Co-Writing When Distance Separates You

Marcy here: You guessed it. I’m super busy too. But that’s actually a good thing for you because it means you get the second part of the co-writing posts we put together a while back and never made live.

How do you collaborate when you live miles–or even countries–apart?

Thanks to the Internet, you don’t have to let distance or conflicting schedules stop you. In fact, we usually only see each other once a year. The online community has created dozens of free collaboration tools you can use to connect remotely. Many of these share common features, like limiting public visibility, assigning certain editorial controls, and requiring you to sign up for a membership. Of the variety of platforms we’ve tried, here are our thoughts on what’s worked well and not so well. 

(We’ve only listed the free platforms we’ve tested. The fee-based platforms have a lot of bells and whistles, but the free platforms offer the basic necessities required for online collaboration. Some platforms, like WebEx, will also give you a free trial, but then want a monthly fee to continue using it. We’re all about free here.)


You can create a free WordPress blog, and using the P2 theme, establish a meeting place. P2 lets you post statuses or updates like you would on Facebook or Twitter. WordPress also allows you to import directly from Word with the “kitchen sink” feature that copies all formatting from one program to another, and use standard WordPress tags and categories, which is handy. We didn’t find this platform very helpful, but see its potential for a large number of people contributing to and editing a single work.

Word – Track Changes

With the track changes feature (under the Review tab in Word), Word embeds comments and changes directly in the text. If you’ve got multiple projects on the go, keeping track of which version you’re using for various projects can be tricky. We rename each version with our initials and the version number, so Chapter 2 LW1 or Chapter 8 MK3.

One caution—be sure you learn how to fully use the feature so you’re not sending an editor all of your edits and comments. We’ve found that this one is best left for longer projects like novels. It’s the option we’re using for our co-written novel.

To reduce the risk of confusion with a novel-length project, we send chapters back and forth in clusters of 5. When a cluster has finally passed our rigorous editing rounds, we save a clean version to a final file.

Google Docs

Google Docs is a free document platform where you can create, share, and view documents. There are limitations as to the amount of formatting you can do (margins, page orientation, fonts, etc.). For those unfamiliar with web formatting codes though, this platform does most of the basic formatting required by most publications with the click of a button. You can export a file as a Word document, but Google Docs has a habit of breaking the formatting codes. We don’t use this very often, but know of others who love it.


Writeboard is an online collaborative writing platform. (This company has several collaborative platforms, but they’re not all free.) You can share your writeboard with any number of people, and access your writeboard from any computer with internet access.

Writeboard has a few cons, like the lack of formatting tools and no word count feature, and you must set up separate writeboards for every project. However, once you’re done collaborating on the piece, you can export to Word, or another program, as either a .txt file or an .html file without glitches.

Writeboard automatically tracks every version and who worked on it, and has a comments feature. With one click you can switch back to previous versions (because you liked that paragraph the way it read two weeks ago).

We loved the built-in RSS feed. With a glance at our toolbars, we knew if the other had worked on the document without having to log in to check. Unfortunately, Writeboard will lock you out if your collaborator is working on the document though. And it’s much better for shorter projects.

Zoho Writer (Beta)

So far, the winner for us has been Zoho Writer, though it’s still in beta (a techie way to say they haven’t found all the glitches). Zoho has all the standard word processing features like formatting, page setup, and review tools, and comes with online storage, so we can save all our collaborative documents in one place.

Like Writeboard, it tracks your changes, so if you’re worried about losing your work you’re covered. Finding previous versions has been problematic. We’re hoping this is one of the “bugs” they iron out.

Zoho is our number one choice because it allows for editing and writing simultaneously in real time, has a chat feature, and lets you embed comments like the Track Changes feature in Word. Still no voice chat feature though.

This is the tool we used for creating the query letter, 1-page synopsis, and 3-page synopsis for our current WIP.

What programs have you had success with collaborating on writing projects remotely?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.