Over the last year and a half (beginning in April 2021), Microsoft has been rolling out its “modern comments” to Word 365 users on both Windows and Mac platforms. If you use Word, and unless you have your updates turned off, there’s a good chance you have them by now, or will soon.*
This update sounds like it should be a good one. The opposite of modern is outdated, old-fashioned, antiquated. And there are some real advantages to the new interface.
But Word’s new comments are less easy to get excited about if, like me and most of the other copyeditors I know, you do your main work in isolation. Our documents may live in the cloud (on Dropbox or some other file-hosting service), and we do send them back to the author or publisher when we’re done with them (usually via email), but they’re not shared—not in the real-time, collaborative sense of that word.
Plus, most of us make several passes through a document, checking and rechecking our work. We aren’t looking for feedback, not until we’re ready for it. Ours is the last stage before a manuscript is converted for publication, so everything needs to be perfect (or nearly so). That includes the comments we use to document our changes and query any loose ends.
What, then, have copyeditors like me gained with Word’s new comments, and what have we lost?
Word’s “Classic” Comments
Word’s commenting feature is a copyeditor’s bread and butter. Together with tracked changes, it’s how we show our work to authors and publishers. And though my own settings in Word won’t determine how my documents display for others, I prefer to underline additions, strike through deletions, and show comments in the margins:
But I turn off the option to track formatting. Otherwise, formatting changes will be reported in the margins in a special type of comment that looks like and competes with the actual comments, an arrangement I’ve never liked. (When Word’s classic comments have been set to display in the margins, there’s no option not to show formatting there also.) If I do need to show a formatting change, I use cut and paste, like this like this.
I also tend to toggle tracking on and off. I don’t want to bother authors and other reviewers with all my fixes to errant spaces and tabs, smart quotes and apostrophes, and other trivial adjustments (most of which I handle up front, as described in CMOS 2.80). I want them to focus on the changes that matter.
Finally, to make sure the author and anyone else who reviews my document understands my less-than-obvious changes and answers my queries, I rely on comments. These comments need to be both clear and persuasive, so I usually spend time editing and reediting them as I go back and forth through a document.
Word’s classic comments make that easy to do:
- To add the comment shown above, I selected the phrase “it’s how we show our work,” pressed Ctrl+Alt+M (I’m working in Windows; on a Mac it’s Cmd-Option-A), and typed “This is a classic Word comment.”
- To get back into the document, I hit the Esc key. Clicking back into the document also works.
- To go back and edit that comment (or any other comment in the document), I can simply click into it and start typing.
Classic comments can also be replied to or resolved (after which they turn gray), options that appear when you hover over or click into an existing comment:
On documents with lots of comments, I’ll sometimes use Find and Replace. For example, say I notice that each time I refer to an author named Smyth, I’ve typed “Smith” by mistake. Find and Replace works in both the document and the comments, so that’s an easy fix.
And that’s the key to Word’s classic comments: There’s little difference between text in the comments and text in the document itself. Put your cursor where it needs to be—in the document or in a comment—and start typing or deleting or finding and replacing or whatever. No extra steps required.
And let’s say I start to enter a comment only to change my mind. That happens to me all the time. Ctrl+Z (or Cmd-Z) and it’s gone.
You can’t do that using modern comments. Not yet anyway.
What Are Modern Comments?
The most obvious thing that makes Word’s modern comments different from its classic comments is that you now need to “post” a comment before you can return to the document. In a shared document that more than one person is editing at the same time, this feature will prevent others from seeing a comment as you type it—that is, before you think it’s ready.†
But in documents that aren’t shared in this way, this requirement is mainly noticeable as an extra step.
Word alerts us to this step by including a tip in every new comment: “Press Ctrl+Enter to post” (Cmd-Enter works on a Mac). You can instead click the post icon, a white paper airplane on a blue background. Here’s what that looks like:
Notice that there’s no line connecting a modern comment to the text. Instead, commented-on text is shaded in gray until a specific comment is either in progress or hovered over or selected; then the shading turns purple (as in the screenshot above).
Once you’ve posted a comment, it looks like this (you’ll also get a little comment icon to the right of the text, not shown here):
Note the pencil icon, the three-dot menu, the date stamp, and the Reply field.
Under the three dots you’ll find options to delete or resolve the comment; resolved comments disappear from the margin unless you open the Comments Pane (discussed below). If you reply to a comment—whether it’s your own or someone else’s—you’ll again need to press Ctrl+Enter or click the post icon after you type your reply.
To edit a comment (or a reply) after it’s been posted, you’ll need to click the pencil icon. Once you do that, your comment will look like this (but with a blinking cursor line at the end of the comment text):
Note the message in gray text: “Another comment is in progress.” In this case, it’s my own comment that’s in progress (or, specifically, an edit to my own comment). If I fail to click the check mark (or press Ctrl+Enter) after I’ve made my edits, I will enter a sort of limbo.
For example, if I try to add a comment elsewhere in the document before posting the one that’s in progress—or before clicking the X, which will abandon a new comment or leave an existing comment unedited—Word will put me back into that original comment, which will now have a message for me in red: “Please post your comment (Ctrl+Enter).”
I could do as Word asks, or I could change my mind and click the X.
If, on the other hand, I forget to post a comment and start editing somewhere else in the document—maybe many pages away from that comment—clicking on “Another comment is in progress” in any comment in the document will take me back to the unposted one.
Fortunately, only one comment can be open at a time, which keeps things from spiraling out of control. But the requirement to post means that you can’t use Find and Replace in comments: Find works, but Replace does not.
