Using Writeboard to collaborate on the text for our new book Matt 06 Oct 2005

35 comments Latest by Jm

We’ve been using Writeboard to collaborate on our upcoming book about Getting Real. For our previous book (“Defensive Design for the Web”), we swapped Microsoft Word files back and forth. Even with the program’s “track changes” functionality, things got messy and confusing. Writeboard’s been a much more pleasant experience. Now it’s easy to compare changes, go back to older versions, separate comments from actual copy edits, and more.

Here’s a look at how we do it (a similar process is used for collaborating on web page copy, promotional email text, etc.):

1) I create a writeboard for each chapter of the book.

I create a writeboard for each chapter of the book

2) Then I invite Jason to collaborate on the writeboard.

Then I invite Jason to collaborate on the writeboard.

3) Jason can check out the copy and make edits. Then I can compare his edited version with the original.

Comparing text.

More comparing text.

4) We can also leave comments on the writeboard. They show up at the bottom of the page.


5) Each writeboard is also imported into Backpack so everyone can see which writeboards were updated when.

Backpack page with writeboards.

6) We can also track changes via each writeboard’s RSS feed.

Writeboards RSS Feed

35 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Yo 06 Oct 05

how about subversion??

Sean 06 Oct 05

how about subversion??

Absolutely. With Writeboard, it seems you can easily compare revisions, but what about merging? How would you take only 2 or 3 of Jason’s edits and exclude the others?

Why not write each chapter as a plain text file (go ahead and use Textile!) under a subversion repository? Anybody can edit the file whenever he wants (no locking necessary) and let svn do the merging. That would make it much easier to cherry pick changes, you’d have comments more clearly tied to each revision, and you could work offline!

Jamie 06 Oct 05

Matt and Jason, this is a great example! You guys should create badges for people to display on their publications—print, web, etc: “Made with Writeboard”.

Rich 06 Oct 05

I totally agree that colloborating on documents with word is a nightmare, but how do you go about compiling all of these Writeboards into a working copy that contains all of the Chapters? Do you cut and paste them into Word? OpenOffice?

Tony 06 Oct 05

This looks pretty cool.

Jernej 06 Oct 05

Please, please, please come up with a a useful text formating feature! The way it’s done at the moment is absolutely awful.

I’m currently using it for a translation project, synchonizing between three people and I can use it from different location as well. It’s nice but not as good as I’d hoped.

Would it be possible to export into an XML format that MS Word could read easily and recognize the formatting?

Anonymous Coward 06 Oct 05

Quit over thinking things people. You don’t need subversion. You don’t need extensive formatting. It’s about the content.

ramanan 06 Oct 05

Why not do the text formatting *after* the content is complete. Wouldn’t that make more sense?

rick 06 Oct 05

The problem with subversion is, not everyone has it. Sure, you and I probably have easy access to a server to use, but _normal_ folks won’t.

As for exporting… surely there are exporters that take the structured HTML that textile provides and produce an OpenOffice/Word/PDF document, right? Let WB do it’s thing and write some clever scripts to do the conversion.

Better yet, set up a WB remix site that calls those exports as web services.

Adrian 06 Oct 05

I’ve done other stuff with it too, but right now I’m using Writeboard to write an article about Writeboard.

So meta it hurts.

The book “Pragmatic Version Control with Subversion” used CVS to manage its sources (presumably in DocBook or similar). The book convinced the Pragprog editors to adopt Subversion for future projects.

I have to say if I were doing a book with a team I’d want proper structural markup and concurrent editing. Writeboard is great for the little things.

Which brings us back to use cases. If you start encouraging people to write books with it, they’ll want more features, and then it’ll lose the benefits of simplicity that make it such a great tool as it is right now. But I’d certainly be interested to hear how far people can push it without crying out for fundamental feature creep.

Kyle 06 Oct 05

Man, advertising an upcoming product with one that you just released. Slick. ;-) I’ll have to Writeboard another chance in a couple of days, it seemed just a tad bit slow on launch day.

Dan Boland 06 Oct 05

All of you folks that keep asking for this, that, and the other thing are either ignoring or unaware of the 37s’ main mantra… less software.

