating and merging changesets. Of course the software change management tools need to be able to properly handle mime types so that they can call the correct external diff and merge tool program.

To make things fast, I think it makes since leave each changeset as a seperate file "uncompressed" within change management software database. Then be able to retrive either a document container with the base document and "changesets" or a document container with changesets applied and but not included.


Martey's picture

Are OpenOffice's versioning tools compatible with those of other office suites (i.e. Microsoft Office)?

Not so compatible

Lucas's picture

I've tried opening a Word document in OO Writer and then saving a Version of it rather than Save or Save As, and guess what! Versions option is greyed out on the File menu!!

So I guess, at least on the Versions, are not compatible, which is a great shame really - would be very useful if they were!

Having said that I have also used the Changes tools in both Word and OO Writer and it looks like those work flawlessly! So brownie point where brownie points are due...

Can we have Version support now? Pwetty pweeeeze!

Versioning not working?

OOo.user's picture

How is the Compare Feature in the Versions dialog supposed to work? I opened a document, saved three versions of it but when I try to use the "Compare" button on any of them nothing seems to happen...

Have you tried selecting two

Shaun McDonald's picture

Have you tried selecting two different versions, then clicking compare?

How to compare versions

Anonymous's picture

You need to 'Show' the first version and then select the second and click 'compare'


hypotheek's picture

Finally a website where the print-function works properly. I'm going to read this article on my couch now. Thanks.

PS: you could leave out the button in the print version :-)