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Use These 11 Tips to Get (Even More) Productive in Google Docs

8 minute read

Nearly everyone needs a place to do some serious writing, whether it’s the notebook in your bag or the text editor on your computer. For the millions of people with a normal Google account or work-related G-Suite account, that place is Google Docs, where you can create, share, and store documents in the cloud, accessible wherever you’ve got a web browser.

But having a convenient place to do your writing one tab over from your ongoing Cookie Clicker game is one thing; understanding the tools at your disposal to make the work you do easier is another.

Here are some essential shortcuts, tips, and suggestions to make every word written in Google Docs count.

Track Your Word Count by the Paragraph

Need to hit your report’s 5,000-word goal? Are you aiming to keep your cover letter under a page? If you’re curious about the word count of your document, it’s easy to check. Visit Tools > Word Count to get a quick overview of the number of pages, words, and characters.

While that’s valuable information, it doesn’t help if you’re trying to shorten a particular section, or discern where you need to add a few sentences. The fix is simple: Highlight the selection you’d like to analyze, and select Word Count again. You’ll see your selection’s word count compared to the document’s entire count, giving you that extra information necessary to fit your prose into its future container.

Finally, Easier Superscripts

Mathematicians, scientists, and other fans of exponents will appreciate the ability to easily add superscript and subscript text to their documents without digging into the system’s catalog of characters. After highlighting the text in question, hit Format > Text, then select either superscript, subscript, or whatever text transformation option you’d like to use. You can also use “Ctrl-.” or “Cmd-.” to ditch the menu and use your keyboard.

Check Out Google’s Cache of Awesome Fonts

Google Docs has a few dozen fonts for you to choose from right off the bat, but for some that just doesn’t cut it, especially if you’ve got a particular one tied to whatever you’re writing — be it for your business or personal project. Thankfully, a few extra clicks will grant you access to a veritable storehouse of open-source fonts from Google itself.

To access the Google Fonts catalog, simply hit the font drop-down menu (next to the header drop-down menu) and select “More Fonts.” You’ll be greeted with a window full of fonts to scroll through and add to your personal collection for use anywhere (you can even download them to your computer to use anytime you’d like). By visiting the Google Fonts site, you’ll be able to do more granular searches for particular styles, and sort based on features you’re looking for.

Dictation Doubles as a Transcription Tool

Whether you’ve got a three-minute or three-hour conversation to transcribe, listening to yourself talk only to type it all out is excruciating punishment, and pretty boring. So instead of agonizing about it (or paying someone else to do your dirty work), use Google’s built-in dictation tool to “transcribe” the conversation and save yourself the headache of typing it all out by hand. In addition to the Chrome browser, you’ll need some headphones to keep from confusing the dictation tool. Other than that, it works like a charm.

Before you set about transcribing, be sure to set your default language by going to File > Language. Then, look for Tools > Voice Typing. From there, hit the microphone, talk while you play the file back, and watch as Google turns your audio into text right there in the document.

Use Headers to Break Down Big Documents

Headers aren’t just useful for separating topics in your kid’s book report, they double as a quick navigation tool for longer documents. Creating headers is easy, just select the Normal Text dropdown menu and pick your header size.

For some even simpler organizing, you can also use bold text as substitute headers, so long as the text is on its own, with a line break above and below it. If you want to see the fruits of your labor, go to View > Show Document Outline to open the outline navigation sidebar.

Work Offline to Dodge Distractions

The internet can be pretty distracting if you’re trying to finish a time-sensitive project. Instead of looking at apps and services to curb your content consumption while you create your own (and falling down that rabbit hole), here’s a better idea: Turn off your Wi-Fi and work offline.

Before you cut your connection to the web, you’ll need to download the Google Docs Offline extension first. After you install it, visit your document of choice and select File > Make Available Offline. Now, all your changes will be saved locally, and sync with the web when you’re back online. You’ll know you’re offline when you see a small lightning bolt icon next to your document name, indicating its disconnection from the web.

Link to Everything, Even Your Own Documents

Sticking links in your documents is fairly simple — just highlight the text you want to link, hit Ctrl-K (or Cmd-K), and type in your URL — but that’s not all. If you’re working on multiple documents, perhaps with multiple people involved, you can link to other documents rather than external web pages. Instead of pasting or typing in a URL for a webpage, copy and paste the URL of the document you’d like to link. You can also search for it when you bring up the link window, and have Google search through your Google Docs account for items matching your search terms.

Linking to documents provides a three-line overview showing you the document title, owner, and the last time any changes were made. That makes keeping multiple documents —perhaps part of an overarching guide or report — easier than visiting each one to see when the last modification happened, especially if you know some edits are overdue.

Build Your Personal Dictionary for Fewer Misspellings

Properly spelling that one word you always mess up, or correctly nailing the esoteric medical terms you’re studying is an annoyance many can live without. Luckily, Google Docs lets you build a dictionary of your own, complete with unfamiliar words, accents, or terms found only in your weird science-fiction screenplay. Visit Tools > Spelling and grammar > Personal dictionary. Add your words of choice, and keep your document error-free.

Version History, a Disaster’s Best Friend

Sometimes you just wish you could go back and find that choice phrase you wrote before dismissing it to the ether with a quick backspace. Other times you wish you could recover that first draft of a document before your co-writer or manager took the axe to every Oxford comma you lovingly inserted. To take advantage of Google Docs’ revision history feature, visit File > Version history to either “bookmark” the current version of your document, or visit past versions, seeing where and when changes were made to your document.

Custom shortcuts bring text expansion to the web

I don’t know about you, but typing out “two-factor authentication” every time I need to talk about protecting myself online feels needlessly time-consuming. There are tons of other words, names, and phrases everyone spells (or misspells) on a daily basis, words that would benefit from a text expansion tool. Well, Google Docs has one built-in, making it easy to turn that default greeting you send to every new client, colleague, or peer into a three-letter shortcut.

Visit Tools > Preferences to find the Automatic Substitution list, pre-populated with shortcuts for things like fractions and arrows. Add your own shortcut phrases (making sure they don’t belong to actual words you use on a daily basis) along with the full, expanded result you’d like to see.

One great use? You can use a phrase like “wmail” to drop in your work-related email address, or “xintro” to quickly paste in some traditional boilerplate text to the start or end of your document. You can even make shortcuts for symbols, and type something like “( c )” to easily add a copyright symbol or other seldom-used character.

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Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com