Collaborate with Others Over the Internet
Do you ever do group writing exercises? Are you co-authoring a novel? Do you want to put together a compilation of essays, short stories, or poems?
The web makes working with other writers and/or clients easier than ever. Gone are the days of posting typescripts of chapters back and forth between co-authors — now you can log in and instantly see what your collaborator has written or changed. And if you don’t like what you see, you can easily check the history of your documents, reverting to earlier versions if something goes horribly awry.
There are three basic approaches to web-based collaboration:
- Live interaction: You and your collaborator(s) gather around a virtual whiteboard and add, edit, and delete in real time.
- Online revision: You work on a document online and give permission to selected others to see and modify your work.
- Document management: You upload a file (or create one) and allow others to download it, edit it, and re-upload their changes.
For writers, the easiest and most likely is online revision, but let’s look at solutions for all three.
Live collaboration systems allow several authors to gather virtually around a single document, discuss it, and make changes that are instantly seen by others (usually highlighted a different color for each writer). The technology isn’t very advanced, yet, but there are a few applications that offer this ability.
- Gobby: Intended for programmers, Gobby is a free program that allows several users to make changes and see others changes. Each user’s changes are highlighted in the color they select. The bottom pane is a live chatroom. The file format is text-only, so you can’t add formatting like bold or italics. Runs on Windows, Linux, and OS X.
Gobby is still under development, so expect to see improvements along the way.
- SynchroEdit: SynchroEdit is an online collaboration space, allowing several authors to work on a document at the same time. Each author’s changes are highlighted a different color. Allows basic formatting (bold, italic, text align, headers). Includes a chat pane in the lower right hand corner. When the document is finished, you can have it emailed to you; at the moment, it comes in the body of your email. Hopefully they’ll add text exporting to typical file formats as they develop it.
SynchroEdit is also under development, and at the moment runs on any operating system but can only be accessed using Firefox or its derivatives.
Websites that allow you to invite others to revise work have become quite common as the technology has matured. Almost any online word processor will allow this, though two users cannot work on the same document at the same time (unlike the live systems described above). Here, I’ll focus on only a few.
- Google Docs: Google Docs is the current king of the online word processing space. Documents can be uploaded or created online, and you cna invite any number of partners to view or edit your documents. Clicking the “Revisions” tab will show you all previous versions of a document. When finished, the document can be downloaded in several formats, including Word doc and Adobe pdf, or published directly to the web. Simple, easy to use, and with several gigabytes of free online storage, you can keep an entire career’s worth of writing safe and secure online.
- Adobe Buzzword: I could have included Buzzword in the list of online word processors above, but I like it so much I decided to give it its own entry in this list. Buzzword is a gorgeous online word processor with some pretty good sharing features. Click “Share” in the lower left-hand corner, and you can invite collaborators as co-authors (allows full editing privileges), reviewers (allows commenting), or readers (allows reading only, no changes). Click the “History” icon in the lower right (it looks like a Greek statue), and you can instantly view previous versions of the document. Insert a cursor into any line and a comment bubble comes up in the right-hand margin; click it and leave comments. The same document can be open by several people at the same time; changes are collated together automatically. Buzzword’s collaboration features complement nicely it’s really powerful and attractive word processor.
- WriteWith: A full-fledged integrated collaborating system, WriteWith allows you to upload documents or create them online, edit them, assign and track tasks (with deadlines) to collaborators, and save finished documents or drafts to your computer in Word format. Changes are highlighted with a different color for each user. You can easily see who is editing a document at any given moment, and leave notes for future writers. If I could get Buzzword wrapped in WriteWith’s project management tools, I’d be totally happy!
Check-in, check-out: document management online
Document management systems allow users to check out a document, edit it, and check it back in. Well-established among corporate users, these systems are only starting to come online in stripped-down versions. There are lots of complicated systems you ahve to install and maintain yourself, but Microsoft’s Office Live Workspace promises to make much of this functionality available to everyone.
- Microsoft Office Live Workspace: Invite-only at the moment, this extension of the Office Live program allows you to upload documents and share them online, setting permissions as to who can read, download, or edit your documents. Revision history is tracked at the site. You can preview documents online, but can only edit them by downloading them into MS Office — fortunately, Microsoft offers a toolbar add-in for Office that makes this simple.
- You can also use project management software like BaseCamp or Wrike to store and share files; like MS Workspaces, you’ll download them, edit them, and re-upload them. However, these systems rarely offer any sort of revision tracking. On the other hand, they offer useful features like todo lists, milestones, task assignments, and scheduling.
Of course, you could just email files back and forth, which isn’t an entirely impractical way to collaborate if you’re comfortable suing Word’s “track changes” function (or the equivalent in your word processor), and you’re using the same word processor as your collaborators.
If you do anything more complex than reviewing what others have written and sending your won writing for review, you should take a look at shifting from email to an online system designed for collaboration. You don’t have to worry about what software to use, or about someone forgetting to send an email or attach a file, or about getting lost in the sea of tracked changes. Instead, you can just focus on doing your writing — which is a pretty good deal, I think!