After Editorially: The Search For Alternative Collaborative Online Writing Tools

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I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the best writers, be it your favorite authors or those that write for Smashing Magazine, don’t do it alone. Often, they work with an editor (or two), who will help them coalesce their words into something more compelling or easier to understand.

Having worked with several editors — and having been a technical editor myself — I’ve really come to appreciate this aspect of the writing process. Refinement is an essential aspect of any creative process. As refactoring code can make a program more logical and efficient, editing a text can allow an underlying idea to be more clearly stated, or make a piece more enjoyable to read.

I’m always on the look out for tools that can help me improve my craft. When I heard about Editorially1, a collaborative writing tool designed with Web writers in mind, I immediately signed up. It quickly became an indispensable tool. From blog posts to talk outlines, I was bugging friends to provide feedback on my documents, which Editorially made very easy for them to do.

It had its shortcomings, of course. Two people couldn’t edit a document at the same time, while its focus on Web-based writing curtailed its utility; trying to tech edit a book with multiple chapters pushed the app beyond its natural limits. With the announcement2 that the service will close at the end of May, I’m left looking for an alternative. Can anything fill the void left by its untimely demise?

What Makes A Good Online Editing Tool?

Before we explore the alternatives, let’s examine what makes for a good Web-based collaborative writing tool.

  • Distraction-free
    Writing can be a difficult task, with writers prone to bouts of extended procrastination. In the space of writing this article I’ve cleaned my flat, washed the dishes and ironed clothes I don’t even wear! That is to say, the fewer distractions a writing tool can offer, the better.

  • Markdown support
    Markdown is popular with writers precisely because it requires little interaction with a UI, allowing them to focus on their words instead. Any Markdown editor should therefore provide keyboard shortcuts (bold, italic, heading levels, and so on), with the resulting text appropriately rendered; if you’ve wrapped a word in single asterisks to denote emphasis, you’d expect it to be appear italicized. Text also needs to be easy to read. Font face, type size, leading, and measure should be chosen with care.

  • Annotation and discussion
    Writing is just half the story, and a true collaborative writing tool should aid the activities that follow: sharing, editing, discussion, and review. Editors, co-authors and other collaborators should be able to highlight or replace passages of text, and annotate these changes if required. When working with multiple contributors, everyone’s remarks should be easy to differentiate. Somewhere to hold a general discussion about the document is useful, too.

  • Document handling
    A document can go through several revisions, so versioning is important to ensure earlier thoughts can be reinstated or referred back to later. Writers and editors can be working on many documents at a time, so having a means of organizing files and indicating their status (draft, review, final, and so on) is essential.

  • Import and export
    Finally, any tool should fit in with various production workflows. That means lots of import options (email, Dropbox, upload, sanitized copy-and-paste from Word) and plenty of export options (plain text, PDF, HTML, and the rest).

The Contenders

With these requirements in mind, what products are available, and how do they compare? When I heard about the closure of Editorially, I asked on Twitter for some recommendations. Here are some of the suggestions I received:

GitHub

One of the first suggestions was GitHub3. While it is by no means designed for writing documents, for many writers on the Web, this is where their content will end up. Any text file can be edited directly within GitHub’s website, although the interface is more attuned to writing code than prose. Being based on Git, versioning comes free, although managing branches and pull requests may be a little convoluted.

GitHub4
GitHub’s editing interface isn’t designed for writing prose. (Large preview5)

Prose

If working directly with files in a GitHub repository appeals, you can improve the writing experience by using Prose6, a beautifully designed and open-source editor built by Development Seed7. Once you’ve authenticated with GitHub, the interface sits on top of your repos, providing an experience more suited to writing. This can be customized to expose any custom fields you have set up on a Jekyll or GitHub Pages install, too. Again, collaboration isn’t really a feature beyond that already provided by GitHub, but for small teams accustomed to that workflow, Prose may be a good fit.

Prose8
Prose layers an interface designed for writers on existing GitHub repos. (Large preview9)

Penflip

Taking the Git analogy a step further, Loren Burton created Penflip10, which he describes as a “GitHub for writers11“. If you’ve used GitHub, you will be immediately familiar with this tool. Much like GitHub repos, documents (termed projects in Penflip) are viewable publicly by default, but if you wish to make them private, you can pay to do so (prices currently start from $8 a month).

