Editorially is the collaborative writing tool we've been waiting for

By Nathaniel Mott , written on March 27, 2013

From The News Desk

Testing a new writing app is often just a form of high-level procrastination, an excuse to fiddle with an unbroken workflow to avoid committing words to bits. Many apps don’t differentiate themselves beyond a font change here or a full-screen mode there, and eventually they all start to look the same.

But Editorially is different. The service, which launched in February and is currently available as an invite-only beta, feels like the most writer-friendly writing tool since Google Docs popularized browser-based writing. I’ve been using Editorially for the last week or so, and it’s quickly become my preferred writing app.

Before Editorially, many of my posts on PandoDaily started within Google Docs or WordPress’ built-in writing tool. As I wrote when Editorially was announced, neither solution is perfect: WordPress’ collaboration tools are a source of constant frustration to the entire PandoDaily newsroom, and while Google Docs feels like a step in the right direction, its status as “Microsoft Word in a Web browser” is off-putting as well. Though Word might have been the pinnacle of word processing when text was often printed and given life outside of the screen, it — and tools like it — are often too bloated and ill-equipped for Web writing.

Given how often I’m working on a post with one editor or another — Hi guys! — collaborative editing is perhaps the most important aspect of any writing tool I might use. Editorially is the first service to really embrace collaboration without making it seem like someone is watching every keystroke and instance of poor prose roll across the screen.

Inviting someone to edit a document in Editorially is less like the “opening of the kimono” seen with something like Google Docs and more like passing a piece of paper back and forth. Only one person can edit a document at a time; others can view a read-only version of the document and request control from the person currently editing the text, but otherwise Editorially allows writers to work without feeling as though they’re being watched.

Outside of the document collaborators are able to leave comments, see the document’s history and who has done what in the writing process, or change the document status from “Draft” to “Copyediting” or “Final,” among other choices. This is the type of meta-editing that would typically take place via email or Yammer, and it’s nice to have everything in one spot.

There are a few other things I’m fond of with Editorially, and a few things that I hope are changed at some point in the future. Here’s a brief sampling of both categories:

Things that rock:

  • Markdown support. I much prefer using Markdown, a lightweight syntax that allows users to italicize, bold, strikethrough, or otherwise edit text without a “what you see is what you get” editor or clunky HTML. (More on Markdown here.)
  • Version control. Editorially makes it easy to go back to previous versions of a document and see what has changed since then, whether that’s a specific turn of phrase or myriad additions an editor made to a piece. WordPress offers this functionality but it’s not as appealing as Editorially's implementation.
Things that’d be nice to change:
  • Smoother chat functionality. Though Editorially offers certain "social" features, my time with the service has mostly been spent notifying editors that a document is ready for them via Yammer, simply because the chat window is open. This bit would probably be hard to implement without creating just as much "noise" as other tools, but if it could be turned on and off it would help mitigate the jumping around I and my editors are doing now.
  • The ability to boot others out of a post. While Editorially does allow users to request access if someone else is editing their document, it would be nice to be able for a document owner to claim access if the other person doesn’t respond in a certain timeframe. Some people (I’m not going to name any names) might leave a tab open and forget that they’re still inside the document, for example, causing the other person to wonder why in the hell they can’t get into their own text.
Still, those are minor complaints in an otherwise fantastic product. If I didn’t know that Editorially was announced just a month ago and still in beta I’d never guess that it wasn’t a finished product. It’s the first writing tool I’ve used that really understands how writers and editors work together, and was clearly developed by a team passionate about writing for the Web.

Editorially is still young. Usually when something like that is mentioned in a review it's meant as a reminder (and insurance against an angry founder) that the product will evolve beyond its current iteration and that its imperfections should be overlooked. This time, however, I point out that Editorially is a new service as a form of praise for what the team has been able to build in a relatively short amount of time.

Between Editorially and Marquee, a soon-to-be-revealed publishing tool, it's an exciting time to be creating content for, and publishing on, the Web.