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A Deep Look at New Collaborative Writing Tools Editorially, Draft and Penflip

Danny Schreiber
Danny Schreiber / January 15, 2014

Update Feb. 13: Editorially announced it'll be shutting down its service May 30. For two alternatives besides those mentioned in this post, see Typewrite and StackEdit.

Writing is a major part of our operations at Zapier. Though you might not make that assumption for a startup whose product is an app integration platform, there’s plenty of writing on a daily basis. And not the kind that gets published privately. Quite the opposite, actually.

In June, for example, we all pitched in to author over 278 pages of support documentation. Earlier this month, our developers did the same but for our freshly launched Zapier Developer Platform. And, of course, here on the blog we publish around 2,500 words weekly.

A Need for Collaboration

A year ago, when the Zapier team was just four people, writing was taken up by whoever had the time or knew the topic at hand well. Now we’re a team of 10, working together on projects while trying implement processes into every part of the company. With that in mind, it’s time we selected a collaborative writing tool that we all subscribed to using. After all, we use collaborative tools for a majority of our operations.

For customer support, we use collaborative support desk software Help Scout. For software development, we use collaborative source control tool GitHub. For project management, we use collaborative task tool Trello. For account access, we use collaborative password management software LastPass.

So what’s our go-to collaborative writing tool? Right now, we don’t have just one. Instead, we have three favorites: grandaddy Google Docs and up and comers Editorially and Draft. Those latter two, believe it or not, launched within one month of each other last year—February 12 and March 12, respectively. And maybe making 2013 a bumper crop for this kind of online app, collaborative writing tool Penflip launched, too.

As the copy editor on the team, I’ve taken on the task of taking a deep look at these four new writing tools and presenting our team with the overview. Hours of research ahead of me, I thought it would be best to offer this as a post here, as well, to help you out if you’re in the process of selecting the same tool.

What We Want from a Collaborative Writing Tool

Like picking out a car or choosing a calendar app, each of us is attracted by a certain look and style that makes us feel comfortable. This couldn’t be more true when deciding on a writing tool where you know you’ll be spending hours upon hours drafting, editing and, hopefully, seamlessly collaborating to get to the finished product. But beyond the look, functionality will be key.

Here are the 10 characteristics we’ll look at to assess the tools:

  • User Interface: One that offers a minimal design but yet just the right amount of easy-to-reach features, too. Of course, personal preferences will be in play here.
  • Editing and Version Control: The most important of these 10 as it’ll be our reason for collaboration. With regards to version control, we’re looking for the ability to keep the master document intact but allow collaborators to “check-out” the doc and submit edits. The owner then should have the option to accept or ignore each edit and merge the accepted ones into the master doc.
  • Markdown Support: We use Markdown across the board—from support documentation to our blog posts, so this is a must.
  • Real-Time Co-Authoring and Chat Google Docs made us fall in love with the ability to work in the same doc at that same time, which of these tools offer that feature, too?
  • Notifications: Just two of us have writing on our minds everyday, so how will collaborators stay in the loop?
  • File Management: We’ll have at least a dozen documents each month so keeping these organized will be important to our workflow.
  • Import and Export: This is maybe the least important feature for us as we’re generally starting from scratch in the doc, but it’s good to note either way.
  • Mobile and Offline Support: Also not a big use case by us, but great to know if available just in case.
  • Cost: We’re happy to pay for software, but it’s worth noting the cost of each.
  • The Extras: What more does each offer?

An Overview

We’ll take a deep look at each tool, but before doing so here's an overview of some of the features the apps offer as compared to Google Docs.

Table

The Deep Look

Editorially

Editorially Editorially founder and CEO Mandy Brown described herself as a “design-minded writer or editor” in an interview last December with 10,000 Words. “With so many people finding publishing as part of their job responsibilities, we felt there was a strong need for a web-native, editorial tool that can not only help people do their work, but help them get better at it through revision and discussion,” she told the online publication.

Her creation should bode well with Markdown lovers and teams wanting to have a discussion during the editing process. “This is not just another text editor: it’s an ecosystem for the writing process,” the site proclaimed at this time of its launch last February

User Interface User Interface: Editorially offers a minimal, plain text editor with an ever-present toolbar that features six navigation links—menu, home, versions timeline, collaborators, activity and discussion. The menu is where you’ll find word and character count, status of your document—draft, reviewing, revising, copyediting or final—and three view options—editor, preview and HTML. It also presents handy shortcuts such as New document and Help along with ways to export the document.

