The Beginner’s Guide to Google Docs

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Everything you need to know to successfully use this online word processor 

Woman printing a file from google docs

Switching from Microsoft Word to Google Docs can seem like a daunting task, but in this guide, we will talk you through everything you need to know to master this web-based word processor… 

Microsoft Word has been around for so long that most people in their 30s were brought up using it. It has been a titan of the word processing industry for decades. However, the basic format of Microsoft Word hasn’t changed very much in that time. And for a lot of people, it no longer suits their needs. 

Google Docs is a free, online word processor that stores your work on the Google Cloud and allows you to collaborate with other Google users. You can use it anywhere that has wifi, you can even use it on your phone or smart tablet. And one of the best things about it is that it’s free. 

So, whether you have to learn how to use Google Docs for work, or you’re looking for a word processor that suits your life more than Word – we have everything you need to know to become a Google Docs pro in this article today. 

What‌ ‌is‌ ‌Google‌ ‌Docs?‌ ‌

Different files types you can save your google docs

Google Docs is one of the many free, online applications provided by tech giants Google as part of their google sweet. Which is free to anyone who has a google email account. 

Google Docs is an online word processing system that was launched in 2006. Although not explicitly stated by Google, Docs was clearly designed as the company’s answer to Microsoft Word. As it builds on the foundation of what Microsoft created but addresses a lot of the flaws customers had with the processor. 

One of the major differences between Docs and Word is that Docs is entirely based online. Therefore Docs can work with every operating system with ease. Docs is cloud-based, so you are not required to use any storage space on your own devices. 

This also means that you can access your documents from anywhere in the world where you can connect to wifi. Long gone are the days when a forgotten floppy disk ruined your big presentation. 

Google Docs was also built for collaboration. Multiple people can work on a document at the same time. Chat with each other while they work, and track the changes that others are making in real time. 

 

How‌ ‌to‌ ‌Sign‌ ‌Up‌ ‌For‌ ‌an‌ ‌Account‌ ‌

A man creating a google account to create a google doc

Google Docs is free to sign up for. In fact, Google Docs as well as many other applications come free as part of the Google Apps collection. Other applications include Google Sheets (an online take on Microsoft Excel) and Google Slides (similar to Microsoft Powerpoint). 

All of these applications are free to access for anyone who has a Google Apps Collection. You are automatically given a Google Suite when you sign up for a Google email account. This is a very simple process that is also free.  

 

Create‌ ‌Google‌ ‌Account‌ ‌

Here is a quick step by step guide to setting up your Google Account – so that you can access Google Docs. 

Step 1 – Head to this webpage. Here you will be asked for your first and last name, and to choose a new email address. You will also have the option to attach your current email address to this account. 

Step 2 – Then you will want to confirm this information before choosing a password. You will be asked to confirm this password before moving to the next page. 

Step 3 – You will be given the option to link a phone number to the account so that you can use it to verify logins in the future – this is optional. 

After this, you will have full access to the Google Apps collection. The easiest way to access Google Docs is to return to your Google homepage.

In the top right corner, you will find links to Gmail, Google Images, and an image of 9 grey dots.

When you click on these dots a drop-down menu of all the Google apps will appear. Google Docs should be near the top of this list. 

Alternatively, you can Google Docs and click on the first link. 

 

Starting‌ ‌Your‌ ‌Document‌ ‌

A man scanning through folders to find the google doc file

When you have opened up Google Docs you will be greeted by the Docs home screen. Here you will be given the option to open a blank document, choose from a range of templates, and look at any work you have previously created on this account. 

Those of you who are familiar with Microsoft Word will notice that this home screen is very similar to the newest edition of the word processor. 

 

Create‌ ‌a‌ ‌Blank‌ ‌Document‌ ‌

If you want to create a blank document then you will need to click on the multicolored plus sign that sits directly under the ‘Create a new document’ sign. 

By doing this you will open up a new document that is completely blank. It will come with no present formatting and will give you the freedom to do whatever you wish with the document.

You could use this feature to write a novel, a report, a guide to how to use Google docs, whatever takes your fancy. 

 

Doc‌ ‌Templates‌ ‌

If you want to make a document that will require a lot of formatting then you may want to consider one of the templates created by the team at Google. The home screen will give you a choice of six pre-made templates. 

However, if you want more then you can click on the button that says template gallery. This will then open up two new sets of templates for you – general templates and templates made by your institution. 

Most of you won’t have to worry about the second option. Unless you are a Google Account that is linked with your school or workplace. If so, this is a great place to find templates that are regularly used by the business and upload ones that you may think others will find helpful. 

The General Templates section holds a few dozen templates made for different themes and writing tasks. These range from a school book report to a business plan. 

 

Importing‌ ‌Microsoft‌ ‌Word‌ ‌Document‌ ‌

To import a Microsoft word document to Google Docs you will have to copy it to your Google Drive. Here is a quick guide on how to do this. 

Step 1 – Open up your Google Drive.

Step 2 – There is a button on the left-hand side of the screen that says ‘New’. Click on this and pick ‘File Upload’ from the drop down menu it presents you with. 

Step 3 – Find the Word file that you want to upload. Click on it and then click the button at the bottom right of the pop-up that says open. 

 Step 4 – You will see that the file has been copied to your Google Drive. Double click on the new file. When given the option to choose what you open it with click Google Docs. 

 

Spell‌ ‌Check‌ ‌

One of the main features that led to the success of Microsoft Word was its Spell Check feature. Google Docs also has this. It also offers autocorrections for common typos and predictive typing. 

Our major gripe with Google Docs is that everything is much harder to find than it needs to be. It is very counterintuitive. 

To find spell check on Google Docs you will need to go to the menu at the top of the page. This menu starts with the word ‘File’. The 6th option along is the ‘Tools’ menu. Click on this, and then choose ‘Spelling and Grammar’ from the drop down menu. 

You can also use the shortcut CTRL + ALT + X. 

 

Using‌ ‌Google‌ ‌Docs‌ ‌Offline‌ ‌

While there are many benefits to being able to store your Documents exclusively online. There are times when we need access to them offline. It is very easy to set this up using Google Docs. 

It is important to note that you can only use this feature with one account per computer. So if you have multiple accounts logged onto the same computer you will need to pick which one you want to work offline. 

When you are on your Google Docs home page, you will want to hover over the hamburger menu (the three grey lines in the top left corner). When you click on this you will be given a drop down menu, below the list of Google apps you will see Settings. 

The settings menu will present you with 4 options, the third one down is ‘Offline’. On the right-hand side of this pop-up, under ‘Offline’ there is a grey switch. Click on this switch and it will turn blue. When this switch is blue you will be able to access documents from this account while offline. 

 

Collaborating‌ ‌with‌ ‌Others‌ ‌on‌ ‌Documents‌ ‌

People collaborating using google docs

Now, we are going to talk about one of the most exciting and innovative features of Google Docs – its collaborative properties. 

Unlike Word, Google Docs makes collaboration with others easy. You don’t have to send files back and forth anymore. You don’t have to wait for the other person to send their changes back to you before you can start working on the file again. 

Google Docs allows for real time collaboration between multiple people. Not only can you watch people making changes to your document live, but you can also track the changes they are making, chat within the document, and work on your own part of the document simultaneously. 

 

How to Share your Documents 

To begin your collaboration you will need to create a document and share it with someone else. If you are struggling to create documents, have a look at the section above. 

Once you have your document you will need to click on the blue share button in the top right corner. This will be next to the circle that represents your account (colors vary depending on the account). This Share button will either have a padlock or an office block on top of a chain on it. 

If you see a padlock this means you have created a private document on your own private account. No one will be able to see this unless you give them permission. 

If you have the office block, this means you have created this document in a shared drive, and anyone else who has access to this drive can view your document. 

When you click on the share button you are given two options: to share with people or to copy a sharable link. 

The share with option will allow you to enter the Gmail addresses of anyone you want to share this document with. If you do not know their email address you cannot share it with them this way. 

The copy link option allows you to copy a link that will give another user access to your document. You can paste this link wherever you like, anyone who clicks on it will gain access to that piece of work. 

 

Seeing‌ ‌Recent‌ ‌Changes‌ ‌

When you are sharing work with other people there may come a time when you need to look at what changes have been made and by who. 

To do this you should click on the button above the font size editor. This bottom will say something like ‘Last edit was made 3 minutes ago by…’. If you however over it, it will say ‘open version history. Click on this button and you will see a new type of overlay on the document. 

This will allow you to see what changes have been made and by who. Each person will have their own color so that it is easy to track their edits. 

 

Suggesting‌ ‌Edits‌ ‌

One of the more recent features of Google Docs is its Edit Suggestions feature. 

Previously to suggest edits you could use the comments feature to add notes on the document. However, this didn’t prevent you from accidentally editing the text by clicking in the wrong place. 

The new Edit Suggestion feature allows the user to highlight and place comments on the document without being able to edit it. These comments can be viewed on a separate overlay. 

Under this mode, click on the button that says ‘Editing’ directly under the Share button. This will give you a drop down menu, here click the ‘Suggesting’ option and you’ll be ready to go.  

