Collaborating With Digital Documents


What follows is a simple workflow that I have assembled for collaborating with digital documents. If we are working together on a digital document meant for eventual publication or presentation to a third party, I think it will be easiest for us to follow this workflow together to prevent headaches, namely those caused by confusion or data loss. If you are curious to learn the thoughts underlying this system, I have written them out below the workflow.


  1. Upon creation or first receipt of a file, whether by email or through a collaborative “sharing” link, open the file and enter the “Save As” command. Microsoft Office recognizes the F12 key for “Save As” by default; many other pieces of software recognize the keyboard shortcut CTRL + SHIFT + S (or the Mac equivalent) to do the same thing.
  2. When the “Save As” dialog box appears, you will need to enter a filename. Here, use the following naming convention: YYYY-MM-DD_DescriptiveFilename_008jqs.docx Let’s take this structure step by step. (Incidentally, Windows allows for filenames of up to 255 characters, but try not to get carried away.) The first two steps are optional, depending on whether you or I (or another person) has created the document.
    • YYYY-MM-DD – This represents the date in ISO Date-Time format. It is much easier to sort files and collaborate internationally by using this standard. If the document already contains this date, leave it be — it represents the date that the document began its life.
    • DescriptiveFilename – For this part of the filename, any two, three, or four word phrase will do. Capitalize the first letter of each word, but leave no spaces, as this can cause problems in some operating systems.
    • 008 – This is a manual increment – in the “Save As” dialog box, increase this number by 1. In this example, the file in question is the 8th iteration of the document.
    • jqs – These are the collaborator’s initials — here, our collaborator is John Q. Smith.
    • .docx – This is the file extension. Usually, if we are using Microsoft office, this will be entered automatically after saving the file and you should not attempt to add it on your own.
  3. Now, you are ready to begin editing the document and adding your contribution to our shared endeavor. As you go along, use the “Save” command, CTRL + S for almost all software, and then send or share the file back to me. I will begin at step one, and on and on we go.


One of my favorite writers, Paul Ford, ranted about this on Twitter in 2014. Here is what he had to say — read from the bottom up:

I am a pedant — I understand that, but I am also easily annoyed. This system works for me very well, though, as you’ll notice, I disagree with Mr. Ford about the directory structure a little bit. The reason I disagree is that a person’s directory structure is often highly personal, at least in terms of organization, and dictating directory structure on another’s machine is not my business.

I think following this file-naming convention obviates the need for more complex versioning systems and is especially important now that Office 365 / One Drive / SharePoint is moving into so many of our lives. We can have all the collaborative tools in the world, but naming files just isn’t intuitive nor is it built into the systems. Hence this handy guide, which will likely be ridiculed by all who see it and will subject me to much scorn within my lifetime, I am sure. But if those with whom I collaborate adopt this method, I will be very happy and my work will not be in vain.

Happy collaborating. I am a delight.