Things I wish I’d known about Google Docs

By: on July 23, 2014

I have had cause to write a lot of Google Docs recently, which leaves me furnished with a stock of interesting observations that others might find helpful. With no further ado…

It doesn’t auto-number headers

I typically want my business-like docs to have numbered headings, so an H3 might be “2.4.1. Architecture considerations”. Word can just do this automatically and keep them up to date with the changing structure of your doc. Google Docs can’t, though there is a free add-on called “Table of contents” which performs a dual duty here:

  • It shows the structure of your documents headers in a sidebar, which is incredibly handy for reviewing that structure and for navigating the doc (click to jump).
  • It can optionally renumber the headers, though it only does this when explicitly invoked via a button, which you have to remember to do after inserting new headings or restructuring. The numbering is just inserted as ordinary text in the doc as part of each header so it’s crude and non-semantic.

Rather surprisingly, the add-on can be very slow indeed to do its thing – even clicking on a link often took 3+ seconds to actually jump to the location in a 27 page doc. This is hard to fathom, but most docs are fairly short and it behaves acceptably well. Add-ons are trivially easy to install – just go to the Add-ons menu in your doc – so I would recommend everyone to dive in. Once you have used this particular add-on once, it’s two clicks to turn it on for any doc from the menu.

Printing is a lame experience

In Safari when you hit cmd-P to print, nothing happens. This leaves you a little bewildered, so you try again, and then you try invoking the menu item with the mouse rather than using the keyboard shortcut. A few seconds after the initial attempt, you might notice a little icon swoop up to the downloads button in the Safari toolbar – and when you click up there to check you’ll find each of your print attempts have caused it to download a PDF of the doc, after a multi-second wait in each case, naturally. Then you curse, open the PDF in Preview and print it from there.

I suspect it’s a lot better in Chrome, but for my money there’s no excusing such a poor experience in Safari. At the very least it should give feedback to show that it’s received your request to print and is working on it, and then make it clear what it’s actually done.

You can’t have mixed orientation pages

I wanted to include a landscape format diagram on its own page. Tough – all pages in the doc must be the same orientation.

Pasting from a Google Spreadsheet doesn’t maintain formatting

This is a trivial little thing, but annoying: if I paste a table (of estimates breakdowns, say) from a Google Spreadsheet into a Google Doc, it drops some of the text alignment formatting – so cells that were left-aligned become right-aligned.

Really it’s a shame I can’t embed a Spreadsheet directly in the doc, especially where I just want to get totals added up for me.

It doesn’t have a concept of appendices

Then again, I always found Word rather wanting in handling appendices nicely.

Drawings don’t support gradients

I was shocked and dismayed (again) to see no gradients in Google Drawings. The whole story of these apps seems to be excruciating simplicity, which is great in a way, but the reluctance to gradually increase the feature set puzzles me when they’re genuinely trying to compete with Word.

In one case I resorted to rolling my own gradients by duplicating and offsetting a shape repeatedly with very low opacity (so the opacities gradually stack up), then grouping the results. You only want to try this in extreme circumstances where it’s really important to you.

Basically, it’s pretty awesome

All of those irritations aside, it’s still my go-to tool for bashing out docs, partly because I don’t have Word and am not in a hurry to acquire it. Learn the keyboard shortcuts, use the Table of contents add-on, and you can be quite effective. I suppose the simplicity may even help to concentrate on the content and structure.

That said, an online editor that had the same cloud storage, collaboration and a much improved feature set, would be a big draw. Frankly it’s probably out there if only I look, but Google have done just enough to grab and retain the market.

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