Dylan Tweney

The top tools for collaborative writing, part 1: Writing and editing

Dylan Tweney 5 min read
Photo showing three writers working at laptop computers in the middle of a group of people at a conference
Just some writers working together at a conference somewhere. Photo: Michael O'Donnell

What tools do you need to make a collaborative writing project successful? 

At the most basic level, the minimum requirements are a word processor and some way to share your documents with others. 

Yes, Google Docs ticks both of those boxes. But let’s look at what content professionals actually use — there’s more variety and nuance than you’d expect. And if you’re managing content projects of any complexity, you need more than word processing: You also need project management.

I’ve been using and experimenting with tools in both categories for my entire career, and I’ve led several projects aimed at creating better collaborative tools for the teams I’m part of. Writing tools I’ve used just in the past few years include Google Docs and Microsoft Word, of course, but also Notion, Scrivener, Ulysses, Bear, Obsidian, and Apple Notes. For a while I was even writing notes and drafts in BBedit. (I don’t recommend that unless you’re writing code, but it was worth a try.)

But that’s just me and my teams. To find out more about the state of the art, I asked professional writers, editors, and content creators across my network to respond to a survey about their collaborative writing processes, tools, and more. 

The participants were a diverse group of content and communications professionals with decades of work history creating various types of content, including blog posts, bylines, press releases, social media copy, research reports, and more. Although the survey size was small (38 participants), they represent a deep pool of experience. 

In my last issue of this newsletter, I shared what the survey revealed about the types of writing content pros create. I found that 80% of content pros are writing blog posts, and another 63% are writing bylines or op-eds. 

In this issue, I’m looking at what respondents say about the tools we use.

Let’s start with the writing itself. 

Writing and editing tools

It’s no surprise that Google Docs is the runaway favorite tool for writing and editing, used by 79% of all content pros. (It’s my favorite as well.) It’s free, widely available, easy to use, and supports simultaneous real-time editing in the cloud.

That last point might seem like no big deal at this point, but it’s significant. In another survey question, a number of respondents indicated that they don’t have a way to count the number of revisions their projects go through, because revising is a continuous, interactive process with their collaborators. 

Google Docs is optimized for this kind of continuous, collaborative writing. With documents residing in the cloud, edits and comments from other collaborators appear on your screen in real time, enabling a truly seamless collaboration experience that few other word processors have been able to match.

Microsoft Word is also used by a majority of content creators: 61%. Even for writers and editors who would prefer to spend their working days in Google Docs, Word is often unavoidable, because it’s the tool used by many clients, partners, or other outside collaborators.

Word is a fine editing tool and it has arguably stronger features than Google Docs for doing basic design and layout. Microsoft has also added support for real-time collaboration through a web-based version of Word. Unfortunately, my experience with Word’s Web version is that it’s clunkier to use than Google Docs. For example, comments are harder to find and resolve, which limits the conversational nature of collaborative editing. And the grammar and spell checker are unpredictable and often wrong. 

With Microsoft Word, collaborators can also download files and edit them in the more powerful desktop version of the software. While it’s possible for those edits to appear in real time on collaborators’ screens, this only works if every collaborator is fully onboard with the Microsoft Office ecosystem. The result is that, with Word, you’re almost certainly going to wind up saving files locally and emailing them to your collaborators. This then means that the team has to keep track of different versions, which can quickly become a headache if multiple people create different versions at the same time.

A few professionals do their content creation in Google Slides (29%) or Microsoft PowerPoint (24%). Only 5.3% (two respondents) use Apple Pages.

Other writing and editing tools mentioned by respondents include Canva, WordPress, Papyrus Author, and Scrivener. I use Scrivener a lot for my own writing, and it’s a powerful tool for writing and organizing long-form content. However, it lacks collaborative features, so I can’t recommend it for team writing.

In my next post, I'll talk about the project management and publishing tools that content pros prefer. Stay tuned!

What editing tools do you prefer to use for collaborative writing and editing? Let me know in the comments, or send me an email.

See also:

MORE: The collaborative writing series

  1. Writing as a team
    How creating content collaboratively is different from solo writing
  2. The POWERS process for effective team writing
    A six-step method for making collaborative content creation simpler and more effective
  3. How to start a writing project with a team
    How to prepare effectively for a group writing project (this post includes links to two templates you can use: an assignment brief template and a meeting agenda for kicking off a content project)
  4. Three ways to write an outline - plus one that is better than all the others
    Why an outline is so important, and 4 different types of outlines
  5. How to write - and how to avoid writer's block
    5 tips for getting started when you’re stuck
  6. Avoiding that "Untitled document" feeling in Google Docs
    How to ensure that no one is confused about what to do next.
  7. What does an editor actually do?
    Good editing aims at improving the writer as well as what they’ve written
  8. Release management for content products
    How to create and use a pre-publication checklist (includes a sample checklist template you can use)
  9. How to measure content effectiveness
    Quantitative and qualitative metrics you can use to study and improve content production.
  10. Blogs are alive and well, survey data shows
    Over 80% of professional content creators are busy writing blog posts for our companies and clients, according to my survey.
  11. The top tools for collaborative writing, part 1: Writing and editing
    Google Docs is the runaway favorite tool for writing and editing, used by 79% of all content pros.
  12. The top tools for collaborative writing, part 2: Project management and publishing
    What's the best choice for managing an editorial calendar? Once again, Google tools lead – but that's not the whole story.
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