The editing interface uses the same one as open-sourced by Prose. This is a great decision, as Development Seed has created a fantastic editor that provides keyboard shortcuts and fully styled Markdown that is essential in such a tool.

Penflip12
With no means of annotating edits within a document, editors have to resort to surrounding their comments with square brackets. (Large preview13)

The editing experience is a little more complicated. Once a document is shared with another Penflip user, they will then have their own copy to which they can make edits. These changes are then submitted back to the master version, which the original author can accept, comment on, or ignore. This enforced Git-like workflow prevents more piecemeal collaboration, however, instead preferring an all-or-nothing affair with regards to editing.

Poetica

OK, let’s move on from Git-based workflows, and try something completely different. Poetica14, currently in private beta, has an incredibly innovative (dare I say, skeuomorphic) interface that uses a written proofreading notation that copyeditors will be familiar with.

From a technical standpoint it’s a marvel to look at, but in practice it can be a bit finicky to use. In terms of the features outlined in the introduction, Poetica lacks in many areas. There is no support for Markdown, no place to discuss changes, while heavy edits may overwhelm the text being reviewed (in a few cases, remarks overlapped one another).

Poetica15
Poetica has an incredibly polished and visually delightful interface, yet its utility may be limited to proofreading smaller texts. (Large preview16)

Poetica is clearly a very proficient tool, but I suspect its focus is much tighter than the other tools covered in this article. As a proofreading tool it could be really useful, but for longer works and more complex editing, writers may soon find its limits.

Draft

A popular suggestion was Draft17, developed by Nathan Kontny18. It’s easy to see why, given its uncluttered interface and a slew of features, including a “Hemingway19 mode”, the ability to send text to a simplification service, and the option to have documents copyedited by “college-educated staff” (15 minutes costs $8).

So much of what makes a good writing experience comes down to the details, though, and I can’t say I enjoyed using Draft. The distraction-free interface comes at the cost of lengthy menus and model windows, with the interface lacking consistency in these areas. You can customize the typeface and font size used within the editor; that said, I never felt the need to alter this in other apps, but I did here.

Draft20
Draft allows authors to review changes using an interface familiar to programmers — but is it well-suited to editors? (Large preview21)

When it comes to editing, changes are reviewed with a diff-like interface that I found truly baffling. Again, we see a tendency towards using programming concepts ill-suited to the free-flowing collaboration seen between writers and editors.

Typewrite

Typewrite22 aims to be “one of the best writing tools you’ve ever had”. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful, and competitors could learn a lot from Typewrite’s streamlined interface. Its Markdown editor is comparable to that of Prose and Penflip, although I found it to be quite buggy (inaccurate text selection and incorrect undos) but these issues can be easily ironed out. I also found it odd that the document title was missing from the UI, instead hidden behind a menu item. It’s the small things.

Typewrite23
Typewrite has a beautifully stripped down interface, although its Markdown editor is a little buggy. (Large preview24)

Perhaps Typewrite’s most interesting feature is its support for real-time editing, which allows multiple authors to work on the same text at the same time. This will be familiar to users of Google Docs (only excluded from this article due to its lack of Markdown support), although there is no means of knowing which author is making which changes. This feature also comes at the cost of any true editing features: there is no means of highlighting passages of text and adding remarks, for example.

As it currently stands, this tool is best suited to co-authoring rather than collaboration between an author and an editor or reviewer.

Onword

Also worthy of mention, Onword25 is a straightforward, stripped down editor created by Dan Eden26. It features no collaboration or editing tools, and its Markdown editor is fairly basic. And yet, I find the simplicity of this app compelling. If Dan were to expand its capabilities to provide a workflow for editing documents, I would be a happy man.

Onword27
Onword provides a very stripped down interface for writing. (Large preview28)

And The Winner Is…?

Before I sat down to write this article, I had only briefly glimpsed the homepages of the alternatives people had suggested to me. Each is beautifully designed and full of promise, but you should never judge a book by its cover (pun intended).

Only when examined in detail, do you realize the Herculean task that lies ahead of anyone wishing to write such an app — and for an audience so attuned to the details. Having reviewed the alternatives, I realize how much I took for granted in the design of Editorially, for which the highest praise that can be given is: it stayed out of the way.

In Editorially, we had a product for editors, by editors. In surveying the landscape of its competitors, we see many that provide wonderful, easy to use and distraction-free writing interfaces, but fail to understand the editing process. Mapping programming metaphors like branching and diffs seems like great ideas in abstract, but in practice impede the less structured act of review and refinement.

