Draft – web-based word processing for the non-print world.

Draft is a free web-based word processor with an emphasis on collaboration and version control.

Microsoft Word was created at a time when documents were printed, once for editing and then again the final product. These days many of our documents never leave the digital world and Draft is designed for this work style. It’s assumed that the writing, editing and publishing are all done on-line.

It is Markdown-based of which I’m a huge fan. However, Markdown is intentionally limited in features. This is a good thing since collaborators can quickly learn it. But, Markdown is no replacement for a full-featured word processor.

Files can be imported from Google Drive, Dropbox and others. Documents can also be created via email and sent to Draft. This is a very useful feature that many companies no longer offer.

Draft exports to PDF, Word, HTML and a couple others. Files can be directly published to WordPress, Blogger and more. (Although copy-and-paste seems easier.) Draft also offers a code-your-own publishing option through Webhook which is great for self-hosted sites.

Simply put, it is a very open tool.

Great for collaboration

Perhaps the best feature of Draft is version control. It draws from the coding community where projects become quickly hard to manage when many people are collaborating.

I only tested this process but the concept seems fairly simple. One person owns the master document. She/he sends a link to a collaborator who works on their own copy. The document owner can view and merge the edits as desired. Collaborators must register but only an email is needed.

Since collaborators work on a copy, there is no danger to the master document. Free to edit this page. Click here.

A few small things

Probably the biggest missing feature is a real-time chat mode (as Google Docs does). With all the chat clients available, this is probably not a problem. Draft does allow in-line comments (like Google), which are arguably more useful.

I didn’t encounter any advertisements but the possibility of them in the free version was mentioned.

I was amused by the “Hemingway mode” which disables the backspace key and forces you to keep writing. I doubt I’ll use the feature but it’s what we want our students do in their quick writes.

Draft offers a paid service to get your work edited by real people. (sort of like Uber for English majors, I guess) It’s an interesting financial model and I hope it is successful.

Simplenote — free, cross-platform note taking

Simplenote is a free note-taking tool that can be used on the web or natively on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android or iOS. (what else is there?)

Simplenote is one of the best, least-known free tools I’ve ever used. It is a mature product having been around since 2008. It was acquired by the good folks at Automattic who made the full version available to all without ads or cost. I don’t like exposing students to advertising, so this makes Simplenote great in education. Users do need an email address.

Remarkably, Automattic puts no limits on how many notes you can take. None!

Automattic has developed Simplenote for more platforms but has not succumbed to “bloatware.” For me, a note taking program must be fast and simple like a real notebook. (I’m not a fan of Evernote for that reason.)

Simplenote supports Markdown of which I’m a huge fan. Backup is beyond easy — just download a .zip file and read your notes with any text editor. Simplenote also has tagging, sorting, revision history, collaboration, publishing but not many more features.

Publishing is so easy! A couple of clicks and you get a shortened URL like simp.ly/p/8LTSXK to share with students or colleagues. It’s one of the easiest ways I know of to publish a simple web page. All for free!

I haven’t tried it but collaboration seems equally simple — just use their email address as a tag and it shows up on their account.

Too Simple?

Text Only

Simplenote is strictly text-based, so you can’t easily embed graphics or pictures from your phone. This is one of the useful features of “Keep” by Google, also a simple program. With Markdown, you can link to graphics but those have to be stored elsewhere online. A service like TinyPic makes this fairly easy but it is another step.

No Spell Check

This is probably another deal-breaker for some people, especially if you are using this as a tool to publish directly to the web.


Tool:  Simplenote
Description: A free, text-based note-taking program which synchronizes across all your computers and phones.
Usefulness: very

Typora – fast, free word processor for your everyday writing.

TyporaTypora is free Markdown-based word processor.

Microsoft Word and Apple Pages are amazing word processors but bigger is not always better.

I have much more modest needs for that vast majority of my writing — bold, italics, headlines, etc. I must not be alone because a whole bunch of Markdown based word processors have recently sprung-up.

