How to make the most of Google Documents

Write anywhere. That’s the promise of Google’s new service, Google Documents (or “Google Docs” for short). Born out of Google’s acquisition of the online word processor Writely, Google Docs is an amazing example of how the Web can transform our lives in ways we couldn’t imagine even 5 years ago. I mean, it’s a word processor – a full-featured, easy-to-use word processor – and it’s *online*, available from any computer with Internet access, any time you want. For free.

To use Google Docs, you need a Google account. If you already use another Google service, like Gmail or Google Groups, you already have a Google account and can log in with your existing login. Otherwise, signing up is easy: just go to docs.google.com and click “Create a New Account”. Once you’re logged in, you’ll be presented the Google Docs homepage, a list of your most recent documents and links to create a new one, as well as links for settings and other site functions. Create a new document and Google will load a full-fledged word processor into your browser window. Or, you can import documents from your desktop, allowing you to access them anywhere. The interface is very similar to other word processors you’ve used, with buttons for formatting, font and style selection, and other word processing functions. While not as extensive as the options available in Word, OpenOffice, or WordPerfect, Google Docs has everything you need for basic writing and editing. You can even use many of the same keyboard shotcuts you’re used to from other programs, like ctrl-i to italicize selected text.

Once you’ve created a document, you have several choices of formats to save it in. If you select “Save” from the File menu, your work will be saved at Google Doc and accessible from anywhere. But you can also save in the Word .doc format, the standardized .rtf format, the OpenOffice .odf format, or plain text, which will download the file to your hard drive so you can open it in the program of your choice. What’s more, you can save your file as HTML to post it on the Internet, and even as a .pdf file to share your work via Adobe Acrobat Reader or the fast and quick FoxitReader. From the same menu you can print or run a word count as well as find and replace words or phrases in the body of your text.

Google Docs offers more than just a basic word processing, though. Documents are automatically saved while you’re working on them, and the entire revision history is available under the “Revisions” tab. This is especially useful for another important feature, the ability to collaborate with others on a document. Click on the “Share” tab at the right and you’ll be able to enter the email addresses of people who you want to be able to view your document, or even to edit and add to it. They will receive an email with a link to the document and instructions on adding to it. If somebody makes changes you don’t like, you can always revert to an earlier version. Your work can also be made publicly available under the “Publish” tab. Google Docs will publish the work at a Google address or, if you have a blog, can publish it directly to your blog as a new entry.

For organization of your documents, Google offers you the ability to add and search by tags. If you have a Gmail account, you might already do this with your email, but even if you’ve never heard of “tagging” documents you’ll find the concept very simple. Instead of putting a document into one and only one folder, tagging allows you to assign one, two, ten, or a hundred keywords to your documents. If, for instance, you have an essay you wrote in college, you might tag it with the name of the class, the name of the professor, the topic of the paper, and so on. Your tags become “virtual folders”, so that in one view you can see all the documents that include a particular tag – you could look at all the papers you wrote in English Lit, or you could look at all the papers you’ve written about Shakespeare, or you could look at all the work you wrote in college, or everything in a particular language, or whatever. You tag your documents according to the categories that matter to you, not according to what one folder you think might be closest to what you think is important about a piece of work.

Finally, whether you tag your documents or not, it wouldn’t be Google if they didn’t also offer the ability to apply their awesome search technology to your documents. You can search by keywords, phrases, anything you can do with Google to find things on the Internet you can do with Google to find things in your own documents. This makes your Google Docs a powerful repository not just for new documents but for your old documents as well; upload them to Google Docs and they will be fully indexed and easily available whenever you need them.

As someone who works at several different job sites, Google Docs has been an incredible tool for me. I can pick up my work from wherever and add to it, and when it’s done I can download it to my home computer. What’s more, since you can store up to 5,000 documents in your account, Google Docs provides an excellent an free off-site backup solution: I keep my dissertation and research materials there, as well as anything important I’m working on at the moment. If anything were to happen to my home PC, I can easily restore my most important documents directly from Google Docs.

With its flexibility, ease of use, and generous storage, Google Docs has bcome my all-purpose tool away from home. I use it to back up important work, to take notes when I’m on the go, to capture web pages when I’m surfing at a public computer terminal, to send documents to colleagues for their feedback, and to do editing when the ability to roll back to earlier versions is important to me. While there are a few other sites that offer online word processing, such as Zoho Writer and Writeboard, Google Docs offers exactly the right mix of simplicity and advanced features for me. And even when I’m not writing, it’s comforting to know that it’s there, waiting, as soon as – and wherever – I need it.

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