Editorially: Building a writing tool that embraces the Web

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 15, 2013

From The News Desk

It's easy to think of writing as something that flows through a writer, an already-perfect string of words and phrases that simply needs to be put to paper or screen. There's something romantic about a solitary writer channeling some paragon of creativity or another, able to have a masterpiece spring fully-formed out of his own efforts.

That's bullshit. Writing is rarely a solitary activity. Drafts may begin as the writer's personal project, but later revisions – the stuff people actually read – often pass through an editor, a friend or colleague, or anyone willing to read something and deny the writer's lunacy. Writing is collaborative, built by two or three or more sets of hands all poking and prodding  a draft until it's reached a final state. Editorially, a startup spread across New York, Boston, and San Francisco, wants to make that process a little easier.

Built by Mandy Brown, Jason Santa Maria, Ethan Marcotte, David Yee, and Rob Brackett, Editorially bills itself as "the best way to write, collaborate on, and talk about a text." The company elaborates on its founding premises in a blog post announcing its existence, saying:

We believe that the web is not merely another distribution pipeline, but a unique and deserving space for both reading and writing. Our goal is to support and encourage that writing process — from the first flash of inspiration all the way through to publication, and at every point in between.
Brown elaborated on this concept in an interview at Studiomates, a coworking space in Brooklyn. She says that a lot of the focus over the last few years has been on the Web as a publishing platform to the neglect of the Web as a place people write. Reading on the Web has received plenty of attention – Instapaper, Pocket, Readability,, and responsive Web design (popularized by Marcotte, not coincidentally) show that – but writing hasn't improved much.

Anyone who has used WordPress, Google Drive, or other Web-based writing tools knows what Brown means. PandoDaily's editorial staff relies on a combination of the first two services, and the experience is... less than stellar.

Collaborating on a post via WordPress requires constant communication to ensure that someone's changes aren't being overwritten by someone else ("Are you in the post? It says you're in the post." "Nope, WordPress is lying," or "Okay, I'm going to publish this," "No, wait, I'm still making changes" are common in hell Chatter) and is likely to have shaved a few years off of our collective lifespans.

Google Drive, which is touted as a true collaboration platform, suffers from a different problem: persistence. I mean that in two ways. The first is that, as much as an editor's help can make or break a post, writing with the knowledge that someone else could be watching every keystroke is amazingly stressful. The second is that Drive tends to bug out a little bit, particularly on poor Internet connections, which can be a problem if you don't notice and have been typing into nothing for the last minute or so.

Editorially solves this problem by providing an environment where writers can share their work with an editor when they feel that they've hit certain milestones. Rather than, say, having an editor watch every word appear in a document in real time, as with Google Drive, editors would step into a document when they're invited. Brown says that this is important, as it helps writers be solitary when they need to be and social when they choose.

Brown describes Google Drive's document editor as "[Microsoft] Word inside a Web browser," a tool that claims to be built for the Web that simply ports old, out-dated functionality into a modern viewport. Drive's "what you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG) editor and page breaks show just what she means. (Seriously, Google, page breaks? Those are only useful to students who have to meet a certain page requirement to satisfy a teacher.)

Unlike other writers or editors who moan about writing on the Web without doing something to fix it (guilty!), Brown and the rest of the Editorially team base their business on it. They've been working on Editorially since the summer of 2012, figuring out just what writers need from a tool built on and for the Web. That requires several moving parts, but the two pillars of Editorially seem to be the collaborative and Markdown-enabled writing experience.

I recently covered Markdown (and several other similar tools) in a post titled "The Web makes writing for machines just as important as writing for humans." In the post I – with a supporting argument excerpted from Brown's article "Babies and the bathwater" – argued that Web writers need to have at least a cursory understanding of how the Web works and what markup does to their text. I concluded:

Writing isn’t a strictly human experience anymore. Content is “read” as much by a Web browser or application as it is by its intended human audience, and learning how to “speak” to the machine is just as important as learning how to communicate with another human being. Hell, it may even be more important, as a single “>” out of place can wreak havoc on an entire Web page. (Anyone who has seen the PandoDaily homepage when a <b> or <i> isn’t closed knows what I’m talking about.)
Editorially, which was built with Markdown in mind, supports that idea – unsurprising, given Brown's convictions against WYSIWYG editors and for writers understanding basic markup. Neither Markdown nor Editorially support advanced HTML wizardry, but instead seek to equip writers with the bare necessities of Web publishing.

So much of our writing appears on the Web, on a multitude of devices and browsers, that writing the same way people wrote even a decade ago feels out of place. That WordPress, which powers many of the Web's most popular blogs and websites, has such piss-poor collaboration tools or that Google Drive, which is built by a company that prides itself on everything it's done for the Web, so closely resembles the bloated, anachronistic mess that is Microsoft Word, seems unacceptable.

It's time for something different. Editorially might not sweep writers off their feet or end their reliance on other tools, but hopefully it will at least start a conversation about what writing on the Web should look like. Publishing has changed. Our audiences have changed. Writing should change as well.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]