Google Stuff for Authors Revisited

A while back I bought a Chromebook with the intention of giving Google’s Office suite and Chrome OS itself a serious tryout. As an experiment, I attempted to switch over to Google’s software for most of my writing needs. My plan was to use Google Docs and Sheets exclusively for a month or so and see how it went. Today, I thought I would report back on how things went.

During the trial period, we spent ten days at our cottage. There is no internet there at all. I can’t even pick up a signal on my mobile phone without walking a fair bit down the road. For software that relies so much on being connected to the net, this was going to be tough. I was so doubtful about whether it would work I did not take the Chromebook as I originally planned. I took my MacBook Air and used Google Docs in offline mode. I figured if it did not work I would always have Scrivener and Word to fall back on.

Much to my surprise, I managed just fine. Opening documents was not exactly intuitive. The normal Google Docs List did not work so I had to open my work files from inside Google Drive but once I got used to that it was all systems go. A lot of functions on Google Docs menus were greyed out and not available but for basic writing, it was better than adequate. I had all the documents I needed set up to work offline before I left the land of the connected, and creating new documents in offline mode was not a problem. I would not let a lack of internet connectivity stop me from using Google Docs in the future. In general, I can (mostly) get along well using just Google’s software.

The area Docs really falls down in is making complex structural edits. The only way to move large blocks of text around is to cut and paste them. You cannot just select whole scenes with a click of the mouse as you can in Scrivener and drag them around the binder. You can do this from the document map in Microsoft Word and it’s been possible in Word’s Outline mode since the 1990s. If you’re the sort of writer who works from an outline and mostly sticks to it, this will not be a problem. If like me, you sometimes need to make massive structural changes to the flow of a story, then you would still be better off using Scrivener or Word. Currently, I am doing all of my first drafts and blog posts in Google Docs and then exporting the ones that need serious work. Some stuff never has to leave Gdocs  until it goes to editing. Other stuff, well…

There are areas where Docs is actually better than Office. The obvious one is online collaboration. The export to markdown add-in is great as is integration with Google Keep. If you are an Android phone user, cross-platform compatibility is much smoother, at least it has been for me. If you use the latest version of Office 365 exclusively on all your machines, I doubt you would have a problem with Word. I use an older version on my Linux computers via WINE and the Word app on my phone refuses to play nice with anything that passes through it.

Using comments in Google Docs is easy. I leave myself little post-it notes all over my manuscripts, spelling out the work that needs to be done.

Recently, Google Play became available on my Chromebook which gave me access to a whole bunch of Android apps. The best I can say for this is that it’s a work in progress. I installed the Microsoft Word app on my Chromebook for testing and it worked great. At least until I installed and uninstalled some other apps and then it simply crashed every time I tried to launch it. Avoid using Android apps on a Chromebook for getting work done. It is a pity because there are some great ones for authors such as Writeometer.

Would I recommend Docs as the main office suite for a writer? For those who write linear first drafts and don’t often need heavy structural edits, certainly. Blog posts and short stories are easily manageable too. For longer books and for writers who work on scenes and chapters out of order, Word or Scrivener or even Libre/Open Office is still a better choice.

Would I recommend a Chromebook? As a machine for carrying around town and working in cafes and workspaces, absolutely. For net access and email when travelling, ditto. If I needed to do more complicated stuff such as using Scrivener, I would install Linux alongside ChromeOS. Most people probably wouldn’t ever need to do that. For a lot of folk, a Chromebook might conceivably be their best low-cost option for a portable machine.

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  1. I tried writing a book in Google Docs a couple of years ago, but after 10k words it got too choppy and laggy. Maybe it has improved since, so I should give it another try.

    But I really like cheap computers, both in theory and very often in practice. In 2 weeks, I’m going to publish a book I wrote, edited, and laid out entirely in Ubuntu Linux just to prove that it could be done.

    • Good news about the book, Jonathan. I’ll pick up a copy when you release it. As fate would have it, I am writing this reply on a Linux machine. These days Scrivener runs faster on it than on my MacBook Air. No idea why. The machines are both the same age.

      Gdocs may well be quicker these days. I have some 80K+ word manuscripts in it and no lag.

      • Thanks! The first book in the series is $0.99 USD if you’re curious:

        The Ubuntu thing happened by accident. I originally planned for four books in the series, and I wrote then all in Windows 10 & Word. Right before I finished the 4th book, I read an article arguing that the iPad Pro was a superior productivity tool to the Linux desktop. I disagreed enough that I decided to write, edit, layout, and make a cover for a 5th book (which would actually be in the new 4th book) in Ubuntu just to show it could be done.

        It’s theoretically possible to do all that on an iPad Pro, of course, but I think it’s a lot easier (and much cheaper) to do it on Ubuntu.

        • Just picked Iron Hand up in the UK store.

          An iPad Pro would probably cripple me :-). Such are my spinal problems these days that I need to use a Roost stand and an external keyboard and mouse with my laptop.

          • Thanks! Hope Silent Order: Iron Hand is enjoyable.

            The Roost stands are great. Though right now I’ve got my monitor sitting on a stack of old Windows Server 2003 books for the optimal viewing angle. 🙂

          • I have my monitor sitting on a stack of third edition D&D books. I look forward to reading SO:IH once I finish my current Brandon Sanderson book. Of course,that may take some time. Like all his books it’s thick enough to stop a bullet.

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