I recently started the work of extracting myself and my work from Google Docs. I have been thinking about doing this for several years. I was a hugely enthusiastic early-adopter of Google Docs, mostly because of the way it changed the nature of my work, helping me find new ways to work with others in real time and at a distance. Very quickly, the majority of my writing became collaborative, my sentences and paragraphs populated by colleagues from around the world. The notion of a single author in a byline became increasingly strange to me. Hybrid Pedagogy, the journal I co-founded, started using Google Docs as its primary mechanism for peer review, with authors and editors working together (and openly) inside a single document. I organized and contributed to two collaborative novels. I used the tool for living syllabi. Friendships developed for me inside Google Docs. And I proselytized.
A few of the pieces I’ve written about Google Docs over the last several years:
Collaborative and Public Writing Techniques for Google Docs (with Charlotte Frost)
Theorizing Google Docs
Tools for Collaborative Writing
In that last piece, I featured a handful of alternatives to Google Docs, but I still advocated for Google Docs, in spite of having also worked in some really excellent open source alternatives. I wrote in that piece, “[Collaborative writing] has changed dramatically in the last 3 years. And three years from now, the tools and how we use them will be just as different.” That was a prescient sentence, because just over three years after writing that piece, I’m writing this one inside of a collaborative writing platform that isn’t Google Docs.
A few days ago, I tweeted, “Looking for a distraction-free word processor. Tired of bloated Word and Google Docs. Any suggestions?” I got tons of excellent responses, some of which are featured here. What I was looking for was a cross-platform tool (with apps for Mac, Windows, iOS, and the ability to edit in the browser). I wanted a minimalist, Markdown-compatible tool that was imaginative and not merely reactive in its approach to workflow. I am trying to leave Google Docs, because the Google ecosystem has become overwhelming. Google’s tendrils are reaching into far too many areas of my life. I’m not only disturbed by Google’s overreach with regard to my data and student data, in particular, I’m also finding that my work is suffering at the hands of the tool. When the number of Google apps on my phone proliferated from 2 to almost 10 (from Docs and Maps to Drive, Sheets, Hangouts, Google+, etc.), I knew something disconcerting was afoot. When I saw track changes had been implemented in Docs, I knew the potential for collaboration inside the tool was being squandered in exchange for a Microsoft Word clone.
Over the last few days, I’ve tried out dozens of writing platforms, cloud-based and locally installed. I’ve downloaded apps to my devices, played with features, wondered at how each tool might change the how of my work and also the shape of the work itself.
I found a handful of tools I’m going to recommend here. Most work well for collaboration. Not all of them allow for the kind of dynamic synchronous writing sessions that Google Docs enables. What I found is that testing tools and thinking through their features forced me to ask questions about how I do the work of writing and how (and where) I want to do that work going forward. These are in no particular order. (Except you can skip to the end if you want to see the tool I’m using to write this post.)
Several of the tools on this list aren’t specifically designed for the kind of writing I need them for, and yet I quickly found in my search that a lot of the features I was looking for were more common in note-taking tools than word-processing tools. Evernote is a pretty great platform, and I have installed it and deleted it from various devices several times over the last few days. It works great on Mac, Windows, iOS, and in the browser. The writing interface is minimalist and lovely. It has a cute elephant as a logo. That green color sure is energizing. It has a free version that allows syncing between two devices. The paid version isn’t all that expensive ($34.99 – $69.99 / year with 40% off discounts available). Ultimately, I have decided not to use Evernote, because it doesn’t have a lot of options for exporting notes. And I’m also made a bit wary by some troubling recent missteps.
Another tool for collecting notes with a cute animal for a logo. This tool also has a free version and the paid version is a good deal cheaper than Evernote ($14.99 / year). It has a clean interface and support for Markdown. It is a notes tool but feels robust enough for writing and organizing longer documents. Unfortunately, it only plays with Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Since I’m often switching between Macs and Windows computers, I didn’t give Bear much consideration, but I’m 90% sure I’d be using it right now if it had a Windows app. Grrr.
Simplenote has excellent apps for just about every platform in the known universe. It was another tool I kept downloading, deleting, and then downloading again to play with one more time. Again, it’s designed for taking notes, but works well as a distraction-free writing platform for composing text of any length. Since I started publishing my own personal site with Ghost, I have gotten pretty attached to composing with Markdown, simple code for basic formatting of plain text. Simplenote has great implementation of markdown. However, I ultimately decided the tool is too spare — doesn’t offer quite enough functionality for the varied uses I’d be putting it to.
The existence of this tool makes me happy. And, if it had more features for collaboration, I’d love to hang out inside of it with the person who recommended it to me. What I love about this tool is the way it pushes actively on the entire notion of a writing workflow as something aimed at writing faster. This tool feels designed for helping us write slower. I’m definitely going to play around with this one more at some point, even if I don’t end up using it on a daily basis. Plus, it’s pay what you will, and they’ve got a new mobile app, Notegraphy, with a whole different set of goals — to make the text we share on social media more beautiful.
A simple tool that stores files directly to your Dropbox account (and currently doesn’t count those files toward your storage limit). Collaboration features are great. The design is beautiful. Ultimately, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the options for exporting documents. I kind of cringed when I saw tools emphasizing export to Word or Google Docs. That seems useful, since I am certain I’ll still have moments when I need to work with folks tied to those, but it also feels a bit beside the point, when I’m looking for an alternative platform. Dropbox competitor Box has a similar but less fully-developed tool.
Typora / Scrivener / Penflip / Gingko
A few other options worth recommending. Typora was my favorite Markdown editor I tried, but I was disappointed to see that it didn’t have an app for mobile. I have used Scrivener here and there for years, and I love the idea, but it tries to do on a screen so much of the organizing work that I prefer to leave to my brain. I wrote about Penflip and Gingko in my piece on collaborative writing from three years ago. At the time, I wasn’t a fan of the Penflip interface, but it’s evolved considerably. Gingko is a tool I’ve always wanted to use regularly, and I’ve tried many many times since I wrote about it, but it’s a weird animal, and I’ve still not found a productive use for it. And yet I continue to love the way it boldly reshapes the writing process through the nested box structure of its interface.
Quip is the tool I’m using to write this post. After days of tinkering and a couple hours of continuous writing, I’m pretty thrilled with it. Quip is free for personal use, but can get pricey for team collaboration ($30/month for a team of five), so while I might try to get all of us at UMW’s DTLT using it, I know it won’t kill Google Docs for me altogether. However, I’m not entirely worried about that, since what I was looking for mostly was a home base for my own writing. Plus, Quip has a great set of export options (PDF, Word, HTML, LaTex, and Markdown), so I feel like it will play nicely with just about all the other tools I might find myself using. It is easy to keep files organized, the interface is uncluttered, the formatting options are minimal, it has apps for all my devices, and works well in the browser. Finally, the collaboration/commenting options are incredibly rich, so I’m hoping I can drag a few of my closest collaborators into a document soon to try them out.
Featured Image by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash