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Working with Google Docs and Spreadsheets

If yesterday’s story didn’t convince you that you need to have ready access to Google Docs, I don’t know what will.

By now you should, though. We went through the process of getting started with Google Docs last week, so you should already have an account. It’s time to see what all the moving parts look like, though.

(Note: If you’re already a veteran Google Docs user, today’s and tomorrow’s articles won’t have a lot to offer you, but come back next week for an introduction to the awesome power of Google Docs templates.)

Creating a Google Docs Document

Visit your Google Docs account, sign in using the email address and password you picked last week, and then from the Create new dropdown in the top left, choose Document. You’ll get a new tab (or window) with a simple, familiar text-editing toolbar at the top, and below it a large expanse of white for you to fill with text.

You can make the document look more like a printed page by choosing View | Fixed-width page, or you can turn that option off and allow the text to flow all the way to both edges of your screen. I’ve been working with Word for so long that I find myself a lot more comfortable working with the Fixed-width page, but your choice is mostly an aesthetic one.

Type a sentence — “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” or something to that effect — and format it a bit. Make it bold. Make it centered. Make it 36-point Garamond.

Oh! Then save it. In the top left corner, where you see “Untitled,” click there and provide a name. Call it “Practice” or “A la recherche du renard sautant” — whatever you want. Click OK, and your new document is named and saved in your Google Docs list.

Collaborating on a Document

As I’ve said before, the real strength of this service is the ability to share it among multiple users, and collaboratively author (and edit) a document. My favorite way is to invite Collaborators, so they can highlight, leave comments, and even make suggested changes right in the document.

To do that, click on the Share dropdown in the top right corner and choose Invite people…. That opens a dialogue where you can type as many email address as you want.

Use the buttons below the address field to choose whether you want your invitees to just view the document, or if you want to let them make changes, too.

Of course, one of the biggest risks of working in a collaborative writing environment is that a single careless user can destroy information provided by other users. Google Docs (like most modern authoring systems) allows you to correct for that using the Revision History.

With your foxy document still open, click File | See revision history. This presents you with a list of all the major changes made to the document, and lets you see who made the change, and when.

You can click the checkboxes next to two different versions and Compare Checked to get a highlighted list of everything that’s different between them, or you can just click the Revision Number link on any of the lines and see what the document looked like after that change.

Notice the blue bar at the top of the page clearly tells you you’re looking at an older version of the document, and allows you to move through the change history using the Older and Newer buttons.

There’s also a button labeled Revert to this one which lets you abandon all changes made since that revision and get back to work on the document from that point. While that may not sound like a very pleasant option, it could be a lifesaver if someone chose to replace all the Rs in a document with Ps. As soon as you catch the problem, you can revert and undo their change. You can also look at the Revision History to find out exactly who did it.

The word processor is a nice tool, but it’s also pretty self-explanatory. I’ll be back tomorrow to teach you the real magic with the Google Docs spreadsheet tool (yes you, too, could be a world-famous strawberry farmer).

For now, though, you’ve got an account set up, and you’ve peeked into the Document editor. If you want to get some practice, do something a little more intensive than typing practice. Maybe start a grocery list and share it with your roommates, or paste in the text of a work-in-progress to share with some test readers.

Whether or not you trust Google with your great American novel, I’m sure you can find some real use in these tools.

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