I’ve always been in the lookout for tools to make niche writers’ lives easier. Screenwriting is a product category that I’ve become really passionate about. It’s an area of interest for me — screenwriting is a hobby of mine, and I’d love to see the tools used to write them improve. After all, we’ve all been stuck with the same few standards for years — Final Draft being chief among them
Final Draft is really unwieldy, though. It’s one of my least favourite programs, and for a while, it was also one of my most used. Today, I spend a lot of time using apps like Slugline, which use a fantastic Markdown-inspired markup syntax called Fountain (developed in part by John August, the writer of Big Fish). But for many people, a new syntax can only do so much in our Internet-based world. Enter Writer Duet, an online screenwriting app built for writers who want to collaborate on the go. Read on to find out what makes this product so unique in a sea of contenders.
Writer Duet is, first and foremost, a writing tool for screenwriters that’s hosted on the Web. It has two major impetuses that it has to beat if it’s going to be successful. First of all, it has to work. This can’t be a poorly-coded web app; it has to do its job well. Secondly, it has to be familiar enough that it’s easy to use. It’s almost an inside joke amongst many screenwriters I keep up with that they’re very slow to adopt any new technology or program — there’s a reason the industry standard still makes screenplays look like they just came off a typewriter.
The first order of the day is making sure the app works. Writer Duet is one of the most stable web apps I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. It records every keystroke without fail. One could argue that it’s very easy to build a web app for writers — after all, text entry isn’t computationally difficult, per se — but when you add screenplay formatting, things could get really messy. Thankfully, Writer Duet is as well-coded as it gets.
I’ll talk briefly about file support, which I know is important to many of us: Writer Duet supports Final Draft, Fountain, Celtx, Word, and PDF for uploading and downloading files. In case you’re wondering, yes, that does mean this is a free way to convert from PDF to Fountain or from PDF to FDX (and it does it pretty well to boot).
The app is also going to be pleasantly familiar to anybody who’s used Final Draft. Unfortunately, I did not find a way to turn on Markdown formatting, but the app does use Courier Prime instead of Courier (which renders much more nicely on modern high-resolution screens) and supports all the familiar keyboard shortcuts Final Draft users will remember. The app autosaves work as you go, and manually saving allows you to keep versions for later comparison.
There are some other small touches in the app that make it feel more like a desktop app. On the Mac, the Command, Option, and Control keys each show different shortcuts that most Mac users will feel right at home with. Pressing Tab changes a field from Dialogue to Action or Character, etc., just like it would in Final Draft.
In other words, the writing experience is rock-solid. Everything here is exactly how you’d expect it.
All that being said, the real draw of the app is live collaboration.
This is where things get really interesting. It’s in the name, of course, so you’d probably expect Writer Duet to encourage collaboration between a couple writers. It does this really well. Sharing a script with a writer sends them a link to join in the fun, and you get to see as all their changes happen live. So whether you’re sitting side by side or half a continent away, this works really well. It’s not as fast as Google Docs, but it is faster than, say, Apple’s Pages in the Cloud.
You’ll see a live cursor and words will disappear and appear as changes are made. What makes this work so well is the way that the app highlights the changes. It’s a little reminiscent of the change tracking in Microsoft Word, but unlike the highlights in that program, Writer Duet slowly allows highlighted changes to fade so you can focus on the words. It has to be seen to be understood, but it works really well and I think it looks pretty good too.
The script itself is otherwise private. I emailed a script to a secondary email account to try it out. All the tertiary features are available to every writer, but links to participate are generated by random access codes. SSL security is heavily employed throughout the site. Secondary authors can also print and export scripts.
You can also chat with collaborators, including a group chat with all of them. You can video chat or text message them individually as well, so it’s easy to keep in touch if you’re working together and need to hash some story points out.
What all this means, in combination, is that it’s the richest collaborative screenwriting experience technology allows at the moment. It’s a great way to work together and get a script done, and I can highly recommend it without any trace of a second thought.
Beyond that, though, a part of me wonders if it’s really going to be any good for the solitary writer. It’s certainly meant for collaboration, and while it’s a great free service, I’m not sure it could replace your screenwriting workflow as it is now. It’s not meant to replace everything though. One of my favourite parts of Writer Duet is how hard it works to keep your workflow as seamless as possible.
Into the Future
The next step for Writer Duet is a desktop app, which is being funded on Kickstarter. That’s wonderful, but I’d love to see an iPad app first. I think the tablet market could really benefit from a good cloud-based screenwriting app. As a web app, Writer Duet is off to a great start. I’d like to see some small adjustments. As it currently is, full-screen isn’t supported in Safari 7. Uploading a new file replaces the current one, while I think it should actually create a new file (or at least ask what your intention is first, so important work isn’t lost). I also wish the app offered a way to work in Fountain.
But that’s a small complaint. For what it is, Writer Duet is painstakingly realized and really easy to work with. (As a bonus, it’s even optimized for high-resolution Retina displays on the MacBook Pros!) For writing partnerships or teams — especially those in the television industry — Writer Duet is a must-try.