My favorite is Typora. It is free, simple and cross-platform. I have used the Linux and Windows version for months.

For those not familiar: Markdown is a very simple text formatting scheme that came from how people were already writing emails.

bold   italic

You can use a minimal text editor to write Markdown because it’s just a text file but Typora allows you to see the formatting as you write. Formatting can also be done with short-cut keys. ctrl+b = bold,     ctrl+i = italic,    etc.

Typora exports to Word, PDF, OpenOffice, HTML etc. There are also programs which convert Markdown to just about any format.

I have used Markdown for book-length manuscripts and it worked very well. The file was gigantic and it bogged down my full word processor to a crawl. Since Markdown is just a text file, it didn’t have this problem.

You can insert graphics but you won’t use it for desktop publishing. For your everyday writing, Typora and Markdown could be ideal.


typora.io

Description: Markdown based word processor for Windows, Linux and Mac (beta)

License: proprietary but free for now.

Usefulness: very

 

The Book Patch — affordable, honest self-publishing

book_patch_logoThe “vanity publishing” industry has a reputation right down there with Nigerian emails but there are some good ones and TheBookPatch really stands out.

The biggest scams seem to be minimum quantities, set-up fees and hidden costs. The Book Patch has none of these. Disclaimer: I have not personally used this service but I found almost no complaints about TheBookPatch,which is unusual.

TheBookPatch is truly self-publishing which means they will publish anything but leave all the editing, design and marketing to you. They provide templates and writing tools but your book is your responsibility alone. While they sell books on their own site, promotion and sales are also up to you. Most teachers and schools don’t need these services, anyway.

For a class book project or a school memory book, TheBookPatch is an excellent choice. A teacher can print a 60 page, B&W, 6” x 9” class book for less than $3 a copy. A full-color book would be less than $10. This is considerably less expensive than other self-publishing services I have used. Very helpfully, you can order a single copy (at a reasonable price) of your book for proof reading. In my experience, typos are much easier to find in an “advance copy” of a book and well-worth the cost.

To publish with TheBookPatch, you need to create a PDF for the body of the book and a separate color JPG file for the cover. TheBookPatch offers templates and clear, specific instructions for creating these. They can also create an ISBN number, also at a reasonable price. ISBN numbers are not required unless you want to sell your books through retailers.

Write_onlineTheBookPatch is also a cloud site for writers. They offer an on-line word processor that integrates with their print publishing service. I would probably use OpenOffice or Google Docs (if you need collaboration tools). Any application that creates a PDF file should work.

Bottom line: An affordable source for class or school self-published books.


Tool: TheBookPatch
Description: Affordable self-publishing
License: Open Ethos
Alternatives: Lulu, Kinkos, local quick print, others
Usefulness: very

WPS Office – the best free office suite you probably haven’t heard of

I hadn’t heard of the freeware WPS Office but it has millions of users worldwide. It was started over 25 years ago as a DOS program by Kingsoft. This long history shows in its polished interface.
WPS Office looks vaguely like Microsoft Office but is more comparable to Libre/OpenOffice in its features. Power users will keep using MS Office but, for many users, WPS Office has more than enough features.

“WPS” stands for Writer, Presentation and Spreadsheet. It doesn’t have a database, desktop publishing, note-taking or other modules included in MS Office or even OpenOffice. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you only use the main three modules in MS Office.

WPS Office is highly cross-platform with implementations for Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android. The Linux version worked flawlessly for me but was less impressive on the iPad.  It claims to have collaborative and cloud features which I didn’t test.  There is also a pro-version but the free version is not crippled.

WPS Office offers templates and product support within a document window of WPS Office. You don’t need to web browse to separate page to find templates. Some people may find this intrusive but I expect more products to start doing this.
I like how WPS Office handles style sheets. Styles can be modified directly from the side panel without having to burrow down through menus. It is also very easy to switch between print view mode and web view mode which is useful if you are writing for both.

