The key to using Google Docs (GDocs) document editing effectively is to understand that it’s a web word processor rather than an outright replacement for full-featured desktop word processors like Microsoft Word. GDocs includes features that make it easy to produce content for the web — it understands HTML (though not as well as it should), makes it easy to put in links inside and across documents, allows you to publish online, and encourages collaboration with features like version control and real-time multi-person editing.
If you go to the Google Docs home page, you can create documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and folders to organize it all. This article focuses only on the word processing aspects of Google Docs — and looks at features that make it easier for you to get in a web word processing state of mind.
Edit the HTML directly. From the “Edit” page of your document, click on the “Edit HTML” link to the right of the “Revisions” tab. You’ll view the raw HTML of the document — and I mean raw. It’s not at all easy to read, lacking as it is in whitespace. If you want to do anything more than minor tweaks, you might want to take it to your favorite HTML editor to do so.
Use HTML-style headings. Use Ctrl-1, Ctrl-2, and Ctrl-3 to create header styles 1, 2, and 3 that will be marked with the HTML header codes h1, h2, and h3 when you publish the document as a web page. Unfortunately, you can’t create your own default styles for headers such as H1 and H2 at this point without creating some custom CSS code.
Create internal document links. GDocs calls these “bookmarks” but you may be more familiar with them as HTML anchors. These are useful for creating tables of contents with links that take you directly to subsections of the documents or for creating frequently asked questions lists, for example. Use the “Change” dropdown menu option “Manage bookmarks…” to create places in the document where you want to link to. Then, to create a link to that location in the document, select the text that will be linked, use Ctrl-K to bring up the “Insert Link” dialog, choose the Bookmark radio button, and select the bookmark that is the destination.
Link to other Google Documents. If you want to reference another GDoc you’ve written, select the text to link, use Ctrl-K to bring up the “Insert Link” dialog, choose the “Document” radio button, and select the document you want to link to.
Publish blog posts. Go to the “Publish” tab in the upper righthand corner of the “Edit” page of your document and click “set your blog site settings.” Now you can specify your blog location, blog name, username, and password. Then just click “Post to blog” to publish directly from GDocs to your blog.
Check the readability. Writing for a web audience may mean ensuring your text isn’t too hard to understand. Use the “Word Count” option on the “File” menu to get a wealth of statistics beyond just the number of words to help you tune your writing to your audience. You’ll see number of characters, paragraphs, and sentences; approximate number of pages; and average sentences per paragraph. You also get three measures of how readable it is; the easiest to use are the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and Automated Readability Index that output the approximate grade level someone needs to comprehend what you’ve written.
Share your document with the world. Go to the “Publish” tab on the upper right hand side and press the “Publish document” button. You’ll get a not-very-pretty URL that you can hand out to people for viewing. You can stop publishing any time and also set it to automatically republish every time changes are made, if you like.
Get an RSS feed of document changes. If you are working on a document with other people, you might want an automated way of seeing when changes have been made. Use the “Share” tab of the document’s “Edit” screen where you can
select “View RSS feed of document changes.” That link will let you subscribe to the RSS feed of your document edits in your RSS reader of choice.
Quickly insert comments. You can edit documents in real time, using GTalk to chat as you go, but more likely you’ll be editing at different times. To leave messages right in the text for your co-collaborators, use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl-M to insert a yellow-highlighted comment marked with author name and date. Comments will not show up in published or printed versions of the document.
Roll back to a previous version. You don’t have to save a history of revisions because GDocs does it automatically, behind the scenes, kind of like a wiki. Click on the “Revisions” tab in the upper left hand set of tabs and you’ll see a list of revisions made, the author who made them, and a brief description of changes. To compare versions, select the ones you want to compare, and click “Compare Checked.” To revert to an earlier version, click on its linked name (e.g., “Revision 12″). You will be taken to a page showing that version where you can click on “Revert to this one” to set the document to that version.
Have you switched to Google Docs for your web word processing? Share your experiences in the comments.