What are collaborative writing tools?
Online collaborative writing tools are the platforms we use to write, edit, review and approve content before it’s published.
These tools manage revision history via version control, allow multiple people to work on a single piece of content at once, and provide a single source of truth.
They allow us to work more efficiently by restricting access to only the people who need to see that content at a specific point of the workflow.
I work with 2 tools that let me do collaborative writing online: GatherContent and Google Docs.
GatherContent is my preferred collaborative writing software program.
The team behind GatherContent know content ops inside out and have designed a tool that helps content teams write, edit and approve content in a structured and manageable way.
What I like about GatherContent
All your content is in the one place in GatherContent. You can see the overall status of your progress, which is great for project management reporting. You don’t have to dive into different drives and folders to find your content and you don’t have to worry about version control.
GatherContent gives you the ability to set up templates for each content type. This is super handy for setting up pages to mirror wireframes and capture all the content elements you need to write.
You can use the tab functionality within the template, which is handy for separating instructions under a brief tab. You can add directions for the writer and include or link to source material and upload documents like wireframes.
I add another tab for governance and metadata collection. On this tab, I include who the writer, editor and other page contributors are like subject matter experts (SMEs), and I also write the meta description.
I set up a tab with writing and editing checklists—things to review before progressing the page to the next status. Sometimes I create a specific checklist for the SME or content approver to keep them focused on their task—to check the content for technical accuracy or to ensure the content is meeting their business goals and the page doesn’t present any risks for the organisation.
Workflow and page status
GatherContent gives you the ability to set up a workflow from the briefing process through to final approval, whatever that looks like for your project.
As each page moves through the workflow, it triggers an email alert to pass the baton, so you know it’s been reviewed and it’s now your turn to work on the page.
The advantage over a Word document is that when you’re working on many web pages, you don’t necessarily want a SME to review every single page. And if you have all of your content in a large copydeck, you don’t want to have to separate that page out or send the whole document to the SME. You can send them the link to only the pages you want them to review.
At any time, you can see the status of all pages and know where they are in the workflow.
I would like the ability to set different workflows based on the page template, but that’s not possible yet. Sometimes the standard workflow is overkill for a particular content type.
You can create roles and give those roles certain permissions.
For example, I lock down SMEs to commenting rights only. The SME’s role is to review the content to ensure it’s technically accurate. Nothing more. I don’t want them changing the content and slipping their bureaucratic, passive voice back in. They can add their feedback via comments. I can then selectively action their feedback.
You can easily switch between different versions. It highlights in each version what was changed and who made those changes. I can’t count the times I’ve had to review or even rollback to a previous version. The version history function has been a lifesaver.
Exports and backups
I’m not a developer so I’m yet to connect GatherContent with a CMS, but it’s possible to do this and upload content directly into a CMS.
But I use the export functionality to create weekly back-ups in Word and CSV formats… just in case. And I have needed the backups in the past.
Starting at around $AU150 per month, you might not think it’s a cheap tool, but you (and your clients) will save that and hundreds more in project management fees each month. And it will save you from pulling your hair out while keeping track of the status of multiple Word documents and collating feedback from all the SMEs who need to see and approve each page.
Bonus content and resources
GatherContent’s resources section is jam-packed filled with more knowledge than you can waggle a dictionary at. From webinars and blog posts to templates and eBooks, you can even see an interview GatherContent did with Matt Fenwick and me under the True North Content banner on using GatherContent to engage stakeholders in the content process.
Google Docs is a free online alternative to desktop word processing software like MS Word. You only need a Google account to access Google Docs.
What I like about Google Docs
Real-time collaborative writing
I like that Google Docs is a real-time collaborating writing tool. You can share the doc with anyone and you can both work on it at once. Stored in the cloud, updates are live. You can see what other people are adding to the document in real time.
Version and comment history
Google Docs saves the comment history and lets you tag an individual within the document and assign a task to them.
I like to resolve comments after they’ve been actioned, reducing on-screen clutter. You can’t do this in Word. But after I’ve resolved them, I like still having access to all comments in case I need to refer back to a decision.
I like that I can also easily access past versions of the document, too.
Single version of a document
When writing in MS Word, you email the first draft of a document to your client. They email you back with their mark-up and comments. You action their feedback and send them the next draft. They forward to someone else in their organisation, who forwards it to someone else. Eventually, they email you back with three versions attached with conflicting advice in the comments in each document. Argh!
