Collaborative Writing Tools: An Overview

Image courtesy of Tammy Strobel

Image courtesy of Tammy Strobel

I received an email today from one of my former MA TESOL students asking if I could recommend any collaborative writing platforms other than Google Drive. Instead of just sharing this information with one person, I thought a blog post was in order. This post is not meant to be a comprehensive list of sites, but if you feel I am missing any that are worthy of mention, please share them in the comment section below.

Before diving into the sites themselves, I feel it is important to look at the various types of document creation that can be done with others. They break down into three areas:


  • Description: This means that instead of having one cloud-based document that is edited by various people, this is where a single document is shared between different people.
  • Example: This is the way most people used to share documents. They would email it to one another, copy it using an external drive, or would host it on a shared network folder (private network). A scenario would be where one person would make a Word document and would email it to everyone who would then download it, edit it or add comments, and then email back to the sender.
  • Problems: This is a nightmare to keep track of. Sometimes people would overwrite other people’s work, the person who was collecting the data would have to consolidate everything, and it was difficult to know which document was the most current. Added to that, not everyone could see the work that was being done. It was more cooperative instead of collaborative.
  • Suggested Sites:
    • Dropbox: Free website that allows you to host documents to share with others. It synchronizes all of the documents between those who share the document or folder.
    • Box: Similar to Dropbox, but a few functions that allow you to edit documents in Word and then save back to Box.

Hosted, one editor at a time

  • Description: This is where the document is created and hosted on the cloud, but only one person can edit it at one time. Editing is usually done in the browser, but there are some examples of where it can also be done in a word processor running on the computer.
  • Example: Wikis are the best example of this. One person goes in, makes changes, and then exits after saving. Others can’t usually edit while a person is in edit mode, although some wikis will merge data as well (not usually recommended). Changes aren’t ‘live’ until the person editing saves it.
  • Problems: Once again, this is mostly cooperative as opposed to collaborative. Also, people aren’t aware of the changes until it is saved, and some people don’t save their work very often. Lastly, you can’t go in and edit when it is best for you.
  • Suggested Sites:
    • Wikispaces: One of the best wiki sites for education. Teachers can create class spaces and students can create sites without using an email address (they use a code given by the teacher).
    • PBWorks: Similar to Wikispaces, but no student codes so they need to sign up with an email address.
    • Scrawlar: This is not a wiki, but a simple word processor and online whiteboard all in one. Teachers can set up student accounts so students don’t have to give any personal details. When the student saves a document, the teacher can see the changes, but only then. It is a nice site, even with a few limitations.

Hosted, real-time editing

  • Description: This is where document creation and hosting is in the cloud and where anyone with access can edit at the same time with results appearing ‘live’ on the page to everyone.
  • Example: Google Drive is the most common example of this. When you create a document in Google Drive, anyone you give access to can edit it and everyone sees the changes immediately.
  • Problems: This can get a little messy if you have a large number of people editing at the same time. I have even had my information overwritten while I was typing in a shared document. Also, some people feel they would rather work on things in private so others don’t see their work until it is finished. Lastly, you need a good internet connection unless you have set up offline editing (which then becomes more like a wiki).
  • Suggested Sites:
    • Google Drive: This is the most common online office suite that allows for real-time editing and sharing of documents. Lots of tools and integrates with other websites such as Edmodo.
    • OneDrive: This is Microsoft’s online cloud host and editor for it’s office suite. You can edit in your own version of Office installed on your computer, or you can use the scaled-down version on the web. The web-based version allows for real-time collaboration. All in all, this is a really nice site, but still has some limitations.
    • Etherpad (various sites): Before Google Drive and Docs, there was Etherpad. Google took it over, stripped out what they needed to create their online editor, and then open-sourced the code for others to use. It is limited in what it can do, such as with images, but it is quick and simple. I have used one hosted by TitanPad for a number of years, but there is also PrimaryPad, MozillaPad and others using a version for themselves. TitanPad and MozillaPad allow for private groups to be created by teachers which is great for student security.

Like I said at the start, this is just meant to be a brief overview of collaborative writing tools, so feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section below.

Thank you!


6 thoughts on “Collaborative Writing Tools: An Overview

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