I’ve been thinking for a long time about building a “writing” platform. But when I try to put it into simple words, it sounds like “oh, yet another blog”. In fact I’ve even written a post before titled “yet another blog engine”. It’s been probably over a year, and the thing is still only in my head.
Most current blog engines are like magazines. You write something, and it gets filed under the date it was published in! If you write an essay, why should it matter whether you wrote it around 15/4/2006 or around 8/10/2007? Most of the time, the exact date doesn’t matter. Just a general time line is usually enough, “2006”. If the date does matter for a certain essay, you can add it as a note somewhere.
When I think about an essay here, I’m thinking about things that might go in books, more so than newspapers. And in books, you don’t usually get a date around every essay or chapter. Books are a bit more “timeless” than magazines in this sense. There’s usually only one date on a book: the year it was published.
This is actually inspired by Paul Graham’s essays page.
If most current writing platforms (manifested as blog engines) are designed more around a magazine concept, then there ought to be a place in the market for writing platforms that are designed more around the “book” concept.
It’s certainly possible to write essays on top of current blog engines; I’ve seen several people do it, but it’s somewhat annoying, and you get a lot of other little problems. I’m sort of doing something similar with Tumblr here, though not quite so.
The nature of essays is that they can evolve. You write a piece, revise it, revise it, revise it, then publish it. You get lots of criticism, people comment about how stupid you are, etc, and maybe you will want to edit it, to sort of elaborate some problem points. OK, maybe you have a thick skin and you can ignore trolls, good for you. But still, say you change your opinion about something, or you learn of something you didn’t know before, so you want to go back and revise your essay.
So in this sense, each essay is like its own project, you work on it, publish it, but you can never really say it’s “done”; there’s always room for changes and improvements. So it’s ought to be possible for you to completely “own” your project, independently of the web platform where you’re publishing it. You should be able to work on it locally on your machine. Blogs don’t usually give you that kind of freedom. There might be some APIs for importing and exporting blog posts, but that doesn’t quite cut it. I’m thinking of ownership here in terms of how you own your project that you’ve published on github. You have the git repository on your local machine, all the time. If github disappears, you can publish your local git repository somewhere else. If Google disappears, all your blog posts and Google Docs also disappear. (It’s much more likely for your computer to break down than for Google to disappear, but it’s always possible that Google may suspend your account and delete your content).
Another important thing for this kind of writing platform is how the content is presented. Most blogs allow you to make your blog ugly and stupid in all kinds of different ways. Silly color schemes, useless widgets everywhere, picture backgrounds, etc. I much prefer there be a single, good, minimal theme, or just a few of them to choose from.
Pen.io seems like a such a writing platform, though it doesn’t fulfill the content-ownership I talked about.
Google Docs also allows you to do pretty much the same, and it’s much better at being a writing tool than pen.io and other blogs, but it’s not “webby” at all. You can “publish” your writings, but they have a long cryptic URL, and there are no interaction features what so ever.
Any writing and publishing platform on the web needs to have some way of interacting with readers and the rest of the web. Some kind of a commenting system seems necessary. I’m not sure if comments should be right on the essay page (like most blogs) or in a separate place. For some reason I prefer to have the comments somewhat “detached” from the essay itself, but at the same time readily accessible from it. A simple way to do that is by having a link at the top and/or bottom of the essay to a “discussion page”. The discussion page would also have a link to the original essay at the top and/or the bottom.