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5 Version Controls for Writers Who Do Not Code

Mon Apr 07 2014

Version control allows you to track (group) changes to a document, taking a "snapshot" of the file at each save or a timed interval. This is incredibly useful when writing code, but it's also incredibly useful for writers as well. Even those writers who never plan on writing a single line of code.

If you do not use version control now, I can pretty much guarantee that if you get used to using it (outside of code), you won't look back. Intrigued? It only gets better from here. Let's take a look.

Seeing the Forest from the Tree

I see writing a lot like venturing into a forest. You don't necessarily know what you will find, and often times once you make the decision to go in a particular direction, the thick mental brush of the creative process obscures you from going backward. Blair Witch style.

True version control allows this backward movement. It allows you to write a document like a tree:

Branch off and go in a different direction, and if that does not work, you can always find your way back to the trunk. This functionality gives great power to the creative process because you can just go with an idea without having to worry about the consequences.

All your content is there in time, waiting.

If the above conceptual benefits do not appeal to you, then the logistics of being able to coalesce different editing and revision "branches" into a few, as opposed to many file revisions, or possible even just one file, should at the very least seem kind of cool.

So, let's take a look at how to take these snapshots if you are a content writer with no code experience whatsoever. I will cover a few different methods that should satisfy most use cases.

1. Google Docs

Difficulty: Slow

What you need to know: Google Docs addon repository has a version control option...that is really slow.

Let's cover Google Docs first. Google Docs can achieve version control functionality through the addon available through the new Docs add-on repository. In trying to use it, I found the load time to be unacceptable.

That option is there, though, and I'm sure will get better over time. Some kind of GUI Github integration seems likely to occur at some point, so keep your eyes out for that.

2. Wordpress

Difficulty: Easy

What you need to know: Wordpress has version control. It's there in the page settings, but called "revision history."

Many don't realize this. Few use it properly. That is, often times revision history is used in a 'oh shit' moment where the page gets borked and you need to restore a stable point. That is, it's usually used for pages with code in them. But you can work revision history into your content creation process as well. Make large-scale edits, and then go back it they don't pan out. You know, if you are crazy enough to actually write in the Wordpress editor in the first place.

3. Sync/Dropbox

Difficulty: Easy

What you need to know: Sync.com is an encryted cloud storage solution that offers version control for 30 days.

Simply install the software, and as you save your file(s), Sync will take a snapshot each time. I often write this way in markdown using the latest hipster code editor. Through the use of snippets, You can restore any version you want, for 30 days. In terms of pricing, they have a similar free 5g option like Dropbox, who also tracks changes for up to 30 days; however, Dropbox does not encrypt your data, whereas Sync does. If you must use Dropbox, their file and folder sharing capability comes in handy for group projects.

4. Github

Difficulty: Intermediate

What you need to know: if you can stand to use the command line, this is the most comprehensive option.

If you want to take version control to the extreme, then you think exactly like a coder would, and you use the illustrious Github, which allows you to commit your changes with a description of what is being changed. Others can also fork your content, make edits, and then submit them to you for approval. Or vice-versa. There's also like 46 other complicated things I don't really get, but don't worry. Understanding all of Github is one of the final bosses of the internet.

If you think this might be for you, then try Git and find out definitively. The command line is your friend.

5. Draft

Difficulty: Easy

What you need to know: Draft was designed specifically to address version control for writers. It's the new hotness.

While doing research for this article I stumbled across Draft, and I have to say that this is definitely the best option so far. It will display the differences between the version you are working on, and every other save that you have made. Additionally, it looks great, and will allow for imports from the expected sources. Definitely at least give this a whirl.

So: Version Control is Awesome. Use It.

In this post, we have learned that version control can be incorporated into the creative process so as to alleviate the worry that comes with making large-scale edits to a document. With freedom, comes creativity.

Version control can also allow for improved collaborative editing by avoiding situations where you have like 68 copies of the same file that represent minor edits between writer and editor. That should all be one file where the content editor can approve, and disapprove, the writer's changes, and this should all ideally occur without the use of email.

Personally, I think using version control is the only way to write, or do anything. When at all possible, deleting content permanently should be avoided; instead, changes over time should be indexed.

Update:

This post from Smashing Magazine is worth checking out. In particular the sections covering Prose and Typewrite. I will do a follow-up post that includes a review of these two options.

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