Draft – Version Control and Collaboration for Writers

So it turns out that writing is rather difficult. I know, hard to believe, right? Well, if you’ve ever tried to articulate and record your thoughts on a particular subject then I think it’s safe to say you know exactly how I feel. There are places you get hung up on throughout the process, but the one part of the process that is always at least a little tricky to me is just that, the process.

As it turns out, there are lots of other writers out there that share the same problems and as luck would have it one of them is a web developer. Nate Kontny is a writer and developer who built Draft specifically to make the process of writing easier.

Writing Process

The process isn’t the same for everyone, but generally any bit of writing will involve at least a couple of the same steps. You’ll get your ideas written down in one form or another and then you’ll take a stab at that first draft. You’d then hop back to do some refining and editing and You’d stay in that loop until you’re happy with the result. And depending on your situation you may have some others involved in the process helping you edit and refine your writing.

This doesn’t sound incredibly complicated but I can tell you from experience, once you’re in the middle of it can be quite daunting. And worst of all it usually feels so inefficient. The process or writing and editing and refining raises several potential problems. There are some services and features of applications that can make versioning and collaborating a bit easier, but there’s always enough complexity to make it seem not worth the trouble to me.

One of Draft’s core features is version control. The application allows you to create and compare, in a visual manner, drafts of your work. Let’s take a closer look.

Version Control and Collaboration

For those that aren’t familiar with the term let’s just nail that down real quick. Software engineers use version control heavily in their process and even though it may not be totally obvious, there are some process commonalities to writing. Engineers write a lot of code and that code gets refactored or changed as the development process moves along. And of course the code needs to be checked out by others to make sure everything is on the up and up. And a super important component of a versioning system is that you can go back in time to track exactly what changed and when it changed. Git, one of the most popular versioning systems combined with Github, one of the most popular Git web services, allows you amazing control and transparency into every little thing that changed with every line of code at any given time. It’s difficult to imagine software development without a versioning tool of some kind.

One of the core features of Draft functions quite similarly. In fact, a lot of writers have tried (with varying levels of success I’m guessing) to actually use Git and Github as writing versioning systems. As you write you’re able to mark drafts as you see fit and then visually compare all of your drafts in one view to see just what changed and when it changed.

Draft comparing drafts

Comparing drafts

Another one of the helpful features of a service like Github for developers is that it allows for others to look at your code and make very specific comments on it. The benefits of collaboration at this level can be extremely valuable. And, of course, it all gets recorded as part of the overall history of the development of the software.

Draft commenting

Commenting on a specific section.

With Draft you can share your writing with others and they’re able to make comments on your writing. They can essentially drop a comment wherever they see fit. Those that you’ve shared with can also propose changes to your work and you’ll be given the opportunity to accept or reject the changes as you see fit. This would be similar to a Pull Request in the Github world. It’s a really lovely collaborative feature that gives the writer full control of what is happening with their work while remaining very open to collaboration.

Draft reviewing changes

Reviewing proposed changes

Working with drafts combined with the collaboration tools in writing really is version control at the most general level. Draft just helps make the act of creating drafts and then actually making use of those drafts incredibly easy.

Everything Else

Draft is one-man shop. Nate Kontny is a seasoned developer who’s taken a really great approach to building this application. He started with the real pain points that writers feel and has continued to be extremely active in both refining the core features of Draft (like the drafts and collaboration) as well as regularly releasing new features. Let’s check out some of the other features that are available in Draft.

Organization and Export

Draft can be the central place to organize your writing. Your work can be organized into basic folder/file structure. There’s nothing too fancy here. You can create folders and move files around as you see fit. I like to think I’m a fairly organized writer and this level of organizational control has been sufficient for me.

Draft organization

Organization

You can export your work to a handful of different file types which include markdown or text, HTML, Word or Google Docs, PDF, Kindle (.EPUB), or .MOBI. That sure feels like it covers just about every conceivable format that just about any writer would need to work with and again, has been completely sufficient for me.

Write, Edit and Publish

Writing in the editor is done in Markdown and some keyboard shortcuts are provided to make things a little easier. You’ll find the basics such as bold and italic as well as shortcuts to add an image or a footnote.

Adding an image via the shortcut (or menu) enables you to pick from any file on your computer or any of a number of services that you can connect to Draft. For example, you could grab an image from your Instagram or Flickr or accounts or even Dropbox. There are several other services available to connect as well as basic FTP or WebDAV connection options. The shortcut allows you to select an image and then generates the Markdown with the link for you automatically.

Writing is only part of being a writer. You’ve now got to publish what you’ve written for the world to see. Draft has some predefined connections to popular services that allow you to publish via the web app. To be honest, I’ve not used this particular feature of Draft, but I like the idea and the flexibility it allows. The idea of being able to do all of your writing in one place and publish where you’d like is certainly appealing.

The Other Stuff

We’ve now hit on what I think most of us would deem as the core functionality of Draft and then some, but there are still a whole pile of other features that could also be extremely useful.

There’s a Hemingway writing mode which, when activated, doesn’t allow you to delete go back while you’re writing. The idea is to just get everything out there and then worry about going back to edit and refine later on. It’s a good habit to get into and this helps force you to take that path in your writing.

There’s also a Simplify feature that is reasonably new. By clicking the Simplify button you’re asking Draft to analyze your writing and suggest some possible places for clean up. What you see then is that you have another collaborator suggesting some changes that you can either accept or decline. I haven’t had the chance to test this out a whole lot, but it seems to do a pretty solid job suggesting some valid places to cut.

If you’re a solo writer don’t worry, you can use the Ask a Pro feature to bring in a collaborator. What you’re doing is asking a pro to analyze your writing and propose edits. There is a fee to this service (with a money back guarantee), but I have to say it’s a pretty great idea and seems quite worth it. The Pros are brought in as collaborators on your work and you’re notified when their suggested edits are ready for you to review.

Final Thoughts

This whole article was written using Draft. I’ve been gradually doing more and more writing in the service, and I’m now at a point where just about all of my writing is done using Draft. I hit pretty hard on the drafts and versioning as that is really the core functionality of the application, but I can safely say that there are several features that I didn’t get to in this article. Draft is an extremely useful application for writers and is continually getting more useful.

The development on Draft is very active and it’s being built by someone that is not only a web developer, but a writer. Writers share a lot of the same problems and having someone who really understands those problems attempt to solve them yields some pretty great results.

Draft is a wonderful product and one I highly recommend do anyone that does any writing (yep, I guess that’s all of you).

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