All in all, this was a nice improvement. For the two books I wrote last year I had to deal with Microsoft Word and transferring files from home to office to laptop and back, then printing hundreds of pages of manuscripts to send to the publisher. For the book I just finished this month, I wrote it all with Google Docs, and my publisher accepted the manuscript via an email invitation to share the documents.
So I decided to share. Here are some tips and traps for developing a book-length manuscript using the online Google Docs instead of your standard word processor.
1. The convenience was real.
Like most anybody reading this post, I’ve got broadband at home and in the office. I work from many different computers that I’ve accumulated for different reasons. I pay the $10-15 per night to have it in hotels. With Docs, I didn’t have to remember to save and transfer the latest versions of files whenever I moved from one to the other.
And also, I didn’t realize how much overhead – mental overhead – there is in managing files on desktop, home office, and laptops. It’s not just the time saving files, or remembering the thumb drive; it’s not having to think about it. You can sit down at a computer and get useful time even in 15-minute chunks.
And Google Gears worked for me while I was on a coast-to-coast plane flight too. That’s the option to work with Docs offline for a while. It wouldn’t let me add a new file, but it did let me edit existing files; which was just fine for that occasion.
You can see in the illustration below how I kept my draft as I built it, each chapter as a file, with a couple files for logistics. That’s the way they’d look from whichever computer I’d access them on.
2. I couldn’t work in the full-screen mode.
It was too hard to visualize the page. I had to switch to what Google Docs calls the “fixed-width page view” (shown below) to be able to work the document. That might be just my own character flaws, but I don’t feel good writing without seeing words as they might look on the page. That’s a screen shot here below with the red highlighting as a reference to some formatting problems in point 3.
3. I had to make compromises with formatting and features.
- I like more space between paragraphs as I write, but there isn’t that much flexibility in styles. It was trouble enough to use the Georgia font instead of Verdana.
- My attempts to use HTML tables to format illustrations right aligned with text wrapping around them were frustrating. The effect I wanted was what you see in the illustration above. The HTML editor didn’t seem robust enough to manage that. Then I found out that I was working against myself, sort of rowing upstream, by not using Google Docs’ built-in facility to insert an illustration and wrap text. Once I started using that dialog (shown below) things went smoothly. I ended up with illustrations that were easy to manage, looking like the one in the red highlight above (without the red lines, of course).
- Don’t fuss with page headers and footers and pagination formatting and all. It’s not going to work. Keep it simple.
- Forget the powerful book management features of the better word processors. Structure your book as a separate file for each chapter.
- Forget footnotes and indices and such, unless you’re willing to leave them for the end of each chapter, or as a separate file.
4. Not all publishers will work with Google Docs.
This last book was for Business Expert Press, so they get the credit for my being able to submit just by sharing the document online. What a difference it makes. With my previous two books in 2008 the manuscript submission phase required the day-or-two long hassle of printing out several hundred pages, double spaced; getting all the illustrations together on a CD, along with the Microsoft Word source files; and sending it all by courier.
My conclusion? Simple is good. Using Google Docs means making some compromises with features and formatting that were well worth the trouble for me. And they helped me focus on the words, not the bells and whistles. So the next book I write will also be done in Google Docs.
* * * * *
About the Author: Tim Berry is president and founder of Palo Alto Software, founder of bplans.com, and co-founder of Borland International. He is also the author of books and software on business planning including Business Plan Pro and The Plan-as-You-Go Business Plan (Entrepreneur Press); and a Stanford MBA. His main blog is Planning Startups Stories. He’s on twitter as timberry.