Collaborative Editing—What’s the Deal?

September 10, 2021

For many people, networked writing tools like Google Docs are a triumph of the digital age. They dazzle students with their ability to wrangle even the toughest group projects! They astound you with their sheer convenience! The templates are fun!

But what about in publishing? How do these online platforms work when you use them for editorial? Despite what the name would suggest, actually editing using collaborative online editing can potentially be less than ideal—especially for young, ‘amateur’ editors and authors who are just starting out. At least, that’s been my experience. 

More than that, the collaborative aspect of collaborative online editing would allow an author to have access to the manuscript which could have its perks, right? Queries could be answered swiftly during the edit, and you wouldn’t need the hassle of back-and-forth emails when you can discuss things in comments. Collaborative online editing facilitates conversation around a work, and that’s what editing is: a conversation between an editor and their author.

Screenshots of Google Docs’ track changes feature. Photo credit: Taylor Hay.
Interaction between me and the author, ‘G’, using the comments.

Now, when your lecturers tell you that the writing and editing process is complicated the way that mine did (see below for hilarious re-enactment), the conveniences of Google Docs are appealing. 

Kermit The Frog Reaction GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
The exact GIF my lecturers used to show what the writing–editing process was like. Kermit the Frog, from The Muppet Show, typing manically on a typewriter. From Giphy.

This is especially true when you’re just finding your way into publishing and editing, when you know where the commas go but you don’t have experience on either side of the editor–author relationship. It’s a fair assumption to think that collaborative online editing might make the process a little smoother. But for first-time editors and ‘edit-ees’, using these platforms may actually be to your detriment.

The obvious concern with collaborative editing is that the author has access to the manuscript at the same time as the editor. Editorial’s normally like a structured debate: author presents manuscript, editor presents opinion, author considers then offers rebuttal, and so on and so on. If you use Microsoft Word (as most of the industry does), this process is a measured back-and-forth of documents, where manuscript versions are sacred and good file-keeping is key.

If you use Google Docs, you’re essentially asking an author to stand next to you and watch you tear their work apart. In real-time. Which could be understandably difficult.

Screenshots of interactions between me and my editor, ‘A’, on Google Docs.
Demonstration of how changes and comments can be rejected or ‘resolved’. Photo credit: Taylor Hay.

Google Docs didn’t make it easy. See, track changes and comments can be ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected’, but once they’re ‘resolved’? They disappear from the document. It’s a standard word processing feature, but one that isn’t really used when you work offline. Online, however…

It can be difficult to remember any ‘advantage’ of collaborative online editing when your editor keeps making your suggestions literally vanish.

But, I know first-hand that ‘amateur’ editors learn where the line is, and young writers learn how to stand their ground, through practice more than anything else. Google Docs is like being chucked in the deep end when you’re first learning to swim. For the inexperienced, the offline shallows might be a safer place to start.

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