Rabbit 06 Oct 05


In fact, a co-worker and I are using Writeboard to make our case for switching from PHP to Ruby on Rails. (An exciting and nerve-wracking endeavor, to be sure!)

Good work Signals. You guys rock.

pwb 06 Oct 05

There was a very cool tool called E-quill that teams could collaboratively edit web pages with hi-lighting, editing and post-its. Microsoft bought it and I haven’t seen any of its technology reach the marketplace unfortunately.

Sean 06 Oct 05

Anonymous said:
You don�t need subversion. You don�t need extensive formatting. It�s about the content.

You’re conflating the drafting of content with collaboration. The method I proposed would use exactly the same writing style that Writeboard does (Textile-marked-up text). However, my approach would use subversion for the collaboration because subversion handles the merging capabilities that Writeboard doesn’t (and, based on the 37signals mantra, probably never will).

rick said:
The problem with subversion is, not everyone has it. Sure, you and I probably have easy access to a server to use, but _normal_ folks won�t.

Very true, rick, but in the specific example Matt presents (two authors collaborating on a book they’re writing) both people certainly would be able to get subversion. That’s all I’m addressing. On the face of it, it looks like a “cool” use of Writeboard, but I’m suggesting it’s inefficient at merging changes, requires complex locking and can’t be used offline (e.g., on a non-Wi-Fi-enabled airplane, where I do a lot of my writing). Subversion (or any revision control system) addresses all these issues. That’s all.

Dan H 06 Oct 05

On Formatting Text (and one other thought):

C. S. Lewis, in his preface to �Mere Christianity�, he explains that this written work originated from radio discussions he made. He elaborated on the process he endured formatting the text to reflect the tone he had when speaking on the radio. He didn�t like it, removed as many italic words as possible, rewrote sections so the voice was part of the text � not the presentation, and published a book � not a transcript.

We SvN readers like design - italics, bold face fonts, serifs, etc. being design/style elements. Let�s write well and when you�ve used Writeboard to do so, export that text into your HTML pages, Word documents, and so on. Do the markup, style & design there.

So, that�s my 1 cent to the WYSIWYG people. My 1 cent to requests for Spell Checking goes like this in my little brain:

When I played with Writeboard the other day, I thought �Oh, I wish they would have a spell-check button.� Immediately after, I thought �No, you dummy. In Mac OS X, you can Apple-Shift-; or in Windows you have the Google Toolbar�s spell-check feature.� Interface distinctions need to be made. It�s nice in Gmail to have a spell-check button, but, I now believe it is better for the OS or web browser to handle spell check. You can have your own language settings, and add your own words to your own dictionary.

Hrush 06 Oct 05

I just used Writeboard to very quickly compare my original CSS file to the CSS file being used by the developer because a bunch of the formatting on the pages was off.

Writeboard found the changes in a flash and the problem was fixed within 10 minutes.

I’m surprised I haven’t seen more people using Writeboard for things like this…

pwb 06 Oct 05

I�m surprised I haven�t seen more people using Writeboard for things like this�

Maybe it’s because Writeboard is only 3 days old and not many people fiddle around with CSS?

Hrush 06 Oct 05

Right you are, pwb, maybe I should have stated more clearly:

I’m surprised I haven’t seen more discussion of using Writeboard for code collaboration on SVN.

Given the audience that SVN enjoys…

Chris Blood 06 Oct 05

I think the example is an excellent idea. Many thanks for providing it. I hadn’t really considered using Whiteboard, but now that I’ve seen a real-world example, I find myself much more likely to try it out.

PS: “Plug Your Own Hole”: I’m dying of laughter here! What kind of book IS this?!

Jeff 06 Oct 05

Let�s write well and when you�ve used Writeboard to do so, export that text into your HTML pages, Word documents, and so on. Do the markup, style & design there.

Italics frequently indicate the names of books, films, etc in text. It’s possible for the same set of words to be correct or incorrect based on whether part of it is presented in italics, so to the extent that a writeboard is used to get everyone to sign off that a given document’s text is correct, they need to be able to see proper italics in place, and be assured that they’ll be preserved when the text is exported for print layout. I can see this being a deal-breaker for some potential writeboard users.

One of many Davids 06 Oct 05

Sounds like some folks could use vimdiff or TortoiseMerge. I’m sure Writeboard has its uses, but the suggeste SVN route is much saner for a project any bigger than a sheet of paper.

