<span class='p-name'>Digital Texts and Tools to Support the Writing Process</span>

Digital Texts and Tools to Support the Writing Process

In this blog post I share some new digital texts and tools I've been playing with as I continue to evaluate my own writing process. Play with...and take a look at EtherPad clones, Twiddla, and Draft the next time you, or your students write.


Since wrapping up my dissertation I’ve spent about a year thinking deeply about my writing process and the new frontiers available for writing in and out of our classrooms. I’ve invested much more time documenting my learning and research process here on this blog. I’ve also advocated for online content construction by students and teachers as they make, blog, or create online content to document learning process and product. From a research standpoint, one of the biggest nagging questions that I’ve had since wrapping up the dissertation involves the challenges students have as they move from working individually to collaborating with others while working online. To that end, I’ve been working with a ton of digital texts and tools to identify “best practices” for working with these instruments.

When I write I never really use Microsoft Word, or Office products at all. I’ve detailed how I use Evernote and Google Docs for all of my writing. In fact, the last time I used Microsoft Word was to submit a description for a book chapter that I wanted to write with some colleagues. We did all of the writing via Google Docs…and then submitted the manuscript in Word. I received feedback here on the blog from Kristy Pytash (one of the editors of the book) that the editorial team used Google Docs in some of their planning as well. This makes me wonder about how long before we can complete all of our work using tools like Google Docs. In this blog post I would like to focus on some of the other incredible writing tools that are popping up online and challenge you to test them out to see what works for you.

Body Paragraph One – EtherPad Clones

One of my early favorites for writing and working collaboratively with colleagues was EtherPad. EtherPad was revolutionary because you could in “real-time” see what edits your colleagues were making to the document. While at the New Lit Research Lab I often used EtherPad with colleagues to share notes and write reports. EtherPad also included a chat window in the tool that allowed you to keep a running chat record of your conversations. EtherPad was purchased by Google and folded into Google Docs. The result of this is the ability in Google Docs to view your colleagues and their edits as they type them. The only thing that I wished was added to Google Docs from EtherPad was the ability to have a much more robust trail of edits and revisions in the document. In EtherPad all text added to a document was color-coded based on the author of the text. The revision history is often a challenging, missing element of Google Docs…especially when you have multiple students working on the same document and want to adequately assess their work.

For this reason I suggest checking out some of the EtherPad clones that are available. As I stated earlier, EtherPad was bought out by Google…but there are a bunch of clones and modified versions available. Some of the ones that I have been using are TitanPad and HackPad. TitanPad is a great option for teachers that want to have their students use an environment like EtherPad and keep some control of the “pads” that you or students create. HackPad is a bit more informal…and I think a bit more fun. For those of us that frequently use free conference call phone numbers…or need a quick place to edit content over time…I recommend HackPad. There are multiple other EtherPad clones that are out there…the key is to sign up for them and start using them to see which one you like the best. Once you start using an EtherPad clone like TitanPad or HackPad you’ll immediately see the affordances of the tool.

For some guidance on how to use TitanPad, please view the following video.

For more on specifics on how to use HackPad, please view the following video.

Body Paragraph Two – Twiddla

EtherPad clones are fun…and Google Docs and Google Drawing are fun, but sometimes you want to be able to have a mix of interactive whiteboard, chat space, and text editor. In what reminds me a lot of the ill-fated Google Wave, Twiddla is a good tool to use in helping students collaborate and collectively build products. Twiddla builds in a lot of the multimodal content construction and sharing tools that our students are comfortable with using. Twiddla is sometimes a bit challenging for teachers and students to use because there is so much that you can do. As I stated with the EtherPad clones…take some time to play with it, or at least watch the video below to see if it is of value to you.

For an overview of Twiddla, please view the following video.

Body Paragraph Three – Draft

The final tool that I would like to share is Draft. Draft is a drop-dead simple, minimalistic interface for just writing. Hidden beneath this basic interface is a powerful structure for writing, collaborating, revising, and receiving comments on your drafts. What I really like about Draft is the ability to line-by-line see changes or revisions that you receive from others and decide whether or now you want to make the changes indicated. There is also a Draft extension for Chrome that allows you to quickly jump into the tool and start off a new document, or continue with an older one. Several of my students have been asking for a tool that they can use to routinely jot down ideas for papers or blog posts before submitting…Draft might be that tool. Once again, play with it for a bit and watch the video below to see if it works for you.

