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How to quickly find the differences between two Word documents

From time to time, I have to deal with new revisions of familiar implementation guides or other system documentation, and the authors rarely include a changelog in the document. And of course the first question anyone asks about the new guide is what’s changed. That means I have to find the differences between two Word documents.

This week I found myself collaborating on a long-ish document and needing to synchronize some changes. Word’s tracked changes and comments can help somewhat, but generally I find them clumsy and annoying.

If you have five minutes and a willingness to use a command prompt, you can find the differences easily, then work from there.

First, load up the two documents in Word and save them as plain text files. Save them someplace convenient, such as the root directory of a thumb drive.

Now open a command prompt and issue the following command:

fc file1.txt file2.txt >>differences.txt

You’ll have to include the whole path name of the two files. That’s why I recommend saving them in the root directory of a thumb drive.

Open the file differences.txt in Word. You’ll have a nice consolidated list of which sentences or paragraphs differ in the two files. You can then use that to produce an executive summary of the changes. Or if you’re collaborating, you can decide how you want to consolidate the changes in the final document.

You can do something very similar on a Macintosh or Linux box, too. Do the same thing as above, and open a shell window and issue this command:

diff file1.txt file2.txt > differences.txt

The output from diff won’t look exactly like the output from fc on a Windows machine. But for these purposes it’s close enough.

And if you use another word processor, this trick works for it too, as long as it can save a document as plain ASCII text.

That’s how you find the differences between two Word documents. Or any other word processor.

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