Prove your writing is not AI-generated by tracking changes in your docs

Showing your work is not just for math problems anymore.
hands typing on laptop keyboard

Tracking changes is a simple way to show that a document is all your own work. (Kaitlyn Baker / Unsplash)

AI chatbots such as ChatGPT and Google Bard have now reached a level where they can write emails, essays, and entire books. There’s an ongoing debate on how good that content actually is, but these platforms can certainly give a passable impression of a human being when it comes to creating copy.

That’s a problem when it comes to proving you wrote a particular document, whether you’re submitting a college essay or entering a short story competition. Right now, we don’t have a reliable way of detecting AI-generated text (ChatGPT can’t tell if ChatGPT has written something), but there are some options you can explore.

One is to track the changes to your document as you create it in your program of choice. It’s not a foolproof option, as you could still manually type out any output from ChatGPT or Bard, but it does at least show whoever’s reading your document how it came together, if they ever want to check.

Google Docs

Every document you create on Google Docs tracks changes by default, and you can’t turn this feature off. The idea is that previous versions of the file are always available to you, should you need to go back. Click the version history button in the top right corner (an arrow around a pair of clock hands) to see previous edits and revert back to them if needed.

Via File, Version history, and Name current version you’re able to manually set a point in the version history and give it a name—you might want to do this after the end of every chapter in a novel, or every day in a report, for example. Google Docs labels unnamed versions only with the time and date, so this makes previous versions easier to find.

[Related: OpenAI’s newest ChatGPT update can still spread conspiracy theories]

When it comes to passing on your work to someone else, you need to use the built-in Google Docs sharing feature: Click Share on the right to grant access or to get a link you can copy and paste into an email or chat box. If you save your work as a Word document or a PDF, the version history won’t be transferred over to the file.

Note that whoever you’re sharing your document with will have to log into a Google account to access it, and you’ll have to give them Editor permissions too. If the other person opens the document anonymously via a link, or only has Viewer or Commenter permissions, then won’t have access to the version history, and won’t be able to see that the document is all your own work.

Microsoft Word

There are two ways to approach change tracking in Word, depending on how you’re sharing your file. The more traditional option is where you’re emailing a Word document to someone else: open the Review tab on the ribbon menu and click Track Changes, which then highlights every change that you make to the document.

By default, the software will underline new text and color it red, but you can change this by clicking All Markup on the Review tab: Choose Simple Markup to have edits highlighted in the margin rather than in the body of the text, or No Markup to turn off highlighting altogether. Whether the highlights are visible or not, you can click Reviewing Pane (or Reviewing on macOS) on the Review tab to see all the document revisions. The person reading your work will be able to see all of the edits you made to the document in the same way, demonstrating it’s your own work.

The second option is to save your Word file to your OneDrive account and share it via a link, which is the more modern, Google Docs-style approach. While the Track Changes option is still available, you can also click the name of the document at the top of the window, then Version History, to view (and revert to) previous versions of the document.

Go to File, then Share, and you can generate a link for the file to pass on: Make sure the recipient has editing privileges and can sign in with their own Microsoft account. They’ll then be able to access the version history of a document by clicking on its title, whether they open it on the web or in Word for desktop. As long as the file is in your OneDrive account, version history will be available.

Apple Pages

Those using Apple Pages for their documents have the same options as with Word. To turn on the track changes feature, choose Edit and Track Changes. This introduces a new toolbar—you can use the options on it to set how Pages highlights changes and review edits.

When you share the document via File and Share, as long as you keep the file in the native Apple Pages format, the recipient will be able to see the same track changes information. If they have editing privileges, they’ll also be able to accept or reject the changes you’ve made.

[Related: Become a better writer with these online tools]

Version history is perhaps an easier option to show your work, but there are caveats. You have to save your file to your iCloud account so it’s available on the web, and the person you’re sharing it with will only be able to see versions created after you’ve shared the file. In other words, you want to share the file—via File and Share—as soon as you create it, so the other person is able to see all of the versions that build up.

If you’re using Pages on a Mac, open the File menu then Revert To and Browse All Versions to see previous versions of the document (and revert back to them if needed). If you’re using Pages on iCloud on the web, click the three dots (top right) and then Browse All Versions. Anyone you’re sharing the document with has the same options available to them, as long as you’ve granted them editing privileges.