I was disappointed that WPS Office doesn’t support the Open Document standard but many people will be glad that it can use Microsoft formats by default.
WPS Office’s native format uses a *.wps extension (confusingly, the same as MS Works.) If you want to test compatibility I’ve exported an original .wps document to:  PDF  .doc and .docx  (right click to download)

I probably won’t switch from OpenOffice/LibreOffice since I use the draw module more than anything else and WPS Office has only the three modules. That being said, the Writer module of WPS Office handled frames well which is the core feature of desktop publishing. Also, as a matter of principle, I favor open source tools rather than just freeware.

Bottom line: good free suite if you often work with MS Office documents.


Tool: WPS Office
Description: three-component freeware office suite
License: open ethos (freeware)
Alternatives: LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Abiword, Google Docs
Usefulness: very

Laverna – encrypted note taking with no registration.

Laverna_logoLaverna is another encrypted note taking program, similar to ProtectedtText which I reviewed in September.    While not a feature powerhouse, Laverna has more formatting options than ProtectedText.   It also has the security advantage of storing your files on your own computer, if you are worried about your files being stored on the ProtectedText servers.
Laverna files can also be stored in DropBox which is convenient but a concern if you are worried about the NSA or other high-level snoops who collect this kind of data.  However, it’s good if you are worried about privacy at work, since your files are stored off-site.  In any case, your files are powerfully encrypted and (supposedly!) not accessible even by the NSA.
Laverna_Screenshot   Laverna requires no registration and is very easy to set-up if you store your files locally on your computer.   Storing your files on DropBox involves a somewhat complex set-up.  You need to create a DropBox “app” for Laverna which is a little geeky but worked flawlessly for me.
I’m not sure which program is more secure but Laverna is much better for formatted text since it supports basic word processor features  (bold, italic, images, etc).   ProtectedText is simply text.
Even if you don’t use Laverna or ProtectedText, you should use something like it.  Hackers and snoops are a real problem and “cloud” office suites give you no protection from them.  Both programs automatically encrypt your notes while remaining easy to use.
Bottom line:  While a little difficult to set-up, Laverna is worth the effort if you want a secure note-taking program.  (and you should want it!)


Tool: Laverna
Description: free encrypted note taking, with no registration
License: OpenSource (GNU GPL v.3)
Alternatives:  ProtectedText
Rating: useful

Protected Text – free, secure note taking in the cloud.

ProtectedText_logoProtectedText does one thing:  encrypted text.  

If you need to share or collaborate securely with parents or co-workers, it doesn’t come easier than ProtectedText.

Recent news stories reveal that our “cloud” data is not secure and, best I can tell, this would include Google Docs.  ProtextedText does not require any sign-in our accounts — and no advertising — solving all kinds of other issues.

Creating a new document could not be more simple: just create a URL and start typing.  As in:

https://www.protectedtext.com/[AnyFileNameGoesHere]

Be aware that ProtectedText has two levels of security, both important.  The first is the name of your URL.  The longer and more obscure your file name, the more secure.

https://www.protectedtext.com/aFazDjbupeqP2eVgjD8A
will be much more secure than:
https://www.protectedtext.com/Fred

The second level of security, of course, is the length of your password.

If you are worried about serious hackers, make both very long.  But, if you are just worried about snoopy students or other amateurs, something memorable is fine.

ProtectedText has the age-old problem of single-key encryption: you must somehow give your collaborator the file name and password.   Obviously, if you do this on the Internet, you compromise your security.    The best strategy is to hand it personally to them on a piece of paper.

A deal breaker for some will be that ProtectedText is just text.  Nothing more — not even font formatting or links.
ProtectedText-explain

Geeky tech stuff:   Best I can tell, ProtectedText is genuinely secure.  (It’s not NSA-proof, however.  For that, you’ll want something like PGP.)   It is secure because the encryption is done with JavaScript  locally on your own computer before it is sent to ProtectedText‘s servers.  When it is sent, it’s done with HTTPS, giving you another layer of security. So, if you create a long file name and password, it should be quite secure.  I use LastPass for storing my passwords but I would consider PotectedText if I had a short list of passwords since it seems to use the same technology. You might have noticed my “should be” language.  These days, I am never feel totally safe on-line but it is worth trying to stay ahead of the snoops and thieves.