You can also right-click on the document, a menu will appear. Halfway down the menu, there will be an option to ‘Suggest Edits’ this will also put you in suggestion mode. 

 

Refining‌ ‌Your‌ ‌Document‌ ‌

Man Refining his google doc

Now, let’s look at some of the more fundamental skills you will need to learn to put together good looking documents on Google Docs. These are simple tools and features that will allow you to start making professional looking documents from your very first time using the word processor. 

 

Formatting‌ ‌Text‌ ‌

The Text formatting bar is the part of Google Docs that is most similar to Microsoft Word. This bar gives you the options to (working left to right)

  • Undo your last action 
  • Redo last undo 
  • Print 
  • Spell Check 
  • Paste 
  • Select text format (title, heading 1, normal text, etc) 
  • Choose font 
  • Choose font size 
  • Bold, Italics, underline 
  • Change font color  
  • Highlight text 
  • Create hyperlink 
  • Add comment 
  • Insert Picture 
  • Align body of text 
  • Change line spacing 
  • Add bullet points and lists of numbers 
  • Indent decrease 
  • Indent increase 
  • Clear all formatting 

 

Superscript‌ ‌and‌ ‌Subscript‌ ‌

Superscript and Subscript are mainly used when depicting formulas, chemical elements, large numbers, and dates. 

Many of these layouts are automatically formulated into Google Docs. However, if the one you want to use falls outside this list then it is very easy to create them yourself. 

You will want to click on the ‘Insert’ button in the top menu. This will give you a drop down menu. The 7th option down will be ‘Special Character’. You will want to click on this and will open up a pop-up menu. 

When this menu is open you will see two more drop down menus above the selection of symbols. Click on the right menu and scroll down until you find superscript or subscript (the list is in alphabetical order). You will then be able to choose what symbol you want to place where. It will even give you an option to draw your own symbol. 

 

Finding‌ ‌Word‌ ‌and‌ ‌Page‌ ‌Counts‌ ‌

The feature that we find most frustrating about writing in Google docs is its Word Counting system. This has been a functional feature in Microsoft Word since 1986 – so why can’t Google get it right nearly 40 years later. 

Things aren’t as bad as they used to be. Google used to have no feature that allowed you to see your word count while typing. It does now have this feature, but it stops working after 20,000 – which is roughly 3400 words. This gets really difficult if you’re writing long pieces and need to stick to a word count. 

To see your word count open the Tools menu. Directly below Spelling and grammar you will find word count – click on this. This will open a pop-up menu that will talk you through your word, character, and page counts. 

To permanently see your word count on your screen, tick the box that says ‘Display word count while typing’.

 

Adding‌ ‌Page‌ ‌Numbers‌ ‌

Adding page numbers is essential if you are going to print out your document or you want to collaborate with someone else on the document. Not only do page counts help you keep your pages in order, but they are also a great way to reference which part of the document you are referring to. 

Go to the Insert menu and open it. The 10th option down (under headers and footnotes) on the menu is Page Numbers. You will then be given a choice about where on the page you want the numbers to be placed and which page in the document you want to count as Page 1. 

 

Controlling‌ ‌Margins‌ ‌

The margin editing system in Google Docs is nearly identical to Word’s system. 

At the top of your document and under the menu bar you will see a ruler with sliders on it. To edit your margins, move the sliders back and forth. 

 

Indenting‌ ‌

Indenting is used to symbolize the start of a paragraph in traditional text formats. 

There are two easy ways to indent your paragraphs using Google Docs. There is also another feature that does all the work for you. 

Firstly, you can indent a paragraph by hitting the tab key on your keyboard. This will indent the paragraph to the right unless you have your text aligned to the right. 

You can also use the decrease and increase indent buttons which are the last two buttons of the text formatting menu. 

After you have indent 3-5 paragraphs in a row on Google Docs, the software will start indenting automatically for you. 

 

Adding‌ ‌Text‌ ‌Boxes‌ ‌

Text boxes are a great way to add excitement to a document or to create a clear area of focus for your readers. 

The bad news is that they are not very easy to add to a Google Document. 

Open up the Insert drop down menu and click the third option – ‘insert drawing’. Choose the New option and when the pop-up menu appears, choose the text box option from the menu (the second to last option – a T in a box). 

You can then fill out your text box before hitting save. The text box will then appear where your cursor was resting. 

 

Adding‌ ‌a‌ ‌Table‌ ‌of‌ ‌Contents‌ ‌

Before you insert your table of contents, you need to make sure that everything you want to include in it is some form of heading. Otherwise, it won’t appear on the list. 

