How I Use Google Docs for Writing

Since February 2013, I’ve used Google Docs for my writing. I’ve always been a fan of Scrivener, and I still use Scrivener to prepare submission drafts. But for a year and a half now, I use Google Docs exclusively for first, second, and final drafts. I was asked on Twitter recently if I had a post explaining how I used Google Docs for my writing. With nearly 6,000 posts, I’ve written on almost everything, but strangely, I did not have a post on how I use Google Docs for my writing. Now I do.

Why Google Docs?

Because I’m sure someone will ask why I use Google Docs, let me get that out of the way first. There are three main reasons.

1. Simplicity

Google Docs is simple. Unlike Microsoft Word, it doesn’t have every feature under the sun. But it has enough for me to easily produce clean copy in standard manuscript format, and that is really all that I require. Too many features weigh an application down, and provide distractions. Google Docs minimizes those things.

2. Accessibility

I work in all kinds of environments. In my home office, I have an iMac. In my work office, I have a Windows laptop. I have Google Chromebook as well. Sometimes, I write on other machines. Google Docs is available to me on all of these platforms. The same feature set, the same version, the same look-and-feel. This is important because it saves me time in having to learn specific ins-and-outs for different platforms.

Google Docs is also always available. Everything is stored in the cloud, and sycned to my computers. On those rare instances when I am offline–say, on a plane without Internet access–I can still access my documents offline.

3. Automation

I never have to remember to save. Google Docs saves as a I type. This has saved me on a couple of occasions when the power has gone out.

Moreover, Google Docs can be customized using Google App Scripting, essentially JavaScripting objects that allow you access to the Docs object model. I’ve created several tools through this automation that have allowed me to automate routine writing processes. That in turn allows me to spend more time writing.

Google Docs isn’t perfect. I’ve written before about what I consider to be the important elements of a word processor for writers. Google Docs has some of those elements, but not all of them. That said, I just like it. It fits me well.

Ingredients

To understand how I use Google Docs for writing, you have to first understand that I have built a small infrastructure within Google Drive to support my writing. The goal of this is to automate everything I can, so that the vast majority of my time is spent writing. I’ve been pretty successful with this. Here are the components to my Google Drive writing infrastructure.

1. My writing template

I have created a writing template that I use in Google Docs. This template contains some automated functions I’ve created. It is the jumping-off point for any new story or article. I have it bookmarked on my Chrome bookmark bar for easy access. Here is an annotated look at my Google Writing Template.

Google Docs Template
Click to enlarge

My “Project” menu allows me to quickly create new blank documents. It has other functions that automate processes for me, like preparing a document for Scrivener (where I do the submission manuscript).

My scripts automatically capture the start date and end date of a draft, as well as the type (fiction or nonfiction). This data gets fed into my Google Docs Writing Tracker.

My template has a deleted scenes section. While I am a strong proponent of cutting scenes and other stuff from my stories, I never throw anything away. In addition to being useful later, seeing what I cut helps me learn and improve.

2. My Google Docs Writing Tracker

I have an elaborate set of scripts that run automatically in the background each night and capture data about my writing for the day. These scripts allow me to produce realtime charts and visualization of my writing. And guess what: it takes no effort on my parts. I just write. The scripts collect and process the data, and some other scripts I wrote render it in nice graphical format.

The Google Docs Writing Tracker is freely available on GitHub for anyone who wants to use it. There is also a completely refactored and vastly improved version current in beta on GitHub.

3. RescueTime

I use RescueTime on all of my computers to track my productivity. But it has the added benefit of being able to tell you how long you spent working on an application–or a document in an application, including Google Docs.

Using the RescueTime API, in conjunction with my Google Docs Writing Tracker, I automatically capture the time I spend on each document.

How I use Google Docs for writing

So, with that infrastructure in place, here is how I use Google Docs for writing:

Google Docs Process
Click to enlarge

1. The first draft

When I am ready to write something new, I click on the bookmark for my Google Writing Template. From there, I initiate a new project. A give it a title, and the template gets created in my writing “sandbox1” on Google Drive.

I have a simple taxonomy for titling my documents that uses the following format:

Story/Article Name – Version

where version is a x.y number. The x represents the draft number (1, 2, and on rare occasions, 3). The y represents the revision. I often find that if a story isn’t working one way, I’ll start over from another approach. In this case, that first attempt at the story would be titles:

My Story – 1.0

The second attempt at the first draft would be titled

My story – 1.1

And so on.

At that point I just write. When I am working on a first draft, I usually write with the window full-screen and the zoom set to 150%. This gives me a nice clear view of the page on my 27″ iMac. On my laptop, I’ll use a zoom of 125%.

