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:
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.
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.