When there is no locking--the default for CVS--work files are always writable; you do not need to do anything before you begin to edit a file. The status indicator on the mode line is `-' if the file is unmodified; it flips to `:' as soon as you save any changes in the work file.
Here is what C-x C-q does when using CVS:
These rules also apply when you use RCS in the mode that does not require locking, except that automatic merging of changes from the master file is not implemented. Unfortunately, this means that nothing informs you if another user has checked in changes in the same file since you began editing it, and when this happens, his changes will be effectively removed when you check in your version (though they will remain in the master file, so they will not be entirely lost). You must therefore verify the current version is unchanged, before you check in your changes. We hope to eliminate this risk and provide automatic merging with RCS in a future Emacs version.
In addition, locking is possible with RCS even in this mode, although it is not required; C-x C-q with an unmodified file locks the file, just as it does with RCS in its normal (locking) mode.
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