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Software Development as Collaborative Writing

Following a lively backchannel email discussion, I’d planned to blog about what writers, editors, and publishers can learn from software developers (specifically their tools and techniques) but Tim beat me to it over on the Radar blog.

As I said in my email, The more I think about it the more obvious it’s becoming to me that the next generation of authoring/production tools will have much more in common with today’s software development tools than with today’s word processors.

Software developers spend enormous amounts of time creatively writing with text, editing, revising, refining multiple interconnected textual works — and often doing so in a highly distributed way with many collaborators. Few writers or editors spend as much time as developers with text, and it only makes sense to apply the lessons developers have learned about managing collaborative writing and editing projects at scale.

Programmers faced with annoying problems like “how do I make sure that changes I make to this text don’t conflict with someone else’s changes” or “how do I tell who among several writers made a particular change to some text” solved those problems long ago (Wikis are a great example of applying some of those tools and techniques to the writing process; API-based offline blogging editors are another).

And while using those tools as-is probably won’t make sense for a lot of non-technical writers, those willing to at least try them out will learn a lot about what the next generation of collaborative, distributed, digital publishing tools will look like.

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Comments: 4

  1. well, um, as soon as some writers decide to create collaboratively,
    i’m sure they’ll get right on this. i won’t hold my breath, though…


  2. A friend of mine (a professional developer and amateur writer) has just started using source control to manage his writing. Source control is a development tool for storing successive versions of a text file.

    Have you tried Scrivener? It’s Mac only, which I no longer use, but is worth a look and has similar versioning functionality.

    I (also a professional developer and amateur writer) have been toying with using HTML for my writing because of the ease in which you can transform it into other formats and change the way it displays for different devices (e.g. screen or print).

    What I’d really like is something better than search and replace for changing character names halfway through a piece of work, which I’m notoriously bad at doing…

  3. Hi Andrew, great write up. I’ve been writing docs in a wiki -Confluence in my case- for a while, and after there were no suitable export options I started a (commercial) project, which exports the wiki’s content to DocBook, PDF and more to follow. More Info: http://www.k15t.com/scroll

    We are also targeting other shortcomings of wiki-based documentation (e.g. document planning, workflow, i18n).

    Let me know if you are interested in discussing requirements of wikis and collaborative tools for documentation.


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