Co.Design

Editorially Wants to Redesign Writing For The Web

Can this cloud-based writing app help kill Microsoft Word? God, we hope so.

Where do you do most of your writing? It’s probably in a blogging dashboard (also known as a CMS), a plaintext editor, or Microsoft Word. If you do a lot of writing in any of these environments—say, for your job—you also know that all of them suck. Why? Because they were all designed for something other than “making it as easy and effective as possible to create and edit written content intended for digital publication.” Editorially, a new startup founded by Mandy Brown (formerly of Typekit and A Book Apart, aims to fix this. And, as a pixel-stained wretch who’s been using Editorially to do my job for the past week, I say: thank god.

First, the problem that Editorially was founded to solve: None of the aforementioned apps, says Brown, “understands what an editorial work flow looks like now.” Desktop publishing workhorses like Word “are rooted in a print environment,” she tells Co.Design. They digitally mimic typographic, editing, and publishing conventions (like the dreaded “track changes”) held over from the days of pasteups and mechanicals. Google Docs doesn’t escape Brown’s scorn, either. “It’s just Word in the cloud,” she says. “It still has ‘page breaks’ you can’t get rid of—it’s still thinking about that sheet of paper. It’s also committed to a synchronous collaboration model—standing over someone’s shoulder while they work—that we don’t think everybody wants.” And CMS’s? Forget about it: “They’re great for digital publishing, but not great for authoring,” she says.

Brown and her team (which includes digital-editorial design all-stars like Jason Santa Maria and Ethan Marcotte) created Editorially to give digital authoring “its own space,” unhindered by the peccadilloes of coding, formatting, displaying, tagging, and other noise. But they also designed it for teams: writers, editors, and “ad hoc advisers” that need to contribute to a text without getting in each other’s way.

First, the writing part. Editorially is essentially a lightweight plaintext editor: lots of white space for making sentences in, with only a tiny strip of UI chrome along the top edge of the window. The typeface, JAF Facit, feels like a massage chair for your eyeballs—a killer feature unto itself. But Editorially’s real UX muscle comes from its support for Markdown.

Markdown is a set of ultrasimple typographic conventions that converts plaintext into clean HTML. In Editorially, you never have to format the appearance of your text by clicking WYSIWYG buttons for boldface, italic, and the like; nor do you have to type out clumsy HTML tags. Instead, Markdown lets you use asterisks, numbered lists, and other “human friendly” shortcuts for basic structuring. “It lets you focus on writing and structure: what the words are, not how they look,” Brown explains. It’s a subtle idea that took me a while to get my head around at first, but after using Markdown in Editorially, I never want to go back.

When it’s time to get feedback on a draft, Editorially’s collaboration tools let you avoid the pain of emailing .docs back and forth. “The initial inspiration came from when Jason [Santa Maria] and I were working on Typekit and A Book Apart at the same time,” Brown says. “It quickly became a mess of emailed Word files and Dropbox folders. We wanted something really web-native and social, instead, that could allow people to work in a way that felt natural, instead of getting in their way.”

Editorially’s web-based interface lets you invite “collaborators” to any document to provide generalized, “top level” feedback (delivered in a separate threaded view, sort of like a tiny shared blog or chat). For changes to the draft itself, Editorially uses version control and comments rather than Word-style “track changes”—a decision partly inspired by collaborative programming tools like Github, according to Brown. “You don’t need to micromanage the editing process—just you need to see changes and conduct your discussion in a light-handed way,” she says. “Editorially’s model is more about conversation than command and control. Instead of reviewing every edit and unflagging it, we should be talking about what we’re doing and why.”

The result is something both more and less than a word processor or CMS. In Editorially, writers don’t have to think about formatting or code, and editors don’t have to heave cumbersome fixed documents back and forth. The process is more of, well, a process. And when it’s time to publish, Editorially can export a clean-as-the-driven-snow HTML file—ready for any fancy visual treatment a CSS jockey can dream up. (Or none at all.)