Formatting in Modern Comments: Beyond Google Docs
Modern comments are a lot like the comments in Google Docs. That’s no doubt part of the plan. Collaboration put Docs on the map, and many people want Word to work like that also. (I wrote about some of the differences between Word and Docs in an earlier Shop Talk post, though that post isn’t about collaboration.)
In Docs, the text in comments can’t be formatted in the usual way. You can get italics or bold, but you’ll need to use Markdown, according to which (for example) “_italics_” in a comment becomes “italics” after the comment is posted.
And you can mention someone in a Google Docs comment using the @ symbol, which triggers an email to that person and lets you assign the comment as a task. Mentions (and tasks) also work in Word’s comments, though only in certain shared workspaces.‡
But that’s about it. You can’t add images or equations, and you can’t change font size or color. To edit a comment in Google Docs, you need to click through a menu (and comments are ignored by Find and Replace).
Modern comments started out more like the comments in Docs. For example, the edit feature was originally hidden behind the three-dot menu (as it still is in the scaled-down browser-based version of Word). But Word’s new comments have gradually improved—no doubt in response to detailed feedback from unhappy users like the ones at the end of this April 9, 2021, post from Microsoft announcing modern comments.
The problem for now is one of expectations. Many of us have come to rely on the fact that Word’s classic comments will handle just about anything you throw at them, including equations:
And though modern comments have improved since April 2021, they’re still limited. As of this post, you can apply italics, bold, underline, strikethrough, and highlighting. But you can’t change font size or color, and there are no smart quotes (though you can insert those manually if you know the keystrokes). And you can’t use an equation editor to insert equations.
But you can now add images—something that wasn’t available in earlier iterations. That makes just about any workaround possible. For example, to re-create the classic comment above, I could use an equation editor from within the document (or in another document or app), save that as an image, and then copy and paste the image into a comment (though without any option to resize the image):
If you open a document with modern comments enabled, and that document includes an equation added using classic comments, you can still view that equation. But as Word will tell you, you’ll need to open the Revisions pane (a.k.a. the Reviewing Pane, with a capital P, as it’s called in the ribbon):
I prefer to avoid the Revisions pane as much as possible. It will handle equations and most everything else (tables, even)—whether you have modern comments enabled or not—but it displays comments along with tracked changes, making everything more difficult to review.
The Comments Pane: Saving Grace, or Revert While You Can?
Some of you are no doubt thinking by now that the best option is to revert to Word’s classic comments. That’s easy to do. Simply go to File > Options > General and uncheck the box next to “Enable modern comments.”
Then close Word down entirely, start it back up, et voilà: classic comments are back.
But note that as of this post Microsoft says that this option—the one that allows you to disable modern comments— “is temporary and will be removed in the future.”
Before that happens, I’m hopeful that equations and some of the other key missing features will be restored (including direct access to the font and symbols dialog boxes from within comments). Then I would definitely prefer the new comments to the old.
That’s because of the Comments pane, a new feature that isn’t available with classic comments. To display the Comments pane, either choose Show Comments > List (under the Review tab) or simply click the Comments icon in the upper right corner. That will give you this (to the right of the document):
I can’t stress enough how great this list view is, especially in any document longer than a few pages. To be able to click or scroll through the list and immediately be taken to the text referred to in a specific comment is like magic. It turns comments into a reviewing-oriented Navigation pane.
Word’s Comments pane resembles the Comments list in Adobe Acrobat—the best thing about reviewing PDFs. And with its focus on comments alone, Word’s Comments pane is more user friendly than the Revisions pane.
The Comments pane is in fact the reason I now prefer modern comments over classic comments for reviewing longer documents. But when it comes to writing and editing, Word’s classic comments still offer more features that matter, and the old comments can be added and edited more quickly and easily than modern comments.
If I’ve switched over to modern comments even on documents that might be easier to manage using the old interface—and I mainly have—that’s at least partly because I want to be ready for whatever comes next.
Word + Excel + PowerPoint: Bringing It All Together
Modern comments are also a feature in newer versions of Excel and PowerPoint. In those apps—where the old comments tended to get lost in the busy graphical interface—the Comments pane is a giant step forward. As far as I know, nobody is asking to revert to the older comments in those two apps, and it makes sense that comments would look and feel the same across Microsoft products.
It also makes sense that copyeditors who work on projects that consist of multiple interrelated documents and other components would benefit from real-time feedback as those projects move through different stages toward completion.
But if, like me, you do most of your work on longer documents that aren’t shared—and especially if you’re not as convinced as I am that the benefits of modern comments outweigh their limitations in Word—give it more time. Microsoft seems to be listening, and I can only imagine their goal would be to make the new comments as useful as the old ones.
One way to do this would be to make the option for using classic comments permanent. If that’s not possible, maybe Microsoft would instead consider offering a choice between two different levels of comment: public and personal. Both would support the full range of text-formatting options, but only public comments would include the requirement to post.
This new hybrid could be called postmodern comments. 🥁
* Before April 2021, the newer comments were already a feature of the web and mobile versions of Word, scaled-down apps that resemble the web-only Google Docs. Those comments are presumably the origin of the modern comments in Word 365, a full-featured desktop app.
† I drafted this post in Word 365 on a desktop PC running Windows 11. By saving it to OneDrive (Microsoft’s answer to iCloud and Google Drive and Dropbox and the like), I was able to share the file with myself via the Share button in the ribbon and observe simultaneous edits (and comments) on a second computer.
‡ For example, I couldn’t use @mentions in the draft file that I saved in OneDrive while signed in to my personal Microsoft account. But when I uploaded that same file to Office.com using my University of Chicago credentials, typing @ in a comment brought up a list of my colleagues—in both the web and desktop versions of Word.
Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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Russell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition
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