Google Docs for Novel Writing

For the past ten years or so, I have mostly used Scrivener to write my books. It’s a powerful piece of software that gives you a great deal of control over the structure of any work in progress. It makes backups a breeze and it tracks your daily word count as you write. It can also do an enormous amount of other stuff. You can take snapshots of individual scenes and chapters in a work, and then roll back changes if you are unhappy with them. It can show views of your work as an outline or as a set of index cards. It lets you keep your research material alongside your work in progress. I have unhesitatingly recommended it to anyone who asked for advice on writing software, and to many people who have not. Within Scrivener, I used markdown for formatting. I used Microsoft Word for the final edits. It is the industry standard used by editors, copyeditors and proofreaders.

Over the past few years though, my writing process has changed. This has been in part because of health reasons. My RSI ailments have gotten worse and I find I have less energy than I used to, because of diabetes and the assorted medications I take for it. I also find that I work on the go a lot more than I used to, on many different computers and in many different places. I do more ten and fifteen minute writing sprints these days and less sitting in front of my computer for long periods. My books have often been shorter and required less structural changes.

I have also come to suspect that there have been times when using Scrivener has impaired my productivity. It has given me more opportunities to fiddle with things like tagging and status and so on. It allows many opportunities to procrastinate in a way that look like work but don’t involve any actual writing.
It can also be slow to load on the underpowered netbooks such as the Lenovo 100S that I sometimes use. If you are just sitting down to do a 10 minute sprint, a 30 to 45 second loading wait can eat into the writing time.

Over the past year or so I have been experimenting with my writing process and software. I have tried various methods and word processors. After reading Jamie Todd Rubin’s excellent article on how he managed 400K words in a year writing for 40 minutes or less a day,(yep, you read that right) one of the them was using Google Docs, the free word processor from Google. I tried Gdocs many years ago and it was not for me. It seemed like a slow, underpowered, online , cutdown version of Microsoft Word. It was always good for communal writing but I don’t do a lot of that.

Google Docs has changed a lot since the first time I looked at. It has a document map that lets you navigate long structured documents. It works pretty much anywhere you can get an internet connection and I have an Android phone where it runs well. In general, I don’t recommend working on a phone, but it is useful if you need to refer to a work in progress when you are out and about or if you just want to do a readthrough.

You don’t have to worry about making backups because everything is saved in the cloud automatically as you type. If you setup Google Drive on your various computers, you can have local copies as well. You can also set individual documents to work offline as well. This is useful for those times when you do not have access to the internet. Because you can work in a browser, Gdocs is universal and you don’t need Dropbox synchronisation. It also exports well to many other formats.

The main advantage of Google Docs and one that I did not even think about until I used it is a simple one. It lets me use tabs. I can have my outline open in one tab, my notes in another and the document I am working on in a third one. It is easy to switch between them using the Control+Tab keyboard shortcut. If I needed to check my outline or a note on character or setting it was just a key press away.

I worked happily in Google Docs for a couple of months. I got a lot done but it had a major disadvantage which frustrated me. On low-powered computers it took a long time to get started, at least as long as Scrivener. In the end this caused me to look at alternative methods. I found working in tabs invaluable so I looked for word processors that would allow me to do that. I found them too but that’s a story for another day.

Much to my surprise, Google Docs proved a viable alternative to both Microsoft Word and Scrivener for first draft long form writing. I can imagine circumstances where I might go back to using it. I can even imagine using a Chromebook to get work done, which was not something I ever considered likely in the past.

4 Replies to “Google Docs for Novel Writing”

  1. Thank you. I will try Control +tab. If anyone can be bothered to read my long – winded explanation of problem… I really would like how to organize full novels in google docs. I feel there must be a way to master google docs. I actually have 3 novels and many short stories sitting in google docs because life just made finishing them wait until now.
    My problem is te organizing and searching I guess…. I would never proceed like this again as I have learned a lot! But meanwhile I need to sort out the situation I am in!…I have my whole novel and many other projects now in google docs mainly because I trust not losing any inspiration and needed to move all my docs pertaining to the novel to one place.

    I used a very silly system I now realize that was how my friend did her doctoral thesis I helped edit… I saved new work in a new document each time. I now have hundreds of documents amongst which are probably nearly 100 for this novel, along with a master doc I have chosen and I need to search every doc as I am trying to find three or four great scenes I wrote while working in different countries.

    Every time I find a doc then close it I find myself back at the beginning of my docs and have to search all over again to find the next possible doc that might have the lost scenes. Any guide to re organizing and searching , keeping several docs open and being able to return to a specific point in the list of docs would be much appreciated. Please… novel writers if possible

    1. You’re looking for the Bookmarks feature! It’s in the “insert” dropdown. A quick internet search will show you how to do it. I JUST discovered this feature myself…

  2. Hi, I am trying to write my own novel. So far it is going pretty good, but I wanted to see if you know how to turn google docs into book form. I am trying to see what I would look like and also how it would make my story look impression wise.

    1. Hey there, Todd. The simplest way would be to export it as an epub and import it into an ereader. If you would like it to look like a print book PDF is the way to go. The easiest way would probably be to export it as a Word document, download Amazon’s CreateSpace Word templates and create a PDF. There’s a full guide to how to do it here. Hope this helps.

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