Monday, April 23, 2007

Online Collaboration Writing Projects

I had a chance to try Writeboard, a web-based collaborative writing tool recently. Writeboard allows a group of users to contribute writing and edits collectively, creating new versions and comparing the changes. The file can be exported as a txt or html file for further editing and formatting as well. There are some pros and cons to this tool, which I'll discuss a little later in this blog entry.

Being a "lone writer," I haven't had much of a reason to collaborate on the documentation I write. Instead, I write - other people edit - and I rewrite. However, I, and I suspect many of you, have used collaboration tools that are built-in or are add-ins to Word Processing software. For example, I have used the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word, which marks changes and tracks which users made which changes. You can then accept or reject the changes for the final version. I've also used Deltaview, a third party add-in for Word that allows you to "run" a comparison on two different versions of documents, resulting in a third document that contains all of the markups. Where I work, we also use a Document Management System called "DOCS Open" which allows us to save different versions easily when making changes. (We're using an older version of DOCS Open.) There are other tools we've created here that enable the lawyers at our firm to collaborate on documents with their clients, but as a writer for IT systems and procedures, I haven't had a need to use them.

Who is Online Collaboration Writing Good For?
  • Student groups working on a class project (particularly when not physically located on a campus)
  • Writers and Designers who may only be working on the parts of a document that are in their area of expertise.
  • Writers in companies that don't have shared network drives where documents can be shared.
  • A group of people who have different skills - for example, writer, editor, designer, etc. Each person has a role on a project based on their expertise and strengths.

I used Writeboard and found it easy to use; a little "clunky," but simple. After having worked with more sophisticated tools like Track Changes (I actually never thought of it as sophisticated until now), it seemed too limited to be of much use when other tools are available. 37Signals, the company that makes Writeboard, makes it no-frills on purpose. They don't include the things they don't deem important; only those things that are necessary. They allow the use of certain formatting marks, like bold and italic by using * around the words you want to bold, for example. But, it didn't work for me. I had two headings with body text separating them and instead of bolding the headings with my ** surrounding the words, it made the body text in between them bold.

When working with other writers in the same company, I think it's better to use in-house systems to collaborate. But, if you don't have anything else, then this little free tool could be a useful way to get the text down pat among contributing parties. I'm not the type of writer who just puts text in first and then formats; I start out using one of my templates that contains all the styles I need, so I just organize as I go along.

If you do online writing collaboration (regardless of the tool you use), it's important to have people assigned as "overseers" on the project. For example, one person should make sure the information is technically correct. Another person should make sure that all components sound like they have the same "voice" and style. It's a good idea to agree on styles (for formatting and writing) ahead of the project to avoid headaches later.

Another form of online collaboration is a wiki. We have wiki in our IT department where I work, in which people contribute information on processes for deployment, upgrades, troubleshooting, etc. It works well, as people have been participating and updating as needed. They are not writing formal documentation, but they are documenting procedures and referring to them across IT units. Collaboration in this format works well, as long as people participate. Sometimes, this is the only documentation they need; it's not necessary for me to put together anything formal.

I'm sure I'll do more online collaboration in the future, particularly in the form of wikis. Writeboard and other tools like it, still offer a simple way to collaborate on the text across a disparate group of people, but it just may not be my first choice.

No comments: