Both version control and naming conventions are essential components of managing your documents; your work; in ensuring that you can keep track of what you’re doing; where everything is; and, especially if you’re collaborating with others, which document or version is the most recent.
As you well know, I’ve been a technical writer now for over 18 years, on-and-off, and it’s vital that you know and can manage both items. Version control because you don’t want to be working on old document, and naming conventions because you’re then creating a different document altogether.
Consequently, knowing about version control and naming conventions need to be ingrained.

Document Lifecycle

Well, the version number itself is a fundamental part of what we call a ‘document lifecycle’. This is the stages a document goes through from its initial creation to its final resting place where it eventually pushes up the daisies, whether this is actually archived or destroyed.
And what is key about a document lifecycle is being able to tell at what stage a document actually is at a glance: and this is where version control and a good naming convention comes in.
For example, I have a huge 3,000 page document called, “How to Decommission a Nuclear Power Station’, and it’s saved in a shared folder on my network. 5 others have access to this document.
I come into work on a Monday morning, and look in the drive and either see:
Version Control and Naming Conventions
Or this:
Version Control and Naming Conventions 1
So, which is it, names or numbers?
Which one is the latest version?
I find Pete’s on holiday, off sailing somewhere, so I can’t get hold of him to find out who’s is the most current.
I’ve also now got to spend time contacting each person to make sure, and then will have to go into the documents to makes sure that the changes are actually correct, haven’t been duplicated, and are actually what’s needed.
But, if we have a system established, agreed upon version control and naming conventions, then I should be able to tell at a glance, which is the most current document.

Set Standards

Now, it all depends on what you’re doing, where you’re working, and what you’re producing to dictate what system you will use, but whichever it is, ensure it’s consistent and you stick with it.
For example, when I’m working for clients, I generally use decimal numbers to mark what are called minor iterations of a document; and integers to mark major versions signed-off and approved documents.
Here’s what I mean…

Version Control – Major and Minor versions

In an organization, employees should only work from documents that have been approved by the company as being fit for purpose. So, whether it’s decommissioning a nuclear power station, ordering a piece of software, or a weekly emergency drill procedure, the document that dictates what we do needs to have been agreed on and signed-off.
That way, everyone then knows that document is the one to use. So, we can mark this in a number of ways, but the best in my view is to make the first signed-off version 1.0.
The ‘1’ tells me that it’s the first major version of the document; the ‘0’ tells me this is an approved document and can be used.
If the document is not approved, then it uses decimal numbers. The very first draft of a document is marked as 0.1. The ‘0’ tells me it has not been approved, and the ‘.1’ tells me it’s a minor iteration or version of the document. It also tells me I should not use this document, as it’s not been verified as being fit for purpose.
As it proceeds through the various phases of the review procedure, it may well be version 0.2, 0.3, 0.4, 0.5, and so on, but each time, the ‘0’ tells me it’s unapproved. So, if I look in my folder and see:01c_minor_versions
I can instantly tell which is the latest version, and where we’re at in the document lifecycle process. However, none of these should be used in a live environment, as they haven’t been approved (none are at version 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, etc.)
Once the document does get approved, it becomes:
Version Control and Naming Conventions - Versioned 1.0
All the minor versions can then be deleted – we don’t need them anymore.
Then, as small changes are made, the iterations begin again:
Version Control and Naming Conventions - Versioned
However, only v1.0 has been approved, so your team know that is the only one they can use.
When the next changes to the document are made and are finally approved, the document is then versioned as 2.0. Version 1.0 can now be archived, and the lifecycle continues.
However, for authors who mostly work alone on their own books, there’s not much call for versioning of such severity – hey, no nuclear power stations being decommissioned here!
(Note: when I first became a technical writer, I was actually taught document and version control by a dour Scottish gentleman who in fact had worked at decommissioning power stations. Not much room for mistakes there!)

Version Control – By Date

So, with than in mind, what’s the best way?
Well, I’ve tried a few systems out in the past and, considering you’re working solo, with the occasional bit of collaboration with a proof-reader and an editor, then just marking the documents with a date works well.
If you add a date suffix along the lines of _yymmdd, you can’t go far wrong, and it stacks up nicely.
In fact, this is what I do with all my work. Here’s a snapshot of my 1-Click Book Creation folder:
As you can see, it works well. If I have more than a single iteration on a particular day, then I add the a, b, c, suffix. It just makes it very easy.
Now, not only can I see what the latest version is, but I can go back and load an older document if I need something from it.
I have lost work myself in the past, so I know how frustrating it can be; and, that is why I build in a document autosave feature into my Word templates – 1-Click Book Creation and 1-Click Thesis – using the above version control and naming conventions (as you see).
If you don’t have a system yourself, I’d think about implementing one, it does make things much easier!
Of course, a system is only good if you actually use it, so make sure you save a copy of your document each time.
I know this post is about version control and naming conventions, but not losing our documents/information is tied into this; so, I’ll just talk a little about Word’s autosave feature.

Can’t I Just Rely on Word’s Own Auto Save Feature?

Sure you can. If you want.
I use it.
It Auto saves my document every 10 minutes (long gone are the days of your computer slowing to a halt while waiting for the auto save to finish).
02a_word_autosaveBut I don’t rely on it.
While I’ve been working on this post in Word, it’s saved 4 auto saves:
02_word_version_saveThe problem is though, if corruption has crept into my document, I don’t know if any of those versions has been affected.
If corruption has crept in, there’s nothing to say that my entire document won’t be lost.
Now, I have to admit, since Microsoft switched to the xl-base in 2007, Word is much more stable; but, this doesn’t mean I trust them implicitly. Besides, it’s my work and not theirs, so the responsibility comes down to me.
And that’s why I save my document with a new name every day.
Sure, it might still become corrupt, I might still lose today’s work, maybe even yesterdays if it goes back that far, but I won’t lose it all – and that’s key!
Believe you me, it’s heartbreaking to lose all your work and have to start again. Indeed, you might even have experienced hat very situation yourself and know exactly what I’m talking about.
If not, can you imagine losing your entire manuscript? Something you’ve slaved over, lost sleep over, for months?
It would be heartbreaking.
Dropbox is no use either. The corruption’s in the document, regardless of where it is.
So, save your document with a new day whenever you can.
I’m forgetful, so that’s why 1-Click Book Creation and 1-Click Thesis have this feature built-in; it just makes it easy and keeps my work 100% safe.

Naming Conventions

Finally we come to naming conventions…
As with all things writing, it pays to be consistent; and this applies to the way you name your documents as well.
Sure, you can name them however you like, but if you don’t keep it consistent, then it just makes it harder to locate your documents. I’m no trying to teach you to suck eggs, but you’ll be surprised at how many just accept Word’s suggested title.
Besides, though consistency is important, this is geared more at organisations and especially those who are looking at becoming ISO-compliant, or need a work system in place.
For them, an effective naming convention is critical as not only does it make things easier to find, it cuts down on redundancy, and can help save a ton of cash: according to, approx 15% of a company’s revenue goes into documentation, 85% of them are never retrieved, and for every $1 spent on creating a final document, a further $10 goes on managing.
So, having a set naming convention, unique identifiers, and version control is essential for not only managing all of this, but cost control also.
Note: If you have a business and need to implement something like this, click here to contact me via email to discuss.
However, for the likes of the casual user, the author, you, I’m sure already have a system in place; yet, even if this is the case, I would recommend that you give version control and naming conventions a further though, as it may help you. Above all, stick with it and keep it consistent.
Oh, and save a new version of your document every day – just in case!