In summary:  If you need to send a secure message or collaborative document. it doesn’t get easier than ProtectedText.


Tool: ProtectedText
Description: free, online, encrypted note taking, with no registration
License: OpenEthos
AlternativesLaverna,
Rating: useful

Open Font Library – free, high quality fonts, without a hassle

open font library logoThere is no quicker way to get a virus than to click on a “1000s of Free Fonts!”link in Google.  Even if no virus, they often require registration, installing spyware or some other nuisance.

Instead, go to:   Open Font Library.    This is part of larger Libre Graphics Initiative which also supports the very useful program, Inkscape.

open font library ScreenshotFree Font Library offers only a few hundred fonts which may seem weak compared to the other sites which brag about thousands of fonts but good graphic artists know that a few high quality fonts are much more valuable than lots of shoddy fonts.  A high quality font offers separately-designed italics, bold and small caps as well as support for symbols and non-English characters.

Very importantly, Free Font Library provides a very nice font specimen which allows the user to see the font in all its formats. And, downloading is just a click.

If you need a wild decorative font then you will probably still need to risk a virus and go to one of the “1000s of Free Fonts!” websites but for your everyday needs, Open Font Library is the place.


Tool: Open Font Library
Description: free (virus free!) fonts
License: various, but all open
Alternatives: many others
Rating: very useful

 

Shutterborg – free, easy web-based word processor

logoShutterborg works so well I just needed to review it  even though I’m not sure how to use it.
It is simple a “cloud” word processor that requires no sign-in or account.   It creates a PDF, Word Doc or HTML file all which are useful for printing.
Unfortunately, Shutterborg does not save your document in the cloud so it is mostly just useful for single-session writing.
jjffjj_shutterborg_screenshotShutterborg‘s  most intriguing feature is that it allows you load a file from a web page.  For example, you can load a Wikipedia article and edit it as a word processor document.   Again — it works very well but I’m not sure of how this might be used.
Shutterborg does have some advertising on the initial screen but, otherwise, it is distraction-free writing.


Tool:  Shutterborg
Description:  Free “cloud” word processor
License: Open Ethos
Alternatives: many
Rating: potentially useful

Writer — no-hassle word processor in the cloud

JJFFJJ_writer_logoWith Writer it’s 1992 all over again!

This is one of those little oddball tools that is both retro and ahead of its time.

If you are of a certain age, you remember DOS computers with monochrome monitors, first green and then amber, which, I believe, were one of the purest writing tools ever, even better than typewriters.

 Big Huge Labs provides a free and very simple on-line text editor called Writer which reminds me of the DOS days.

Retro but also ahead of its time: Writer launched in the “cloud” back in about 2007 when Google Apps was still clunky and slow. But, Writer is no GoogleDrive — which can be a good thing.  (Read my sort rant on privacy and the cloud.)

JJFFJJWriterIn Writer it is possible to do basic formatting (italics, bold, etc.) but Writer really shines for just writing. Despite its sparse formatting features, it offers several useful ways to export your document including text, PDF, print and Word. (Sadly, no OpenDocument format) You can also publish your writing directly to a blog.

There is no need to register but, if you do, your document are saved. Writer offers a paid option that is integrated with Google Docs and Dropbox. Unfortunately, Writer does not offer collaborative tools. BigHugeLabs offers special services to schools.

Writer could be a great alternative to Goodle Docs if the main point is to write. I have found, with Google Docs or MS Word, students tend to fuss for too long before they get down to writing. I haven’t tried it in a classroom but I think Writer would require less of a “fuss phase.”

I still think MoPad is probably better for classroom writing because of its collaborative features. But, if the point is to just write, Writer does that very well.


Tool: Writer (atBigHugeLabs)
Description: simple “cloud” word processor
License: OpenEthos
Alternatives: MoPad, GoogleDocs, many others.
Rating: very useful