Once you have sorted this out, open the Insert menu and pick the very bottom option. You will be asked to pick between a page of contents that includes page numbers or one that creates hyperlinks from the contest to each section or references. 

The text box will appear where your cursor was, but you can drag it to a different part of the article without affecting its formatting. 

 

Exporting‌ ‌Google‌ ‌Docs‌ ‌

Once you have finished your document you may want to export it. 

It is worth noting that Google Docs offers printing and sharing from within the app. 

If you chose to import your document you will want to open the drop down File menu. The sixth option down ‘Download’ will allow you to export the document to your hard drive or other forms of storage. 

You will be able to choose what file type you want to download the document as – we recommend downloading it as a PDF or Microsoft Word file. 

 

The‌ ‌Best‌ ‌Google‌ ‌Docs‌ ‌Add‌ ‌Ons‌ 

Google docs addons

Google Docs Add Ons are user created content that has been designed to improve the functionality of Google Docs. 

Below we have made a list of 5 of our favorite Add Ons. We have picked a mixture of features that fix flaws in Google Docs and make our lives easier. 

To install Add Ons – click on the Add On drop down menu, this will open up a pop-up that allows you to search through all the available Add Ons. Most Add Ons are free.  

 

#1 Grammarly 

No spell checker will ever be perfect, however, we have found that using Google Docs’ built-in spell checker and Grammarly together is the perfect combination. 

Grammarly is still in beta testing, and it isn’t perfect. But is by far one of the best spelling and grammar checking Add Ons out there.  

Grammarly works in a similar way to the Google docs spell checker. It highlights spelling mistakes by underlining them in red and highlighting weak wording and poor grammar with a blue underling. It also has a pop-up side menu that allows you to look through all the issues it has found and how it rates the clarity of your work. 

Grammarly has a free service and a premium service. However, the premium service offers very little other than a chance to support the developers of the app. 

This is an Add On that both students and professionals will find useful. Grammarly is even developing a tool that lets you know what kind of emotions you are showing in your writing. This is particularly useful when you’re trying to reply politely to rude emails. 

The one minor flaw of Grammarly is that the Google docs spell checker does not work while Grammarly is turned on. And Grammarly does not pick up every mistake. So, after you have made all your edits with Grammarly, turn it off and run through using the Google Docs checker. 

You’ll be surprised to see that they pick up completely different issues. 

 

#2 EasyBib

This is one for all you students out there who hate writing their bibliographies. That was us a few years ago. 

EasyBib is a fantastic tool that takes all the hassle out of putting together bibliographies, and it will save you a huge amount of time in the long run. 

Simply choose the referencing format you are using on the Add On and then start copy and pasting ISBN numbers or links into it. The app will automatically create a bibliography entry for you, based on what it has found online. 

You may need to go in and add a few of the details every now and then if you are using an obscure source. But trust us, it’s worth that little bit of effort for the amount of time you will save in the long run. 

 

#3 Lucid Chart 

This choice and the next one make up for parts of Google Docs that are an absolute pain to use. 

Some of you may know Lucid Chart from its own web application, but it also offers an extension for Google Docs – and it is lifesaving.  

Lucid Chart is a free chart and diagram making website. You can use it to create charts that are as complex or as simple as you like. The software is easy to use (even for computer movies) unlike the chart making software that Google Docs offers.  

The Add On allows you to take the simple and easy tools of Lucid Charts and use them on Google Docs. This is our simple trick for creating engaging and good looking documents. 

 

#4 Easy Accents 

Another thing that is unnecessarily difficult in Google Docs is adding accents to words. Apple already showed us that it can be done by just holding down a key for longer – why hasn’t Google stolen this technique? 

If you are someone who regularly needs to include accents, superscripts, and subscripts in their works then you are going to want to download this Add On. 

This Add On creates a pop-up window that you can open by pressing the + button. This screen has a series of buttons on it that represent the most commonly used accents. This Add On turns 2 minutes of adding an accent into a 10 second job. 

Think how much time it could save you. 

 

#5 Google Keep 

As well as giving you access to Google Drive, Google Sheets, and Google Slides – your Google account also gives you access to over 131 other free apps. One of the highlights of these is Google Keep. 

Google keep is a note taking app that allows you to note down anything. You can link straight to web pages from the App too. 

This Add On allows you to add notes in Google Keep that are attached to your documents but that are also visible from your documents. We use this to keep all of our key research and our article plans in. These notes are visible from any device we have Google Keep installed on. 

It is also a useful way to leave yourself a note without having to leave the page and lose your sense of flow. 

Our favorite thing about the Google apps is that they all work seamlessly together.