It’s important to remember that many of these tools are built as side-projects, whereas Editorially benefited from a full-time team working on the product for a year. There is plenty of promise in each of these apps, and with continued development we may see a worthy successor. Until that time, I suspect many will revert to whichever hacks and broken processes they were using previously: word-processors, emails, printouts and scribbled pen marks.

(og, il)

Front page image credits: Torque29.

Footnotes

  1. 1 https://editorially.com
  2. 2 http://stet.editorially.com/articles/goodbye
  3. 3 http://github.com
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/GitHub-large-opt.png
  5. 5 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/GitHub-large-opt.png
  6. 6 http://prose.io
  7. 7 http://developmentseed.org
  8. 8 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Prose-large-opt.jpg
  9. 9 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Prose-large-opt.jpg
  10. 10 http://penflip.com
  11. 11 http://madebyloren.com/github-for-writers
  12. 12 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Penflip-preview-large-opt.png
  13. 13 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Penflip-preview-large-opt.png
  14. 14 http://poetica.com
  15. 15 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Poetica-preview-large-opt.png
  16. 16 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Poetica-preview-large-opt.png
  17. 17 https://draftin.com
  18. 18 http://ninjasandrobots.com
  19. 19 http://www.hemingwayapp.com
  20. 20 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Draft-large-opt.png
  21. 21 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Draft-large-opt.png
  22. 22 http://typewrite.io
  23. 23 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Typewrite-large-opt.jpg
  24. 24 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Typewrite-large-opt.jpg
  25. 25 http://onword.co
  26. 26 http://daneden.me
  27. 27 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Onword-large-opt.jpg
  28. 28 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Onword-large-opt.jpg
  29. 29 http://torquemag.io/my-experience-of-editorially-2/

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Paul is a graphic designer and front-end web developer based in Brighton, England. Currently at the Guardian, he was previously a senior designer at Clearleft where he worked for organisations such as UNICEF, NBC Universal and eBay and Mozilla. When not writing about design, travel and politics, he can be found building Bradshaw’s Guide, a digitised version of George Bradshaw’s victorian railway handbook.

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  1. 1

    Assuming you are already using Google products, why not simply use Google Docs?

    • 2

      Google Docs lacks the versioning and editorial features that apps like Editorially performed so well. And it doesn’t do a great job of distraction-free writing.

      • 3

        The article mentions why Google Docs missed out – lack of Markdown support.
        The versioning in Google Docs is some of the best I’ve ever seen. In native google docs, it is possible to fast forward and rewind time to see all edits and changes. This has amazing granularity.
        Yes it lacks accept / reject changes, but I think the history control.
        For non-native docs, uploading new versions to replace the old is supported. This is handy, and the best thing is that the new version seamlessly replaces the old, so people who are passively consuming the document automatically get the new version without needing to save an email attachment or update a bookmark.
        I like the fact that this functionality is available in other Google file types, for example I have had good success with coordinating development, testing, UAT, bug fixing, acceptance and release of medium and large IT projects using collaborative spreadsheets.

    • 6

      Hi Chris,

      While Google Docs lacks Markdown support and isn’t particularly distraction-free, it does indeed have some compelling features, especially with regards to real-time collaboration. That said, I’m no fan of Google or its products, and as this article was written from my own perspective, Google Docs never really featured. Sorry if that offends… I think Google will do okay without being mentioned though ;-)

    • 7
    • 8

      Microsoft’s SharePoint is one of the best online collaboration tools in the market. SharePoint offers many good features for online meetings, online calendar sharing, managing wiki, document management, task management, blogging, team management and more.You can try it for free with http://www.cloudappsportal.com/sharepoint/free-online-calendar/.

  2. 9

    Michael Schofield

    April 17, 2014 3:54 pm

    Editorially :( :( :( :(

  3. 10

    Sad to see that editorially has shutdown!! 12th February!
    http://stet.editorially.com/articles/goodbye/

  4. 11

    Interesting collection of services. I loved Editorially too and will miss it. But after i got an invite now i started really enjoying DBook:
    http://www.dbook.biz/
    https://www.facebook.com/dbook.org < Lots of screenies here
    It may has a slithly different focus but i love it. You can brainstorm, structure your content, taking notes easily and finalize it. Of course it uses Markdown too :).
    Ok it isn't perfect yet and under heavy development but they did a nice start. Hopefully it is soon available for everyone.