With Google Docs, you avoid all that nonsense.
Restricted access and editing rights
When you send a Word document out to the world, anyone can forward it on. But with Google Docs, you can lock down access by restricting access rights to only the people you want to be able to view, edit or comment on the document.
Enhance features with Google Doc extensions
You can install Google Doc extensions, giving you extra functionality.
From to SEO features to enhanced grammar checks and other writing tools, you find a solution for pretty much any scenario you can think of.
Check out this article that lists 25 Google Docs add-ons.
Google Docs is free for personal use. You can upgrade to G Suite for business, but you can use all the functions you’ll ever need from a personal account.
Untested collaborative writing tools
There are a bunch of other collaborative writing tools available that I haven’t explored yet, or in any meaningful way.
My latest discovery is Workflowy. It looks like an interesting writing tool and I’m going to explore it further. It’s not a replacement for GatherContent by any stretch, but it’s worth a test drive to see what it’s capable of because I’m sure there are some projects I work on that it could serve well.
Etherpad is a free, open-source online writing tool that allows for real-time collaborative writing. It’s a desktop tool, so you have to download and install the software.
It’s interface is simple and uncluttered.
It offers many of the same advantages as GatherContent and Google Docs in that you can collaborate with colleagues in real time.
I bought Airstory a few years ago, but I haven’t given it a proper run, yet.
It’s distraction-free interface first attracted me. It doesn’t have pages—content is infinite. You can add people to your project and assign them roles—much like in Google Docs—as a viewer, editor, researcher or owner.
traditional hard AF way
Before we were blessed with collaborative writing apps or platforms, we used to deliver content projects in Word documents and manage their delivery in an Excel spreadsheet.
In 2005 I managed a large content development project for a government department that brought 26 websites into a single site. We’re talking 100s of pages we edited or wrote from scratch and shuffled through the approval process. As a freelance content consultant, I managed a team of 12 writers and we spent at least 6 months writing and editing that content. In Word. ? And tracked in an Excel spreadsheet. ?
When I think back on that process, it’s no wonder it took us 6 months to generate that amount of content. The project management load alone of manually tracking the status of 100s of web pages makes me clutch my non-existent pearl necklace in horror. I’m so glad I don’t work like that anymore.
Collaborative writing tips
If you’re working on a project and using a collaborative writing tool, here are some tips to help you take advantage of the power and ease of collaboration from content brief through to publication.
Map out your workflow
Think about the whole process from start to finish and map out the workflow you think applies to your project. Test the workflow with a single piece of content. Be prepared to tweak and refine it as you need to during the project.
Set rules around access
Giving people access to a tool like GatherContent means your client can see your works in progress. You can lock them down to a single page, only to a project.
This means you’ll inevitably find SME or client comments on a draft document. This can be quite annoying when you’ve not finished writing, let alone editing the document.
Let clients know that they should only review content that’s at a certain stage of the workflow.
Appoint a client-side content wrangler
Appoint someone on the client’s side to be the content wrangler. They have to make sure everyone who needs to see the document does at the appropriate time (GatherContent makes this so easy) and collate all feedback and give you definitive advice on which action you need to take. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself sifting through conflicting comments from different SMEs and unsure how to respond to their feedback.
Don’t abuse the comment function
No one wants to be tagged eleventy billion times in a document. In a tool like GatherContent, that will trigger an email to the person you’ve tagged, each time you tag them. Same with Google Docs.
Instead, I write @SME or @marsha when I add comments, but don’t actually tag the specific person until the page is complete. Then I tag them once and ask them to review each of the comments marked to their attention.
This is a much better process than dealing with a cranky SME with a cluttered inbox.
Set up a rule to automatically keep project notification out of your inbox
It can get very noisy when working on a collaborative project. I find it helpful to set up a rule in my inbox that directs all GatherContent notifications to a specific folder, rather than clutter my inbox. That way I can drop in once or twice a day and take action.
Don’t step on toes
Having a workflow should mean that you’re not working on content at literally the same time as someone else.
Keep the workflow in mind when commenting or editing someone’s work. If they’re not ready for you to see it yet, you shouldn’t be poking around in there.
If you do some pair writing, then great! I find having a video chat and screen sharing while doing pair writing is the best way to avoid standing on another writer’s toes.
Running copywriting projects with collaborative writing tools
Do you currently use collaborative writing tools on your copywriting and editing projects? Are you planning to use one in the future? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.