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.

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  1. Michael Mooney says:

    Believe it or not, I just used google docs in collaborative mode last week – watching someone else editing on my screen was obviously a case of demonic possession, so I burned the laptop.

    It was the only way to be sure.

  2. As a freelance writer, Google Docs was the *only* solution for me, but even now that I’m writing books for myself (no client but me!) I still use it. If Scrivener had a web-based app, I might try it, but it would take a lot to break me away from GDocs.

    • There’s a lot to like about Google docs, Jeremy. What is it in particular that makes it so difficult for you to break away from it?

      • For my general freelancing, nothing compares. But I’ve started writing two books that aren’t for clients. What I don’t want to give up is easy access to the same Doc, natively, from any connected device. Also, I haven’t lost (or overwritten) any files since I started using Drive and Docs, which is a big deal. Docs has some drawbacks, but on balance, I find it’s the best mix of ease and features.

        In novel writing, I use Hiveword already for story bible creation, so Scrivner/Bibisco don’t offer enough extra to give up Docs’ strengths. If one of those had a Chromebook app, I’d consider switching my novel writing there to get everything in one interface.

        It’s possible that web-based Novlr will become my choice in a year or two, when some of the features in development get released. I need both the outlining features and the collaboration features to be released before that’s an option, though 🙁

        • It sounds as if you use a Chromebook a lot. I confess to having been interested in one for a long time. Assuming my assumption is correct, which one do you use and would you recommend it?

  3. My kids have urged me to write with google docs. They are teens who are used to the “new” system of working with multiple gadgets – home, school, and from their phones. Since my current laptop is in need of replacement, I’ve been considering going google docs just to ensure that I don’t lose anything if my machine just coughs its last one of these days.

    • That sounds wise. I’ve had a few machines fail. I am a fanatic about backups as a consequence. Having everything in the cloud certainly makes that easier.

  4. Russell Blinch says:

    Using the template, can anyone tell me how you add a new chapter? I don’t get it.

  5. Michael J. Kelly says:

    I’m an IT guy, and a professional programmer. I work enough with an enterprise Google environment to know it fairly well, and am not anti-Google. That said, I am wondering whether anyone is at all worried about losing control of intellectual property because Google decided to use a work-in-progress or even a finished work for their own purposes, or perhaps piggybacks a bit on an established trademark brand. Their TOS allows for such things as “derivative works” based on any content users provide. Granted, they express that such a right is only for improving their products and services and so on, and that they claim no ownership. However, there is a lot of legal wiggle room there; the TOS is hardly future-proof from the user’s vantage.

    GDoc, etc. has lots of productivity advantages, particularly for collaborative work and mobile users, so I see the attraction over MS Word or Libre Office. It has not been a worry for me in my amateur hobby activities with role-playing games, etc., but if I were someone with significant IP value, like George R. R. Martin, I would probably fortify my work environment more.

    • I imagine that if Google tried that with GRRM, Michael, they would find themselves in contention with his lawyers and probably HBOs. I am not a lawyer but unless their terms and conditions specifically mention a transfer of rights, they would swiftly find themselves at the centre of a firestorm of class action suits and negative publicity if they tried this with everyone else. I don’t think you stored your stuff on our servers therefore we have the right to do anything we like with it would hold up in court. Of course, I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time :-).

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