For an overview of Draft, please view the following video.


Keep in mind that I still use Evernote for most of my informal writing, note-taking, and planning for blog posts. All of the materials that I save in Evernote I plan on never sharing with others, unless I copy/paste it out to a blog post, or to Google Docs.  I use Google Docs for all formal writing, and collaboration with others. I also write up and share syllabi for classes with students in Google Docs. I regularly use…and enjoy using EtherPad clones in open community calls with Mozilla. IN future classes I’m considering having students use an EtherPad clone to build class notes, or collaboratively write papers. The tool that I plan on trying to start using more often is Draft for informal writing pieces. I think the real test will be to try it out with some colleagues during a writing project. I won’t use it for beginnings to blog posts. At this time I save drafts in WordPress for blog posts that I would like to finish at a later date. I usually have 3-4 different “stubs” of blog posts sitting in WordPress waiting to be finished. The materials for these posts will come from Evernote and Google Docs…but the writing (at least for the blog posts) starts and finishes in WordPress.

With all of these digital texts and tools there are various affordances that provide opportunities to work and write “differently.” My advice is to try out the different tools and see which one you like better. This might be for your own writing practice, or for your students. In the end, thinking deeply about our own writing process is a valuable experience.


Image CC by ashleyrosex

6 Comments Digital Texts and Tools to Support the Writing Process

  1. Gideon Burton

    A great survey of some foundational tools to try out with online writing. One of my concerns is the ephemerality of these very tools. This is why I am hesitant to use less known tools or those in beta. Even using a Google product is no guarantee (it really hurt when Google Reader closed). How do you deal with the possibility that certain online writing tools may not be stable or permanent?

    1. wiobyrne

      Hi Gideon,

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m also cautious about losing data as well. Just as I got this email from you, I received an email from Nathan Kontny (@natekontny). He detailed a couple of new features that were just added in as I posted here. There is a new import/export feature for Word and Google Docs…as well as export to Kindle. Those features alone are giving me more reason to try it out. I’m still trying to figure it out to see value in my own writing process…and for my students.

      Thanks again, Ian

  2. Kristy

    Hi Ian,

    We are using Google Docs to organize parts of the reading book as well. So just let me know if you are interested in submitting in a way OTHER than emailing/Microsoft word. Although this post is making me think about the ways we are asking authors to submit, giving feedback etc… Would the process be more streamlined if we used some of these other tools? Or, does that force authors into using certain tools they aren’t comfortable using? Just questions I have been thinking since reading your post.

    I really like the idea of using EtherPad to build class notes. I might be trying that out soon 🙂 Thanks for sharing.


    1. wiobyrne

      Hi Kristy,

      I think using Google Docs to have authors submit materials would ultimately have some positives and negatives.

      First, not everyone is dropping Word heading into the arms of these (relatively) alternative writing tools. I think there are a ton of people that know and love Word. I think you would be forcing authors into tools they don’t want to use.

      Second, with submission of drafts and revisions using tools like Google Docs, you’d have to address the issue of blinding of materials for review. Although I’d suggest that blinding is almost dead thanks to the Internet and being able to Google each other. Editors would be able to set up a process to protect the identity of author(s) and reviewer(s) but it would take some finagling.

      I might provide authors the opportunity to submit via gDocs, but not make it mandatory. I think it would be interesting to see who chooses to submit that way. Perhaps we should apply for the AERA Open Journal editors job and test it out. 🙂

      Good luck with the EtherPad clones. I think it’s a great tool that provides plenty of opportunities for writers to hold on to their ideas. Good to hear form you again!!!

  3. Kristy

    Hi Ian,

    I guess I should consult my co-editors 🙂 but I agree that it would be interesting to see how people decide to submit when given options. The open access comment is interesting — I am currently doing a project with ETC Press. It seems like we (or the field) are in this very unique place – and so it will continue to be interesting to see the shifts and changes.


    1. wiobyrne

      I agree. I think (just like all other intersections with technology) we’re at a crossroads. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out. I think that a lot of work needs to be done to reconsider and redefine all of the components that go into open access publishing. Much of this starts with people willing to “play” with and test the model.

      This is work that is very much needed.


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