There are two types of writers in this world: Writers who enjoy working with other people and collaborating on their work and writers who have to suffer through the process of editing and working with someone else no matter how it makes them feel. An increasing number of services are trying to please both parties, allowing writers and editors and whoever to share a document and make it the best whatever-it’s-meant-to-be possible.
There’s Google Docs, which allows writers to work in a document being edited in real-time, multi-colored cursors bouncing around as words are added and removed and altered; Editorially, an asynchronous (not-real-time) service meant to improve the process of writing for the Web; and WordPress, the content management juggernaut that recently introduced “Post Locking” and immediately made the PandoDaily newsroom a happier place.
And now there’s Fidus Writer, a collaborative writing tool custom-built for academic writing. The service, which is being developed by a team of four and completely boot-strapped, is currently in an open beta and is planning to go version 1.0 sometime this summer.
The main difference between Fidus Writer and other collaborative writing tools is its support of LaTeX, a typesetting system used to format and prepare academic documents. It’s used to add footnotes and citations to a document, allow the insertion and proper formatting of scientific formulas and mathematic equations, and generate PDF versions of plain-text documents.
Fidus Writer was built, like Google Docs and Editorially, out of a frustation with Microsoft’s Word. Co-creator Johannes Wilm notes that many Word users simply change a text’s size, formatting, or position to mark a headline or annotation; as the Word document gets passed around, as so many of them do, this formatting can become increasingly wonky and meaningless.
“You can send around a Word file,” Wilm says. “But then you end up with the same problems that any other person has sending around Word files,” he adds, noting that collaborating via Word documents often leads to “changes that do not work well together.”
But, at the same time, Wilm says that LaTeX can be a bit unwieldy, especially for non-native English speakers like himself. So he and three others are building Fidus Writer to allow students, teachers, and other academically-minded writers to collaborate and use LaTeX without requiring any technical know-how or tedious formatting.
Anyone familiar with Google Docs or WordPress should feel comfortable using Fidus Writer. It sports a relatively sparse interface, the ability to track changes, and a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor with the usual formatting options — bold, italic, underline — as well as academic-focused features, such as a tool to insert citations and formulas.
Unlike Editorially, which emphasizes word-count and plain-text editing and has a much simpler interface, Fidus Writer feels a bit like a specialized Word that lives in the browser. Though this could be an issue for people used to writing for the Web, where page breaks are worthless and WYSIWYG editors can be a pain in the ass, it makes sense for academic writers who are used to actually, you know, printing their work.
Wilm says that he and the Fidus Writer team hope to exit beta some time this Summer; it’s currently feature-complete, minus the ability to add and edit images. At that point the group will figure out how it plans to monetize the academic market. Until then, Fidus Writer is largely a personal project that happens to be available to other people.
I’m told that Fidus means something like “a trick” or a “genius idea” in Danish. Whether the moniker is prophetic or simply waiting to become a reminder of the service’s intention remains to be seen.
[Image courtesy wikimedia]