EditingVersions Editing and Version Control: You can give others access to the document with one of two roles: reviewer or editor. Reviewers can read and comment. Editors can read, comment and edit. This role feature is unique among the three tools. Editing’s two focal points are Versions and Discussions. Versions are automatically created after a user makes edits and exits a document. To see the edits, you’d need to compare the two versions. All changes by editors are saved without approval by the master document owner, but at any time you are able to revert back to an earlier version—this is Editorially’s take on version control, not quite “check-out” method we were looking for but close. You can also manually create a new version, which can then include a note. Discussions come about by highlighting a section of text, clicking “new discussion” and starting a thread in the right-hand sidebar. Threads can be “closed” and the Discussions feature itself, including highlighted text, can be hidden to keep the document area clean.

Co-Authoring Real-Time Co-Authoring and Chat: Editorially doesn’t support either. Instead, if two or more users open the document at the same time, the one with it open first has editing privileges and the others are given a read-only document. This “request control” feature is unique to Editorially.

Markdown Support: Editorially supports Markdown and it’ll style parts of it, such as bold and italics, during document creation. If you paste text into Editorially, it’ll paste it as Markdown. This in-document styling feature and pasting as Markdown aren’t offered by the other two tools.

Notifications: Editorially provides the most notifications of the group:

  • Activity digests - daily digest of activity on your documents
  • Activity comments - Instant notification of activity comments
  • Discussion comments - Instant notification of discussion comments

File management File Management: After logging in, you immediately see all your docs, with sorting filters by tags, status, date modified and docs owned by you. From this dashboard you’re able to export, delete, archive or change the status of each doc without going into it. Adding tags and stipulating a status are unique to Editorially.

Import and Export: You can import plain text files, and export both HTML and Markdown files. You can also send a document to your WordPress blog or archive it in Dropbox.

Mobile and Offline Support: Editorially features responsive design making it accessible—but not roomy—on a mobile device.

Cost: Free (currently in beta)

The Bluths

The Extras: My favorite Editorially feature is its unique image preview when using the Markdown image syntax.

Draft

Draft “Too many inconvenient things get in the way of good writing,” founder Nathan Kontny said at the time of Draft’s launch last March. “Finding previous versions of work is difficult. Google Docs and iCloud store arbitrary fragments making it impossible to find an old cohesive draft.”

To combat this collaboration mess, Kontny took inspiration from Git—a popular version control system used by software developers—but simplified it. The editing process he landed on brings the user to an entirely new workspace that lines the master copy up next to the collaborator’s edited version and allows the owners to accept or ignore each edit.

Kontny launched with other goodies, too, such as a professional copy editing service on demand in the app. If you’re a writer obsessed with version control and have an appreciation for add-ons, such as a Chrome Extension, you’ll love Draft.

User Interface User Interface: Plain text against a solid color background is about as simple as you can get and that’s just what Draft offers. It gives you the ability, however, to customize all four characteristics—background color and font type, size and color. This customization is unique to Draft. Each corner contains a navigation link (clockwise from top left): home, draft versions, word/character count and saved status. The Home menu gives you links to settings, help and formatting tips. It’s also where you name your document, preview, export or invite collaborators.

Editing Editing and Version Control: You can either copy and share a unique link or invite collaborators via email. When the collaborator views your doc they’ll be able to make edits and add comments and then submit the changes with an optional note. You’re given a notification of the changes and taken to new workspace that shows your collaborator’s edits and your master version side-by-side. You’re then able to accept or ignore each edit individually, eventually merging the accepted edits into your current revision. You’re also able to add new versions manually, to save a point in the work where you may want to return.

Real-Time Co-Authoring and Chat: Neither feature exists in Draft, but thanks to true version control, multiple users can edit a document at the same time because the tool creates a new version for each collaborator.

Markdown Support: Draft supports Markdown, but it won’t style your text in the text editor, instead you’ll need to preview it to do so.

Notifications: You’ll receive emails when edits are submitted by a collaborator. If you’re part of shared folder, emails will come for folder activity, too. Draft's shared folders feature is unique among the three tools.

File Management File Management: Draft presents items you have access to as a simple list, with links to view, share or edit. It also offers folders, which can have collaborators who get access to whatever file is in the folder.

