Remote writing: technology for the online writers room

How can a team of writers create a story when they don’t share the same city, schedule or way of working?

That’s what my two writers rooms faced. And to make the problem more complex, both teams started with a mere seed of a story idea.

Fortunately the writers rooms comprise 8 extremely talented writers who are willing to engage with the problems and to share their own approaches and ideas.

This post is about how we overcame these obstacles and how we adapt to new ones as they come along, for the project is still ongoing. It’s about how you can write together as a group remotely, in your free time, using free tools.

The problems

I formed 2 writers rooms, with 2 different story ideas, but the same goal — to create a story as a team.

The end goal is not to have a finished book or screenplay, but a detailed summary breaking out what will happen and in what order.

I chose this goal because a strong story comes across regardless of format — though the medium is important to shaping a story, I took the idealistic approach that a good story can be told in a variety of media.

The aim was to get the story in its clearest form. To me this is a treatment, a summary of the story.

To get there that we need a range of tools to help us explore ideas, comment, develop them, review and refine then review them further.

What we wanted

This project is much an experiment to find how best to write remotely using Agile methods as it is a goal to produce a good story (with the aim is to succeed at both).

The team knew it was an experiment and shared their technological or availability constraints.

But before we delved into looking at technical solutions, we had to solve the biggest barrier — personal separation.

Technology cannot replicate what it’s like to meet and know someone. That meant the teams had to meet each other.

This involved a kick-off workshop in person and was a key requirement. A one day workshop won’t solve all problems of knowing others, but meeting in person meant writers were more than just avatars and faces on a web chat.

Only then could we look at problems of technology. Only then could we look at using technology to help us talk.

Tools for the job

First it was agreed that whichever tool we’d use, we would approach each other with respect and to be constructive regardless of the medium.

Second, it had to be fairly straightforward to use across the range of technologies that the writers had.

Finally, it had to be free, or at least very cheap, as this project has a tight budget.

Through my freelancing I was used to Trello, Google Drive and Slack (a holy trinity in UK government when it comes to project management). They’re free so I used them along with Zoom:

  • Zoom (with subscription, free plans available) for conference calls — it works across multiple platforms and allowed writers to dial in from around the world without too much faff
  • Trello (free) — to manage tasks and resources (such as definitions, examples of templates and so on). Mainly used at beginning but to help team understand the documents as they grew. Cards were used to discuss ideas
  • Google Docs (free) — for longer ideas and for scene exercises. Handy for leaving comments on ideas or for free text, though the default of view-only sharing and having to submit comments keep causing problems
  • Slack (free) — each team had a channel to discuss ideas, one to schedule catchups (with simple voting on dates) and a general channel for both ideas

Review of technology

These tools have largely proved successful. The work is progressing and we are learning, which are the chief measures.

Most of these tools were new to the writers but all picked it up quickly and took the initiative. Slack has proved the most used, from ideas discussion (though these sometimes need corralling into a new document) and for general updates and reminders.

Getting Slack to do automatic reminds and nagging with its bots has helped take some pressure off managing two teams.

If I had the budget I think that combines many of the above but for now it’s too expensive.

Technology is just a tool for better stories

The aim of all this of course was to produce a story. Technological tools are great only if we have something to say.

Next time I’ll show you how we started from a simple idea and developed it into a complex story with a range of characters.

The project is ongoing and I’m happy to discuss further with if you’re interested. Despite the name dropping this post has not been sponsored or endorsed by any company.

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