When I’m finished with the first draft, I run a function on my Project menu to indicate that I’ve finished the draft. This updates the date tags in my document.

All the while, behind the scenes, my Google Docs Writing Tracker is capturing how many words I wrote each day, emailing my daily changes to Evernote, and sending me a daily summary of my writing, including any streaks or records I’ve set. All of that is automatic. The only thing I have to do is write.

2. The second draft

When I write a first draft, I am telling myself the story. When I write a second draft, I am taking the story I’ve told myself and making it interesting for an audience. Because of that, second drafts, for me, are complete rewrites.

The process is mostly the same. I create  a new document from my template, but increment the draft number so that the title is:

My Story – 2.0

Then I write. If I start over for some reason, I’ll increment my revision number so that the title of the do-over becomes

My Story – 2.1

And so on.

Unlike the first draft, I write the second draft using two side-by-side Google Docs windows. The left window contains the document for the current (second) draft. The right window contains the last revision of the first draft. I’ll use the latter as a guide when writing the second draft, jumping frequently between the two documents. For this reason, I prefer writing my second drafts on my iMac at home where both documents fit easily side-by-side.

When I’m finished with the second draft, I’ll mark it as finished. I’ll read through it and make small corrections. Then I send it off to my beta-readers.

3. Beta readers

Because I write in Google Docs, sending the story to beta-readers is as easy as sharing the document with them and giving them permission to make comments. They can read the story or article, make their comments directly in the document, and let me know when they are finished. It makes it easy for everyone, and saves a lot of emailing back and forth.

We can even discuss parts of the story in the chat window while reviewing it. This has also been helpful in working with editors on a story or article.

4. The final draft

I rarely do more than 2 full drafts. For the final draft, I don’t rewrite the whole thing. Instead, I try to incorporate my beta-reader’s feedback in the appropriate places.

I have a final draft checklist that I run through, some of which is automated on my Project menu. It includes things like searching for the word “very” to see if I’ve overused it, or searching for instances of “your” and “you’re” to make sure I haven’t embarrassed myself. I run through the checklist, give the story a final read, make any last minute tweaks.

Then I run a script that prepares the draft for Scrivener. In Scrivener, I produce the final submission manuscript.

Automation is key

A huge number of things, from document creation, to daily word counts and time spent, to sharing with beta-readers has been fully or partially automated thanks to Google Docs. This is one example where automation really helps. I have a limited amount of time each day in which to write. By automating all of this other stuff, I eliminate potential distraction.

  • I don’t need to count how many words I wrote–scripts are doing that for me.
  • I don’t need to fiddle with the formatting of the document–scripts are doing that for me.
  • I don’t need to manage huge email threads when asking for feedback–Google Docs revision and commenting system handles that for me.
  • I don’t need to spend a lot of time getting the document into submission format. Google Docs and Scrivener do that for me.

All of the time I get back from not having to do these things is time that is applied directly to writing.

Google Docs, with its simplicity, accessibility, and automation potential, is a big part of why I was able to write nearly 400,000 words in a year, while only spending about 40 minutes a day at it.

No other word processor has come close to allowing me that kind of productivity.

  1. The place where my working documents get stored.

18 thoughts on “How I Use Google Docs for Writing

  1. Jamie,

    Been a big fan of the site after I read your 400k word article on The Daily Beast and have been combing through a lot of previous posts since. Also really enjoyed If By Reason of Strength on the Kindle.

    Quick question for you though: as someone with zero coding experience, would you recommend using the original Google Docs Writing Tracker post or the beta version? I tried setting up the beta but have had a few issues (my fault, I’m sure). I noticed on the github for the beta version there have been some comments of people finding small issues in the scripts but I’m not sure what happens once they are identified (ie: do I need to re-install all the features/re-write the scripts?).

    Any advice would be awesome and I love the automation ideas on this post. Definitely better than trying to subtract my old drafts from new ones and figuring out words written manually. Thanks!

  2. Between Google Docs on the one side, and Scrivener on the other, I really don’t get why anyone would *want* to write in, say, Microsoft Word. That seems the worst bad option that just about anyone can eschew.

  3. Mike, thanks for the kind words. The beta version is now actually much better than the original. Today or tomorrow, I’m going to take it out of beta and merge it with the original branch, so the question will become moot.

    Most of the reported issues have been resolved and closed. A few small ones are lingering, but they are ones that I and others have not been able to reproduce. That happens sometimes.

    The one downside to the scripts is that there is no easy automated installation. It just can’t be done in the Google environment. That said, I’ve added a bunch of checking to help ensure things are configured correctly. And once they are configured correctly, it just works without any need to interfere.