  5. 14

    What about Etherpad? It supports real-time collaborative editing and versioning.

  6. 15

    Michael Aufreiter

    April 21, 2014 8:36 am

    Hi Everybody!

    I’m the developer behind the original version of Prose.io. http://developmentseed.org/blog/2012/june/25/prose-a-content-editor-for-github/

    Since 2010 I’m also working on a bigger project dedicated to open digital publishing, Substance.io. It aims to move beyond Markdown and simulating paper. I think it shouldn’t be missing from that list.

    http://substance.io/composer/

    Key features:

    – Works infrastructure-less
    – Native app for OSX / Windows (soon Linux)
    – Simple review workflow
    – Collaborate on a doc by using a cloud-drive for syncing docs
    – Works great with Git versioning too (https://github.com/substance/docs/tree/master/composer-manual)
    – Generate self-contained web-publications
    – Self-publish to any webspace
    – Template support
    – Privacy and full control over your content (share only what you want to share)
    – Web-native document format (JSON-based)

    We are working on:

    – Exposing Versions to the UI
    – UI for performing merges of different branches (e.g. when people work offline simultaneously)
    – Online collab using a hub that can run on your own infrastructure

    See: http://substance.io/articles/everybody-needs-a-space-for-free-expression/

    We are a two-men team working full time on the project.

    It would be great to hear some feedback. We are also looking for volunteer designers who help with template development.

    — Michael

  7. 16

    You should mention Quip there as well

    https://quip.com/

  8. 17

    Gather Content is also a good tool : https://gathercontent.com/

    • 18

      Hello Franck,

      I’ve used Gather Content before, but would suggest its remit is slightly different from the sort of apps I was looking at. Still, its an interesting and useful tool.

  9. 19

    Just to add to the list of editors that were not mentioned ;-) This one is specifically for scholarly authors: https://www.authorea.com

    • 20

      Hi Alberto,

      I considered including Authorea in this article, but I found its interface far from distraction free (for example, content divided into separate blocks) and its seemed tightly scoped to writing academic/science papers which have their own specific requirements. As the comments here suggest, there are lots of different apps to choose from, and I suspect everyone will have a favourite!

  10. 21

    Adriano Ferrari

    April 22, 2014 2:29 pm

    While still lacking version history, Gingko (http:// gingkoapp.com) is worth checking out simply because it’s so complete different from anything else out there.

    Think of it as a mix between an outliner and an index card board, with markdown support & real-time collaboration.

    • 22

      Hi Adriano,

      Gingko looks interesting. I’m not sure I’d use it for writing articles, but it could be very useful when preparing for a talk or presentation. Thanks for the recommendation!

  11. 23

    I changed my notes to text based locally on my Ubuntu, so they can be synced to github repo, sync to my android phone us SGIT application. I also like gist of github, https://app.gistboxapp.com could be a great app to edit the notes from gist.

  12. 24

    Good to read about alternative collaborative online writing tools. Also check out Collatebox. It’s good as well and worked for me

  13. 25

    I heard about Collatebox too as a mobile first asset management solution. I think it uses spreadsheets and stuff ? ok will check it out

  14. 26

    Hi,

    Nice write-up.

    can I make another suggestion?

    How about sublime text? It has some nice markdown plugins and a distraction free mode.
    In addition it also has some git intergration plugins too.

    For versioning I use bitbucket, because it provides private git repositories for free.

  15. 27

    The distraction-free editor at https://writeapp.me (aka Write.app) has gotten a decent amount of press and has been around for over 3 years now. It’s what I use for any kind of writing I want to organize and remember for a while. I think it fits most of the criteria set about here including mobile support at writeapp.me/mobile and I read somewhere that the creator is adding support for Critic Markup which is something I’m not sure if a lot of people have heard of yet.

  16. 28

    One more plug for https://gathercontent.com. We use it religiously with clients and entire teams of writers/editors. It’s not exactly what you are describing in this article, but regardless we have found it to be an amazing tool.

    GatherContent can feature custom workflows, custom structure, etc. Plus they are very actively developing it so there are new features and updates regularly.

  17. 29

    Looks like editorially just shut down due to lack of adoption. You have a second choice?

  18. 30

    You might consider Weeva (www.weeva.co). They have free, cloud based software that is free and rather easy to use collaboratively. They also have the ability to take your finished project and turn it it into a professional, high quality book, which they design and edit.

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