Get The Embarrassing Oops! Out of Memos


After an argument with a client, I drafted a memo that angrily pointed out why he was not only wrong but stupid. After reviewing it, I realized the memo was not a good idea, so I erased it and rewrote it, diplomatically explaining my position. But somehow, when he received the memo, it displayed both versions. Boy, was my face red! We’ve since worked out our differences, but what happened to cause the erased version of the letter to be displayed? And more important, how can I prevent that from happening again?

What happened is not that uncommon. In fact, several political upheavals and even lawsuits were triggered when ill-advised e-mails revealed hidden text—material that was supposedly edited out before it was sent.

What we’re dealing with here is information in e-mails and word-processing documents—collectively called metadata— which can include anything from format codes, added Comments and Tracked Changes , and text that has been formatted as hidden font. All this is designed to stay hidden beneath the visible part of the document unless commanded to appear—we’ll get to that later. But sometimes, for some mysterious reason, ordinary text that was normally deleted suddenly reappears when the document is printed or when the file is converted into a different format, such as Adobe PDF.

This situation is not limited to Word (Outlook e-mails can be written in Word); many applications, including the Web programming language HTML, are hidden, too, but the problem is more apparent, common and potentially dangerous in Word.

Some years ago Microsoft developed a tool to erase such data before a file was distributed, and it has since built such a tool into Office XP. To evoke the tool, click on Tools, Options and the Security tab and place checks in the boxes under Privacy options (see screenshot below).

When those options are checked and you try to save a document that used Track Changes, a pop-up advisory appears (see screenshot). If you click on Tell Me More, you’ll be presented with a full discourse on the subject. If you click on OK, the Track Changes will be saved—but now you are forewarned.

As an added safety measure, command Word to always show hidden text by clicking on Tools, Options and the View tab. Under Show and Formatting marks, place a check next to Hidden text (see screenshot below). Don’t check any other boxes under Formatting marks or your document will be filled with dots between words and paragraph marks (the backward P).

Despite all this talk of risk, don’t disparage hidden text; it has its practical uses. For example, you may want to distribute a memo that contains technical sections that some people don’t need to see. Instead of drafting two memos, just format the technical text as hidden by highlighting it, clicking in Format, Font, and checking the Hidden box (see screenshot).

To toggle between showing hidden text and hiding it, first uncheck the Hidden text box in the Options screen, and either place the Show/Hide tool in your toolbar or press Ctrl+Shift+*.


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