Collaborative Writing with EtherPad

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Author: Robotech_Master

Ah, the sweet, sweet thrill of collaboration—working with one or more other writers, bouncing ideas off of each other, taking fire from your interactions and creating something greater than the sum of its parts. Is there any feeling quite like it? (Obviously not, or there wouldn't be so many books and stories with "and" in the byline.)

As many shared-universe settings as there are on Shifti (and elsewhere on the 'net), any tool that makes such writing easier will be extremely useful to at least some writers. This essay looks at some older ways of handling such collaboration, and introduces EtherPad, a shared-workspace text editor I have found extremely useful in writing collaborations elsewhere.

Old-Fashioned Collaboration

Collaborative writing has been a staple of on-line writing circles since the Internet began, or even before. Writing circles like DargonZine or SUPERGUY listserv featured shared universes, like the settings here on Shifti, where people could write individual stories set in the same world—but what would happen when characters from story A and story B met?

(This form of collaboration is not the same as "round-robin" writing, where people take turns writing chunks of story—a crossover collaboration requires each writer to be able to write, or at least vet, his own characters' dialogue and actions.)


In the past, this was largely handled through e-mail and chat—bouncing stories back and forth from one writer to another so each writer could fill in or revise the actions of his characters, or check what the other writer had written about them. This is probably how such crossovers had been managed since time immemorial, substituting postal mail or hand-carrying for e-mail of course.

Now that we have wikis (such as Shifti itself) wiki pages are often used to fill in for back-and-forth e-mail exchanges, but the principle is the same—only one person edits at a time, not both together.

This method works, but it loses the spontaneity of being able to react to situations as they happen: one character says something and another responds right away. But until recently, there has not been a better way.


Another method writers have used is to get together on an IRC channel, a chatroom, or an Instant Message client and write by turns—either "mini-round robin" style, or by roleplaying out the conversations and events and rewriting them into a story later. This can work, too, but it also requires more work afterward—going back through and editing, or re-writing the RP log into a prose story—and it does not allow going back to fix something if you made a mistake in a paragraph typed five minutes ago.


EtherPad is a free text editor built into a website. Any Javascript-capable browser can run it, and inviting new writers to join a given session is as simple as sharing the session's URL. It is not necessary to install any other software than a web browser to use EtherPad.

When users connect to an EtherPad session, they will be able to set a nickname and color for themselves, then anything they type will show up in that color. Other users will choose different colors of their own. It is then possible to have two or more people writing on the same story at once—responding to each other's dialogue, writing on different events in the same story at the same time, or checking each other's spelling and grammar. There is a chat window to one side for "table talk," or for spectators to kibbitz while the writers write. Anything that is written is saved automatically, though it is also possible to take manual "screenshots" of a story the way it is at any given moment.

After the story is complete, it can be copied and pasted into a normal text editor or word processor for reprocessing, or into a wiki edit window.

This form of collaboration combines the immediacy of roleplaying with the ability to edit and change things of a normal text editor. When paired with a good writer, this can be one of the most fun ways of all to write a story together.


  • Keep in mind the forum where you will post the story, and use the appropriate markup. For instance, if your story will be posted to a web board, you might as well use [i]italic[/i] or [b]bold[/b] notation. If for a wiki, such as, use the apostrophes. That will keep you from having to go back in and add markup later.
  • Remember that you are writing, not RP'ing—unless your story is intentionally written in the present tense, remember to write in past tense.
  • If you get a "Connection Lost" message and you were in the middle of writing something, copy your last paragraph or two before you reload the page. It is possible you might lose a few sentences of what you were writing on reconnection.
  • Don't get into edit wars with your other writer. You can always go back and change things later. And don't get so bogged down in editing that you forget to do your share of the writing, too.