Sharing a document - email vs OneDrive?

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Which way is best? Share a document by email or cloud?

There are two main ways to share a document that needs editing or proofreading. Send it via email and get a revised document back or post to a cloud service like OneDrive, Dropbox or SharePoint. But which is best?

In this article we’ll look at the pros and cons of each option. As usual, there’s no ‘best’ choice – rather what works for you.


For simplicity it’s hard to go past email. You send a document (with Track Changes on) out, it appears in someone’s Inbox, they edit the document and email it back.

As long as the sender hasn’t changed the document after sending it out there’s no problem. The receiver accepts the returned document as the latest version.

If there’s been changes after the document was emailed out use Merge Documents in Word to bring all the changes into one combined document.

Email sharing becomes unwieldy for collaboration with more than two people. You can arrange a ‘conga line’ via email where the document passes from person-to-person via email but that can be time consuming and hard to track down.

Email sharing is very popular despite the existence of ‘better’ options in Office. It’s simple, familiar and the document comes with overall comments or instruction in the email. When combined with secure email, the privacy/hacking/spying risk is reduced.

Cloud sharing

Sharing via the cloud is, on the face of it, a better option. It’s certainly promoted heavily by Microsoft and their selling partners. But there’s a lot of resistance to its use.

Microsoft would have us believe that ‘everyone’ is flocking to OneDrive and SharePoint but it’s not so and we’ll see some of the reasons why.

Most people get confused by any of these sharing methods. The sender/owner of the document is left with the unenviable task of teaching document collaboration or ‘pushing’ against resistance to anything ‘new’ with computers. “Why can’t you just email it?” is the common refrain.

Let’s look at a ‘simple’ example of document sharing via OneDrive (the service formerly known as SkyDrive). Office 2013 has the best OneDrive integration but you can upload and share using other versions of Office (or upload separately from Office).

OneDrive (SkyDrive) and SharePoint are the best options for sharing Microsoft Office documents because you have the additional option of editing in the browser with Office Web Apps.

OneDrive lets you have a shared folder where the contents are always shared with people you nominate. But there’s no way for people to know when the contents of a shared folder has changed so individual email/IM messages have to be sent to start each document collaboration.

Sharing / Collaboration

The people you allow can open and change the document. They can do that by:

  • Open the document in Office (Word, Excel or PowerPoint). Office 2013 and Office 2010 can open OneDrive/Skydrive documents directly.
  • Go to OneDrive online in your web browser and open the document in the Web App to edit directly online.
  • Download the document, editing then upload the revised document – not recommended because other people may have edited the document in the meantime.

It’s not fair to expect document owners to do Microsoft’s job in teaching and justifying online collaboration. The main benefits of online collaboration are for the document owner, not the other collaborators, so Microsoft needs to do a better job explaining just why collaboration is better but how end users can use it.


Frankly, discussion and communication is where document sharing and collaboration falls down. We have plenty of communication options (email, text messaging, video etc.) but none of them have been thoughtfully integrated into document collaboration.

For Office documents you have comments within documents. In Office 2013 that was enhanced so there’s replies/discussion within each comment.

What’s lacking is provision for an overall discussion in each document. Somewhere for the document owner to explain what’s needed from the collaboration like:

Here’s the draft plan for marketing in Q2 2014. I’m not happy with it and would appreciate any ideas you have. Please add any ideas or put them in this discussion. All edits to be done by 28 Feb. Thanks Fred.


This document is ‘done’ but I’d like everyone to CAREFULLY check for accuracy of the figures quoted and my shakey grasp of English grammar. Deadline 28 Feb. Thanks Bruce.

Sure, these messages can be sent via email or separate IM but they’d be better within the document. At present the only workaround is a comment right at the top of the document.

You can have Instant Messaging discussions while editing a document but they are stored separate from the document. People who are offline during the discussion can’t see the IM that occurred in their absence.

There’s no provision for the document owner to set a deadline within the document. Nor is there any way for each collaborator to indicate that have finished their edits.

It’s also hard to know, from looking at the document, whether a collaborator has finished their edits or checks.  Ideally each collaborator should have a short overall comment area in the document for remarks like:

Bruce: “Partly done … off to lunch and then the marketing meeting”

Andrea: “All done … looks great except for the para’s I’ve commented.”

It’s little wonder that many people and organizations continue to collaborate via email. They can maintain an overall discussion and level of control not possible in most cloud collaboration.


And there’s also the privacy problem. Despite Microsoft’s protests, it’s clear that anything stored in the cloud on OneDrive etc is vulnerable to access by unauthorized people or organizations.

Either Microsoft itself or government agencies can get the documents without your knowledge. At the very least they get ‘meta-data’ on the document like name, who accesses it, when, where from etc.

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