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.
I love Google Docs and I’m a big user myself, but what do you make of Google’s recent uptime issues? Could it be possible that even Google has scaling problems?
Tim, I think you are absolutely right when you talk about:
“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.”
You can fritter away a lot of time formatting documents.
Also, speaking of bells and whistles, I have a question for you, Tim: how do you get those decorative “torn” edges around your images? Love them.
Thanks Anita. Those torn edges are a feature of snagit, a screen capture program published by techsmith. I like it a lot, I’ve used it for several years, followed the upgrades. Hmmm … maybe I should review snagit here in the future. Tim.
Robert, re Google uptime issues, I didn’t run into that; heard about it last week re google mail though, and there’s no question that it could spoil a good thing. I’ve got my fingers crossed. Tim.
I appreciated this review. I too love Google Docs and hope to use it for more “meaningful” projects in the future (like book writing). One question, though: Why so set on writing in Georgia? I tend to avoid serif fonts when working on a monitor. :o)
It is always nice to hear about a real use story. I use both Word and Google docs. My biggest complaint: I use a lot of screenshots and it is frustrating in Google docs to not be able to copy and paste images.
Nice and informative review Tim. I like that you didn’t sugar coat anything. You gave your honest opinions. I respect reviews more when you can tell the author is being open and not censoring himself. Nice work.
This is a great idea, thank you.
I’ve been thinking about writing a book for a long time but just haven’t gotten started yet. I’m going to outline my chapters in Google Docs like you suggested and just get to it.
@Iamhusband re Georgia just a matter of personal preference I suppose. I like a strong serif font at 12 points. Maybe that’s because of 61-year-old eyes. Tim
love Google Docs! it does wonders for my team especially when we need to collaborate. I’ve grown so used to it, I usually forget to create a backup for my files.
however, like you, i wish for some improvements be made especially for spreadsheet users like me. keys are different, some features are lacking, some i need to copy and paste to excel sheets for mail merge. I know there will come a time when all these would be improved as Google docs looks so promising.
this is terrific. I love Google Docs and use it pretty regularly. I’ve not explored the document portion as much as you and learned a bunch from your explanations. Thanks.
I love Google docs, but it does have some limitations. I have never considered using it to write a book. I use Open Office for my larger projects.
I just know that many many agents like to send their word doc to their KINDLE to read the full MS if requested. Since they can’t use an online link, I’m afraid to limit myself to only some agents by using G Docs. HOWEVER, can’t i copy and paste them into Word when I’m done with the whole thing?
Eureka! I came to this article searching for a better tool than Google Docs to use for editing my manuscript, because I was getting tired of how long it was taking to load, and seeing your screenshot gave me a duh/aha moment. Split the dang thing up by chapters instead of having it all in one mega-document. Whew! I am so about to do that. Great article!
Can’t believe you wrote this article in 2009 and it helped me make a decision about using Google Docs for writing books in 2015.
Are you still using Google Drive or have you switched to something else?
I’ve tried Scrivener but don’t find it that easy to use as many others say.
@Sergio, I go back and forth between docs and MS Word. I did my latest in Word because I had a graphics vendor who executed a really nice book page layout and design directly in Word.
Thanks for the encouragement.
I have written a mystery novel using GOOGLE DOCS and now would like to self publish. I have editor and marketing in place and now require a vehicle to print and distribute.
Thank you again,
book name is “GOTCHA!”
Just doing a third draft of a manuscript now, a novel about 95,000 words. I have so far resisted breaking it into chapters, more due to my own pigheadedness than anything else. I am growing increasingly frustrated with freezes and crashes, likely due to such a large file, and lag time between typing and seeing the letters appear on the screen – can take three or four seconds sometimes.
I know it’s because of the large file size, but I do like having everything in one file, especially during revisions where I am moving back and forth to check continuity and so on.
Have to say I love the portability of the cloud – was in Boston a few weeks ago and worked at the beautiful public library there with no problem. Just popped open the Asus Chromebook and the latest version was all there, up to date.
Overall, I’d agree compromise is the key. I just have to make myself break the book into separate chapter files.
Chaveiro Vila Prudente
very good content!