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How to Use Google Docs Templates to Make Writing Amazing Documents Easy

I’m talking this week about that special breed of boredom that drives kids crazy and keeps grown-ups sane. Yesterday  I told you all the reasons you should use document templates in your writing (focusing specifically on Google Docs, of course). Jerk that I am, though, I didn’t tell you how.

Well that’s what today is for. And the fact of the matter is, you’ve probably been using document templates for years, even if you don’t know it.

See…there’s a little workaround we all use when we don’t want to bother building (or finding) a template — or when we don’t know how templates work. You can achieve almost the same effect by finding a document you’ve already written, choosing Save As from the File menu (or just making a copy of the file), and giving it a new name.

Once you’ve done that, you’ve got a new file from template. You can keep the text that’s useful, and delete everything that’s not — but not before looking it over closely for a good example of how to do your formatting.

That’s how a lot of Tech Writing is done. It’s how a lot of writing is done, and it’s very effective. It’s so effective, in fact, that some time back some clever fellow thought about the process and said, “Hey, why don’t we automate that a bit?” And that’s where document templates came from.

Google Docs supports the Save As sort of template just fine. Open any document, and from the File menu choose Make a copy…. Bam! You’ve got your template.

Creating a New Template

As I said, though, that’s a workaround. Still, going through the real process starts the same way: first things first, you open a document that already looks the way you want it to. Maybe it’s a Word doc or an Excel spreadsheet that you uploaded, fully formatted, and now you want to recreate that format in future Google Docs. Or maybe it’s something simpler than that.

For years now I’ve been writing my novels in Google Docs. I like the way Google Docs works, but any time I want to submit a novel to an agent or editor, I’ve got to do some post-processing — change the body text to a serif font, delete all the extra blank lines between paragraphs, and insert tabs at the beginning of every paragraph.

So I got in the habit of formatting my novels one way, and all my other documents another. Last week, I finally took the time to make that format official, with a template. It was a ton of work.

First, I opened one of my full-block formatted novels in Google Docs:

I selected Edit CSS from the Edit menu, and changed it to make sure the paragraphs were Times New Roman and started with a text indent, and that the book, volume, and chapter headings (h1, h2, and h3) were all Arial and centered:

Then I went to the Google Docs Templates gallery (to get there from within Google Docs, just click Create new | From template), where I spotted the Submit a template link in the top right corner:

I clicked the button, provided some quick descriptive text, and then clicked Submit template.

And then I was done.

Formatting a Google Docs Template

The only step in that process that was remotely complicated was the second one — styling the document — and that’s where a lot of the power in a beautiful template comes from. You style Google Docs the same way you do a web page, using CSS (cascading style sheets).

There are tons of great CSS tutorials out there, whether you’re completely new to such things or just need a refresher. I fall somewhere in the middle — I’ve done a bit of CSS design in the past, but never frequently enough for me to remember any of it offhand. Still, I can get by with little more than quick Google searches like “CSS indented paragraphs” or “CSS align right.”

If you don’t want to learn CSS, you don’t have to. You can still make templates from any of your existing Google Docs (with all the formatting you’re already able to do), and you can browse thousands of user-created templates already out there.

Using a Google Docs Template (Technical Writing Exercise)

All you have to do to use a Google Docs template is find it in the template list (or click a link provided by a kindly template-maker you happen to know online).

From the template list or from the template’s preview page,  you can click the Use this template button to create a new document in your Google Docs folder that’s an exact copy of the original template.

I welcome you to try out my novel template (or use the full-block novel template if you don’t like indented paragraphs — that’s still how I prefer to do my writing). And of course there’s also the blog posting schedule template I’ve been barking at you about for months now.

Even if neither of those appeals, look around in the template list and find something you like. Google Docs keeps track of templates you’ve used before for you, so it’s easy to find them again next time.

Let us know what you find! And if you do try out one of my templates, please let me know what you think. I can keep making improvements, if you’ll let me know what’s needed.

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