Import and Export: Draft can import the largest variety of text files, including Evernote , and it can export quite the range, too: text or markdown, HTML, Word or Google Doc, PDF, Kindle and EPUB. After connecting an account, it can also publish directly to Wordpress, Tumblr, Twitter, Blogger, LinkedIn, Mailchimp, Buffer, iDoneThis or a WebHook URL. Draft leads the way of the three in publishing options.

Mobile and Offline Support: Draft offers a responsive design, so it’s usable on mobile but performs best on a computer.

Cost: Free but there's an optional subscription ($3.99 per month or $39.99 per year) that offers perks such as first access to new features.

Analytics The Extras: Draft’s analytics reports are such a cool idea for a writing tool. Seeing just how many total words you wrote that week can be a satisfying number. On top of that feature, Draft offers the most extras of the three tools:

  • The "Ask a Professional" Button - You can send your document to a staff of reviewers to get suggested edits. Draft is the "Uber for copy-editing".
  • Chrome Extension - If you’re on a page where you’re going to write, such as reddit or Facebook, use the Draft Chrome Extension to open a new tab and author the content in Draft. You’ll then be able to paste it back onto the other page.
  • Transcription Document Type - Draft has a document type designed to make easier to transcribe audio or video

Penflip

Penflip The “GitHub for everyone else” is what founder Loren Burton called it back in August when he first wrote about his new creation. The idea: bring the Git workflow to editing writing. Burton explains:

The GitHub Flow is a workflow built on top of Git that goes like this:

  • A main (master) branch is considered stable
  • Updates are done on separate branches off of master
  • When an update is ready to be merged in, a 'pull request' is created
  • The pull request is reviewed by a team member, noting any changes that should be made
  • When the pull request is approved, the branch containing updates is merged into master

“It's not a stretch to imagine the usefulness of a similar platform for non-developers—authors, teachers, students—though as much as I search, I can't seem to find one. So I'm building it myself,” he said.

What he’s built is the newest of the three tools, only launching in alpha this past October, which Burton said from there it “just snowballed and got bigger and bigger.”

If you’re a fan of GitHub or intrigued by its popularity among developers, you should give Penflip a go. Like GitHub, it also allows you to make a work in progress public, opening collaboration up to any interested party.

User Interface 1 User Interface

User Interface: Before you dive into writing or editing, you’re presented with the project page—Penflip calls them “projects” instead of “documents”—where you’ll either proceed to editing, go to project settings or retrieve a link to share with collaborators. Opening up the project workspace you’ll find a clean, white area bordered on two sides with navigation links and tools. On top rests a formatting toolbar and breadcrumb trail—two unique assets of the three apps—and navigation bar, and the right side offers options to preview, save new revisions, save new versions and toggle between a dark gray and the current white background. Like Draft, there’s an always present word counter. Penflip is the only tool that highlights hyperlinks.

Merge Request Editing Editing and Version Control: Penflip offers the same version control approach as Draft, but with a bit more complexity. Sharing of a document with a collaborator is done by sending a unique link, which creates a new version of the document for the receiver. After that user is done editing, they’re able to submit changes to the master version by initiating a Merge Request. The project owner controls the merge requests and they can accept, ignore or comment to suggest more changes. If the owner accepts the Merge Request, then the master version is updated.

Notifications: Email notifications are sent to collaborators when a project owner accepts, ignores or comments on their Merge Request.

File Management File Management: Penflips My Projects tab simply shows all projects you’ve created.

Markdown Support: Penflip supports Markdown and displays it when previewing your doc.

Import and Export: You’re not yet able to import, but you can export from as a PDF, Word doc, ePub, HTML, text or the Git source.

Mobile and Offline Support: Penflip offers responsive design but like the other two, it’s pretty cramped for mobile, working better on a computer. It’s the only tool of the three that offers offline support. It doesn’t do through its own app , however, it takes advantage of Git and allows you to use an offline editor like GitHub’s desktop app.

Cost: Free (currently in alpha)

Public or Private The Extras: The coolest and most unique characteristic of Penflip is the ability to make your project public or private, which could allow for collaboration you didn’t expect.

Other Options

Quip Outside of these very focused collaborative writing tools, 2013 also saw the emergence of more modern day word processor apps, such as Quip. So if none of the above appeal to you and you’re still looking for a collaborative writing tool, Quip, which offers mobile apps and offline access, could be your answer. There’s also Authorea, which is tailored more for technical documents, and apps Poetica and Marquee look promising, too, but both have yet to launch. And, of course, there’s always Google Docs.

What collaborative writing tool do you suggest? Please share your choice in the comments below.

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