The system isn’t perfect yet, but that’s not necessarily Editorially’s fault. Many of my editors would still prefer to have Word documents emailed to them, and even “clean” HTML is relative: The CMS we use here at Co.Design, for example, introduced some annoying formatting errors even after I pasted Editorially’s HTML output into the body-text field. But evolution doesn’t happen all at once. At least Editorially is a step in the right direction: digital writing tools should be designed for digital writing first, not for all this other crap. Between the Scylla of Word and the Charybdis of your CMS lies the way forward, and Editorially feels like a solid vessel for attempting the passage.

[Check out Editorially]

[Image: Keyboard via Shutterstock]

Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design (illustration)

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11 Comments

  • bgfay

    I've been writing with Editorially only for a day but it reminds me of how much I focus on words when there is no option to focus on formatting. The tasks are best left separate for me. I love Google Docs and the ways that it has improved over time, but this model is a good one also and the presentation is gorgeous. 

    My guess is that people will call for all sorts of bells, whistles, and options. I urge the Editorially team to keep it simple. This should be a digital typewriter. That's what writers need. 

  • johnnycho

    I find that formatting IS a part of writing, and not just AFTER but during. For example, I would love to have been able to italicize the words "is" and "during" in the previous sentence, while I was writing it. And having just now tried the Editorially beta for a couple of minutes (I know that's not a fair length of time but already I'm encountering things I don't like about it), I don't see how writing *this* with asterisks on either side is a better way to italicize text than seeing the word italicized *sans* asterisks, as you would in MS Word and Google Docs and even Pages and WordPress. In fact, the Editorially method is worse -- it adds visual clutter. (Even worse is putting words in boldtype by adding TWO asterisks on either side. Seriously? Ugh.)

    I would like to continue to explore Editorially further, but frankly, as someone who does a lot of writing, this method of formatting text is a complete non-starter for me. I'll take those "WYSIWYG buttons for boldface, italic, and the like" any day of the week.

  • bowerbird

    if the service was as good as you say it is,
    it would've been out of private beta by now.

    -bowerbird

  • lpdechow

    They have it in private beta, to firstly, check how people are using the app more precisely targeting features and design to better adhere to them.
    Secondly they do this in order not to bring overload to the servers, this is a strategy much alike what MailBox app have done.

    Would you use the service if a million users were overloading it?

    It's a free application, they cannot afford (yet) expensive servers, hardware are what drives websites.

  • Guest

    Yeah you should test your product or make sure it can scale or anything like that, just bang up some code, sit back and profit

  • Daniel Diaz

    You are wrong in one thing, one of the top features that displays Google Docs is the Real Time Collaborative writing, so.. they are more than just Word on the cloud!

  • JS

    I'm curious to check out this product, but the out-quote above - "MARKDOWN LETS YOU FOCUS ON WRITING: WHAT THE WORDS ARE, NOT HOW THEY LOOK. " (Is it going to keep the formatting when I copy-paste? I'm leaving that in there!) seems counter-intuitive. We've reached the age where how things look is an important part of what they mean, and any writer who ignores that is holding on to the past. 

  • Jojo

    You're right on one hand JS — appearance is important.

    But, as we write, we should not have to concern ourselves with the *final* appearance of our words. We should be concerned with writing, and only marking up text to the extent that it gets our point across.

    Once we go into publication, only then should we concern ourselves with appearance — and any modern CMS worth its salt will walk you through that.

  • vickytnz

    I am curious to see whether the lack of inline comments remain. As a frequent user of GDocs (sorry, Google Drive), I personally found it annoying to not have it, as did some other editor/writer types I tried it out with (more here: http://blog.vickyteinaki.com/e... ) . It may be better than MS Word, but those of us who've used tools that let people collaboratively work on and annotate a document, it is a pain. Still, I do love writing in it at present, so hope that they will find some way to get around it.