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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
- The place where my working documents get stored. ↩