Draft for Collaborative Writing

DraftIt seems like new online services for collaborative writing are emerging all the time. After a series of postings about the powerful collaborative capabilities of the GitHub platform, used for writing code by programmers around the world, I suggested that this opens up the possibility for radical new ways to engage in academic scholarship and explore ways of forking the academy. For this to even stand a chance though, we need writing platforms that work better for our needs than the steep learning curve and some of the other limitations of Github. I offered my own list of suggestions about what that kind of platform might look like and in the next few weeks I’ll take a closer look at some of new options out there to consider. I begin with Draft, a new writing platform created by the extremely talented Nathan Kontny.

Draft is designed for drafting and collaborative writing of text. It is not a blogging platform or a live editing environment like Google Docs, and the documents created within Draft are not designed to have their final home there. As it functions now, you write, collaborate, edit, and then export or directly publish the documents to your cloud hosting service such as Dropbox, Evernote, or Google Drive, to a social platform such as Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, and Twitter or, if you use the Chrome or Firefox additions, directly back into a text box in another browser tab. Get a quick overview of its features here.

Judging by his blog and twitter posts, his startups, and his progress on Draft, Nathan is a strong proponent of the release early, release often philosophy that we often find in the world of new online services today. Every week or two I learn about new capabilities being added to the platform, most recently a feature to allow easy transcription of movie clips. Also, in contrast with early online companies that take the long view on generating revenues, he immediately puts a focus on what aspects of his service can be packaged and sold. Currently, the services being sold include a build-in "Ask a Pro" professional editing service for your writing, and a premium Draft membership (around $4 per month, or $40 per year) that gives access to more features like statistical reports on your texts.

Draft has a beautiful clean interface for editing documents with handy keyboard shortcuts for almost all features, and a running word or character count. Fonts and size settings are offered, and formatting can be done both with direct entry of markdown markup (read some of our postings here on markdown) or have it done for you with common keyboard shortcuts. Images are easy to bring in by direct upload or from most of the leading cloud services. Currently markdown footnotes don’t seem to render correctly, and the more flexible import/export options of something like pandoc are not integrated, but I suspect we’ll see developments on this going forward.

You can import text or markdown texts into Draft from cloud services or direct upload, and export it as markdown or HTML, or to cloud and social media options mentioned above. Collaboration on the files once they are in Draft is made dead-easy by clicking "share" which gives you a URL you can share with anyone, allowing them to edit a copy of the document and have their comments and changes re-submitted to you for viewing and approval.

Because texts authored in Draft are in a kind of purgatory before they are published or exported out of the platform, rather than being read and consumed directly on the site, many things I have previously suggested for an ideal writing platform are not a good match for the Draft approach to writing. If you cut and past the URL for the "view" mode of a text into another browser where you are not logged in, you currently don’t see your file but get an error instead. Draft is all about editing, not as a final presentation host for your file. The public/private distinction I mentioned in my last posting is thus not really relevant since all your texts are private and can only be seen by those who are also allowed to edit them. Texts cannot be part of larger groups or repositories of texts, there is no license or metadata about texts for visitors to see since the only visitors to your text are your fellow collaborators.

Version Control and Collaboration

Draft has done a fabulous job at making the workflow of collaboration look good. New drafts of your work can easily be saved, changes between drafts and its full history easily viewed, and older drafts easily restored. It is clean and beautiful.

Beyond basic version control, however, I have argued in earlier postings that the ideal writing platform that will allow us to fork the academy should strive to adopt the powerful distributed versioning capabilities of GitHub while finding ways to make it far easier for writers to integrate into their workflow with a minimum confusion. Draft goes part of the way towards this. When a collaborator B is given a link to edit a document written by A, a copy of it is made for them and can live in B’s Draft account. It is thus a kind of limited fork. When B makes comments and changes, and submits these, A receives notification that edits are "ready" to be consulted. A can accept B’s changes or not accept them. This is thus a kind of "pull request" without a separate commit comment.

However, unlike GitHub, which has a powerful merge conflict resolution system, chaos breaks loose when two people are editing a Draft document around the same time or in a synced offline version. For example, A opens a file, adds a line and saves a draft. B opens the file, which is updated with the new line and begins adding text, while A is also continuing to add text. B saves. When A closes and opens the proposed edits of B, they have only one option: either accept B’s changes and delete whatever new additions they made after B saved their draft, or not accept it, even if they liked B’s change, because they want to retain further changes they made. Either way, when B closes their document and reopens it, Draft will update it to whatever the newest draft A decides upon. Offline syncing in both directions also seems like it has a way to go, my offline changes didn’t get recognized after getting updated in Dropbox and aren’t updated with A’s changes until B opens them in the web interface. I’m confident Nathan will work out some of these problems. I hope he will also make it possible to be more selective about merges, allowing one to easily edit proposed changes (as one might in the case of a GitHub merge conflict) to fix conflicts that inevitably happen when two or more people edit documents around the same time.

Beyond simple fixes, however he will have to make some difficult strategic choices: currently he has chosen a "canonical text" model, not much different than Gdocs or Wikipedia: A’s text is the canonical copy and B’s fork does not live as a fully attributed descendent that is fully free to develop on its own (as a GitHub fork does), but instead as a frequently updated clone of the original. Nor does the history of a document attribute individual changes. This prevents the powerful "fork the academy" decentralized approaches that GitHub permits but works much better for the kind of small group collaboration Nathan is currently aiming for. I still believe, however, that the holy grail in writing platforms of the future includes a fully distributed versioning system with full attribution of changes and fork-like relationships between groups of texts (which GitHub has) that is somehow made easy and intuitive for writers.

Draft looks great and is improving fast. It was not built for academic scholarship but as a fast and easy way to collaborate on texts that can be easily exported for use elsewhere on the web. I’ll be watching closely as it continues to evolve. Already its basic features and clean design offer a great model for various alternatives emerging out there. In my next posting, which I’ll co-author with Rachel Leow, we’ll take a look at another writing platform coming out soon, Editorially.

Have you had a chance to give Draft a try? If so, what did you like about it and when have you found it useful? Are there ways that you hope it will improve in the future?

Image is a screenshot from the Draft writing platform

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