Collaborative writing has been one of the many things the web was supposed to simplify, and yet it’s still as broken as it’s ever been. Live co-editing like Google Docs offers only works for a very few niche scenarios, and newer tools like Draft and Editorially only work great for one writer and one editor giving feedback on a finished work. And the old style of emailing documents back and forth — or the slightly updated version of saving them to a shared Dropbox — is still far from ideal.
There’s one tech tool that’s seemed promising recently, though: git. The geeky version control system used most famously by GitHub is designed to let software developers collaborate on code, and is the very reason people around the globe can contribute to open source projects. Code is just text, of course, so earlier this year two dozen mathematicians wrote The HoTT Book collaboratively using GitHub. That was quite an undertaking, both for its unprecedented collaboration and for using git for writing even when it wasn’t exactly designed for it.
But what if GitHub was reinvented around writing? That’s what Penflip, a new git-powered writing app, aims to find out.
Version Control, Meet the Pen.
There’s two main problems in writing that Penflip — and git itself, albeit for coding — aims to solve: accessing previous versions, and bringing disparate parts of a project together. The former is a rather obvious need: you never really think about how much you need foolproof saving of versions of your document until you realize you really needed that paragraph you threw out last week. The latter is something that’s constantly a thorny question for anyone who’s ever collaborated on a writing project: how is writing collaboration even supposed to work?
Git answers that — essentially — by giving everyone their own copy of a project, then letting you merge changes into your final copy. Redundant, perhaps, but it works good enough to power open-source development, and it makes sense once you start using it. It’s geeky, but Penflip tries to mask some of the technicalities of git and make it perfect for writing.
Penflip lets you create new documents — individual text files — or books — folders of text files, better thought of as writing projects since they’re useful for far more than books — that are either public or private. You give your document or book a name, and then can start work writing right in your browser, complete with rich in-line Markdown formatting, local saves so you won’t lose data even if your internet connection drops, and full rich-text preview to see how your finished work looks. Then, you’ll save your changes — or rather, commit the changes to your project — and then you export your work in any format you want, or share a direct link to your Penflip project with anyone.
That’s where collaboration comes in. You can invite people to join your project and contribute, or they can fork your project and have a whole separate copy they take their own direction — and you can then merge their ideas back into your original document. It’s the same way open source software collaboration works on GitHub, but here it’s all about writing. With comments on every saved change, and comments when people send changes for you to import, it’s detailed collaboration that makes sure nothing gets lost.
And then, remember: Penflip is still a git server at its core, so if you’re familiar with the terminal you could fork and commit to Penfip projects using standard git. Even better, you can use GitHub’s apps for Mac and Windows to sync Penflip projects, then continue your writing in your favorite local writing app. When you’re finished, you can commit your changes in the GitHub apps and sync everything back to Penflip, so you’ve got a solid record of your writing and can keep on collaborating with others.
Why Not GitHub?
Now, as mentioned earlier, GitHub has already been used for writing books collaboratively, and it still works great for collaborating on text that isn’t source code. It’s not designed specifically for writers, of course, but Markdown formatted text and source code are both raw text files. GitHub’s not focused as much on the intricacies of text editing, per se, in that it shows changes by line as makes the most sense for source code — but then, it still highlights changed words just as Penflip does. But, as you’ll notice in the screenshot below, GitHub treats paragraphs as one line — individual word and character changes are still tracked, but it’s rather tedious to look through a full paragraph pushed into one line to find changes. Penflip’s focus on writing really does make a difference.
That difference boils over to the rest of the web app experience as well. GitHub is still centered around pushing code commits via their apps or the terminal, where Penflip has everything you’d need in the web app, and using external apps is an extra if you want it. There’s basic in-browser editing in GitHub, but not enough to want to write a book with. And then, there’s the pricing differences: Penflip’s current pricing that allows up to 100 private or public projects for free is far better than GitHub’s unlimited public projects for free but starts at $7/month for private projects.
Then, there’s other git hosting services — and the potential to run git on your own servers. Those could be great options, too, but for the average writing team, you’ll be doing good to use any version control system. GitHub’s going to take a lot of training, but it’s possible to use it for writing teams. Penflip is going to be a lot easier, but it’ll still take a change in the way you work and think about text. But then, that’s a change in thinking that’ll likely seriously benefit your team itself.
Penflip is an ambitious attempt to rework git into a system that can revolutionize writing the same way it did source code management, and it almost succeeds. If you’ve never used git, you can still figure out how Penflip works without way too much difficulty — and if you prefer to write offline, as so many of us do, it’s the one writing web app that actually works perfectly with your offline apps thanks to git and the GitHub apps.
It’s still geeky, but it’s taken the rough edges off git and made it far more approachable for the average user. That’s quite a great accomplishment. And for those who already know how git works, it’s still a nice writing-focused git service that’d make more sense in many ways than GitHub for your next writing projects.