The Case for Google Docs
By Gene Wilburn
For years I resisted using a word processor. My preference is to write with a simple, fast, and uncluttered text editor, such as iA Writer. For things like headings, bold or italic, and links to URLs, I use Markdown notation. I find Word, LibreOffice Writer, Pages, and Scrivener overkill for my needs. Hence it came as a surprise to me to discover that I like using Google Docs.
There were two factors that drove me to try Docs:
- The acquisition of a Lenovo C330 Chromebook as a portable writing machine. A browser-oriented laptop, it uses Google Docs by default, and;
- The need to store documents where my co-author could access them for collaboration.
Prior to Google Docs I had been storing my plain-text Markdown files in a Dropbox folder. This worked fine when I was writing solo, but it lacked convenient versioning and collaboration tools. I needed both for a book project — Shift Happens — that I co-authored with my wife, Marion.
To further complicate things, I use a number of devices for writing: Macbook, Chromebook, Linux laptop, iPad, and iPhone, while my co-author uses a Windows laptop. We needed something common to all of them – something to act as a universal host. Google Docs filled that role.
Setting up Google Docs
The first thing I learned about Google Docs is that you also need Google Drive, a separate but related web application. Drive is where you create folders to use to organize your documents, and it allows you to mark a folder as shared, setting it up for collaboration or mutual access.
Any web browser can be used to access Google Docs and Drive, but, on a tablet or smartphone, Docs and Drive are separate apps that need to be installed. With this done, every computing device you own can access your files.
Because docs are stored in Google’s cloud, you never have to worry about losing your work due to disk failure, theft, or fire. It also means that your document is always up to date for both you and your collaborator.
All this assumes you have WiFi access to the Internet, of course, but Google Docs has a provision for working offline when you don’t have access. You can tag any document or set of documents with a “Make Available Offline” feature that stores the document locally as well as at Google. I use this for documents I want to edit while I’m travelling by commuter train into the city, or at least I did in pre-Covid times. When I later connect to the Net, Docs automatically synchronizes the local file with the cloud version.
Whether you’re writing by yourself or with a co-writer, Google Docs offers outstanding version control. Docs tracks your changes and keeps copies of your editing sessions, automatically, in the background. Available from File > Version History, you can inspect the edits in various versions going back in time. This offers the peace of mind that allows you to flail away at a draft, knowing you can restore from an earlier version if you mess things up. Versioning also shows you which collaborator made which changes to a document.
One of the impressive features of Google Docs is that it allows you and a collaborator to edit together in real time. My wife and I used this feature extensively while revising chapters of our book. Sitting in the same room, each of us with a device open to the shared document, we could each see what the other was doing, and any changes made by one of us quickly showed up on both screens.
This meant we could discuss the wording of the text, decide on changes, and see those changes reflected in real time when one of us typed them in. Although we were in the same room, connected to WiFi, this could also be done while in a Zoom session or on a phone call with a distant collaborator.
Not only does Google Docs act as a kind of universal host, it’s also a kind of universal donor. It can export (File > Download) to a number of highly useful formats: docx, odt, rtf, pdf, text, html, and epub. When I’m using Google Docs with Markdown notation, as I did for our book collaboration, I export as plain text.
From Google Drive, you can batch download any number of tagged files at a time. When you choose this option, the files are converted to .docx and placed in a single compressed zip file. There are no other options for batch downloading.
For our book project, we would batch download our files and run a custom script to unzip them and convert them to LaTeX files for typesetting.
Another useful feature of Google Docs is its ability to display a document outline beside the document being worked on. This is similar to “document maps” in other word processors. The outliner is based on assigned heading levels. You could outline an entire story using headers, then fill in the details later.
All in all, I found Google Docs to be a solid writing tool. With its highly useful versioning, its excellent support for collaboration, and its comprehensive export features, Docs could easily become the centre of any writer’s workflow.
This is not to dismiss other excellent writing tools, and if you’re already happy with your setup, there’s no compelling reason to change. But if you’re not totally convinced about your current editor, Google Docs is well worth taking for a spin. You may find it liberating to know your files are safe, in sync, and accessible through any computing device you may own. Its attractiveness is not lessened by being accessible for free, with no upfront or ongoing subscription costs. Of all the writing tools out there, Google Docs stacks up highly favourably. Recommended.
Gene Wilburn is a retired Canadian IT professional who frequently writes on technology topics. His website is located at http://genewilburn.com