Wanted: An editor for editors

When I talk to people about the actual mechanics of creating Macworld in print and online, I often reference the idea of the sausage factory — you might enjoy the product that comes out of it, but you really don’t want to see what goes on inside.

At the risk of getting a little too inside baseball on you all, I wanted to talk about a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, one that’s at the core of what we do day in and day out when producing our web site and magazine: collaborative tools for writers and editors.

To put it plainly, they suck.

Now, this is not to say that there aren’t wonderful Mac tools for writing and editing out there. The Mac streets are positively littered with interesting tools, from the gold standard to the feisty competitors, to the clever permutations, to the rock-solid old standbys.

I could have kept that paragraph up for a long time, riffing on the various tools out there for people who need to write something on their Mac. But I said collaborative tools for writers and editors, and that’s where we run aground. (The only tools we’ve found that really meet this market are expensive content-management systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars and usually hook into page-design applications, an archaic concept for today’s Web-savvy publications.)

Two years ago, I recall sitting around a table at Macworld Expo, griping with a number of writers and editors — most notably Adam and Tonya Engst of TidBits — about how terrible Microsoft Word is when it comes to tracking changes, leaving comments, and otherwise passing around a document among various editors on an editorial staff.

Just about every editorial organization has a process by which writers submit stories, editors (often several of them!) comment on and edit the story, writers do some degree of re-writing, and so forth. It can be a simple process or a long and drawn-out process, but just about everyone has one. And there are, quite simply, no good tools out there (so far as we can tell) for doing the work that we need to do.

Sure, Microsoft Word will let you leave comments and track changes in a document, but its features are buggy and, in Word’s most latest iteration, incredibly annoying. And the numerous tools out there for the collection, check in, and check out of various versions of documents are almost entirely geared at people who write lines of software code, not paragraphs of carefully constructed verbiage. ( MediaWiki, the software on which Wikipedia is based, is great at version control and change-tracking, but it’s Web-based and can’t display changes in your document as you’re editing.)

In the past few months, Adam Engst and I have been working on a modest proposal of a sort — a document that details what we’re looking for in a tool for groups of writers and editors. What we’re hoping is that, somewhere out there, there’s a Mac developer who will take a look at our needs and decide that this is a woefully unserved market. That if there existed a Mac text-editing application that can intelligently track changes and comments across multiple versions and interface with a server-based version-control system, numerous editorial groups both large and small would embrace that tool.

Unfortunately, neither Adam nor I are programmers, so we can’t build this tool ourselves. And we don’t have budgets that would allow us to find a programmer and hire them to build the tool for us. But we can both commit to building a first pass on what features such a tool would have, offer ourselves and our organizations as avid testers us such a tool, and suggest that if such a tool did appear, we’d pay to use it.

The first public draft of our proposal is available here. You can read more about this from Adam’s perspective in this week’s issue of TidBits. If you’re an editor or writer in a workgroup, we welcome your feedback about needs that we haven’t anticipated or nuances that we’ve missed. And if you’re a developer, especially one with a background in text editors, we hope you’ll give our plea some attention.

We can’t say for sure, but we don’t think we’d be the only users for such a tool. At least, I hope not. Because I, for one, am mighty tired of dealing with the horrendous mess that is Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature.

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