    I’ll announce when I’ve merged things. In the meantime, you could open a new issue in GitHub and report the issues you were having. Be as detailed as you can, and include screenshots or log output (View menu… Logs… in the Google Scripts window). I’ll do my best to verify the issue and fix it, but keep in mind I work on this code very, very part-time. The writing comes first. 🙂

  4. I have recently started learning Google Apps Script programming and your scripts were the sort of examples I’ve been looking for. Thanks for sharing!

    I installed your scripts and will know in the morning if they’re working (sure, I could change the trigger times, but I’m lazy).

    One question I have for you is have you shared your Google Docs writing template and if so, where? I found your Scrivener templates, but not for Google Docs. The screenshot looks fairly straightforward, is that all there is to it? If so I can just type that myself.

    Second question, what’s behind your “Project” menu button? How would I create that for Docs?

  5. John, FYI, the beta-version-2 branch is actually much better than the current master branch. I was planning on merging it this weekend, so if you haven’t already done so, you might want to use that branch’s code.

    I have not shared the template, mainly because templates are highly customized for individuals and my template is tailored to my process. The template itself isThis is a good starting point for adding custom menus to your documents.

  6. Thanks, I did use the beta-version-2 branch. Also thanks for the pointer on creating custom menu items. This should keep me busy over the weekend. 😉

  7. Hi Jamie,

    I’ve been contemplating google docs for the reasons discussed.
    You mention that you run a script that prepares your final
    draft in google docs for scrivener. Is that a script you have developed?

    I try copying and pasting google docs text into Scrivener (Windows)
    but it turn into a blue underlined and generally messed up
    bunch of text.

    Thanks for any pointers you can give.

  8. Yes, I wrote code that export my Google Doc to an intermediary markdown format, which Scrivener can then import. The using MarkDown gets around problems with copying and pasting from one to the other. It also allows me to automate nearly the entire process. The downside is that right now, the code is highly tailored to my own use and hasn’t been generalized or abstracted in any way. So it would take quite a bit of work for someone to take my code and make it useful to them. That’s part of the reason I haven’t shared this code yet. (The other part is that I just don’t have the time right now.)

  9. Thanks for your speedy reply. Yes, your code is perhaps super customized for your needs. Silly me for resorting to the primitive copy/paste when there’s import/export.

    As a beginning writer my needs are simple at the moment. I downloaded a google doc chapter in RTF and imported it into Scrivener and that seems to work fine.

    So now on to downloading several chapters into Scriv to test out the compiling process for upload to Amazon.

    Google docs is the on-demand, idiot proof editor that allows you no flimsy excuses for not writing your book and this post really clarified that for me. Thanks

  10. Kudos also to your methods on First (Write for me) and Second drafting (write for them). That’s really going to speed up my writing. And the sharing capabilities of google docs is also key in getting the assistance of writing groups before sending out the manuscript to your editor.

  11. I’ll check out the tracker again after you work on the beta version this weekend but maybe I’m just not tech-savvy enough. I looked into Google doc templates and it seems that they are public? could you explain how you set yours up.
    thanks,
    pat

  12. Deepak –

    FWIW, and hopefully the same in the Windows version (I’m running on a mac, so I can’t verify), after you paste in the text, if you select all (CTL-A), then in the top menu go to Documents > Convert (assuming it’s there) > Convert Document to Default Text Style, that *should* fix font/etc.

  13. @ Michael – I tried what you suggested. Yes, the Convert to default text style is there but it only succeeded in formatting the paragraph structure and indents. The text remains in blue and underlined. The formatting buttons for underline and text color are inactive so there’s nothing I can do with that. thanks for the pointer though. Maybe in Windows its limited. But again, when imported as RTF its fine so that’s what I’ll stick to for now.

  14. Jamie, I’m curious about your Google Drive backup strategy.
    I remember from previous posts that you automated the process of exporting all your Evernote notes for backup outside of Evernotes cloud.
    Seeing that Google Drive holds valuable data, do you have a similar backup strategy for Drive content? A backup that does not rely on Google itself?

  15. Cool 🙂

    what about restore strategy? if, for example, you lose access to your Google account – do you have some tool to restore the drive items from the Evernote notes?

  16. I don’t lose sleep over losing access to my Google account. That said, I have had to restore once, mostly because of my own stupidity in messing with my automation scripts. Fortunately, my day’s writing is sent to Evernote each night. And since notes are stored essentially in markup format, it’s pretty easy to take them and import them into virtually any other format. I just copied what I needed and pasted it into a Google Doc. I could just as easily have pasted it into Scrivener or Word.

    For a true disaster recovery, I would likely write a script to automate that process. It might take a day or so to get it working, but what’s a day when it means I can do a full disaster recovery.

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