But it is good practice to eat your own dog food, for better or for worse.

Forrest Robertson 06 Oct 05

It’s amazing how many people expect every new product that comes out to do *everything* for them. 37 puts out products to do rather specific things and to do them well. In Writeboard they have tackled editing content … simple text … collections of words into sentences and complete thoughts. Those of you complaining of merging and layout, go find a bigger hammer for a small nut. For what 37 intended Whiteboard to do, it does it well.

Tony 06 Oct 05

If intricately formated text is vitally important to your project, which you eventually plan to move to some kind of word processing or publishing platform, and you don’t plan to do any copyediting, then maybe, just maybe, Writeboard isn’t the platform for you.

Michal Migurski 06 Oct 05

“I just used Writeboard to very quickly compare my original CSS file to the CSS file being used by the developer because a bunch of the formatting on the pages was off. … I�m surprised I haven�t seen more people using Writeboard for things like this�”

That’s probably because any web developer with a lick of common sense and more than 3 days’ worth of experience already scratches this itch with version control and a text editor with some sort of diff-like feature.

Victor 06 Oct 05

I’m curious to hear how you’re going to integrate this into Basecamp. Seems like a natural addition - one of your Tabs. I can also imagine using this with more than just text. Thoughts?

terceiro 06 Oct 05

I actually think this is an excellent idea. Having just finished a textbook with a team of quasi-luddites, it would have been very, very nice to use something this simple and straightforward. Sure, it would not have been appropriate for whole chapters, but for individual sections… oh, my life would have been easier.

We used MS Word with tracking —- and it quickly became a rat’s nest of minutiae: formatting changes because someone didn’t like X italicized or reversed the order of Z (which someone else then moved back). Because we kept the same document for the whole process, we had essentially a dozen versions conflated into one document and covered with colored bubbles.

Additionally, I have used it for drafting items myself. I wrote up a short draft proposal. Then I modified some words. And some more. Came back after lunch and fiddled again. Same thing the next morning. I was working with a clean text each time, but was able to quickly check my previous drafts. It works more simply and quickly than any desktop app I’m aware of.

Subversion? You’ve gotta be kidding. This is the right tool for the job — the question is determining the right job. For fast, small chunks of text I have seen nothing better, ever. And for much of the world (though perhaps not you), much of their work can be broken up into small chunks of text.

Thomas Baekdal 07 Oct 05

It seems to me that simply mapping a FTP folder would do the trick much easier. Then you can continue using Word - and have true online collaboration at the same time (no file swapping nessesary, everyone is using the same folder/files from a central point).

Rob West 07 Oct 05

Oh sweet lord, please let this be integrated into Basecamp.

This kind of collaborative application is exactly how me and my staff have been using the Messages/Comments section of Basecamp, but MUCH less effectively.

And anybody who thinks a bunch of theatre people who are just now getting comfortable with the concept of a Wiki and Textile are gonna use Subversion or any other source-control system to edit text, oughta come look at our hand-me-down PeeCees and hand-me-down operating systems. ;-)

Thanks, Signals. Keep ‘em coming.

Greg 07 Oct 05

FEATURE REQUEST: When you “save as newest version” can there be a check-box that allows you to “notify everyone of the updates”??? So that a little email goes to the other people who’ve been invited that says “[name] has made a revision to [writeboard name] here;s a link:[link]” This would be a very useful feature for me. Anyone else? Thanks for this great product!!

Oh, and how do you delete a writeboard when you’re done with it?

JF 07 Oct 05

Oh, and how do you delete a writeboard when you�re done with it?

Click the “Delete this writeboard” at the bottom of the screen.

Matt Moriarity 08 Oct 05

I have to say that Writeboard is a great piece of software. I appreciate the little that it does, and it does it well. I’m currently using it to write an essay for my American Literature class, and it’s great. I plan to invite some people to read and edit it as soon as I finish writing it (which is probably something I should be doing now instead of commenting here).

Jm 10 Oct 05

You’re using textile for formatting, did you deliberatly omit things like table styles to focus on the text part of things?

Textile is actually generating tables from writeboard, they’re just not showing properly for a lack of CSS styles.