Bridging the Writing Gap

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

A few months ago, we had an interesting discussion about what Software Carpentry should teach about writing and publishing in the 21st Century. One thing that came through loud and clear was the gulf between people who value the "I can see what I'm doing" of Microsoft Word and those who care more about the "I can tell what I did" of version control1.

Sites like Authorea, writeLaTeX, and ShareLaTeX are trying to bridge that gulf by giving people a WYSIWYG authoring tool in the browser that uses LaTeX as a storage format. This is pretty exciting: since it (potentially) allows collaborators to interact in whichever mode they prefer, it allows people to transition from one to the other instead of requiring them to make a great leap sideways.

Both sites currently allow people to save work on site or in Dropbox. It would be very cool if they also allowed people to save work in online version control repositories such as GitHub. Someone who isn't comfortable with version control could simply select "Save..." to push their changes, while someone who's already mastered pull requests and merging could interact that way, so that once again, the system could help people transition gradually from one mode to the other.

A lot of technical issues would have to be worked out, of course: would successive saves from the WYSIWYG tool be rebased automatically, how would merge conflicts be presented in the WYSIWYG interface, and so on. But I really like the idea that we could show bootcamp participants how to write the way they're used to, then how to do better when and as they are ready. If you're interested in working on this, please mail us; we'd be happy to help assemble a coalition of the willing.

[1] I still don't understand why diff-and-merge tools for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (and their Open/LibreOffice equivalents) don't ship with Git, Mercurial, and Subversion; I can't think of any technical advance more likely to increase uptake of version control by non-programmers.

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