Why I’m Using Google Docs for My NaNoWriMo Project

For the last few years, most of my fiction writing has started by hand: I get up in the morning, I make coffee (or hit the coffee shop), and I scribble for awhile in fountain pen with real ink on actual paper. At some point, I transcribe that handwritten text into Scrivener to organize and edit.

But I’ve been trying to improve my thinking-on-a-computer-screen skills. I struggle with it, but some of that may be a mental block. Partly as an experiment, at the eleventh hour, I decided to do this year’s NaNoWriMo novel in Google Docs.

I live in Google world. I have for a long time. I was one of the first people to fall in love with a strange little bare-bones search engine way back when AltaVista and Yahoo ruled the world. I’ve had a Gmail account since dinosaurs walked the earth and you needed an invite to get access to Gmail beta. I tried out many if not most of Google’s primary apps before they were officially supported.

Much of my life is in Google. When I finally broke down and got a smartphone, I went with Android, since it made it easier to keep using my Google calendar, mail, documents, etc.

So I’m an early adopter of the cloud. It makes a lot of sense to use Google Docs.

1. It’s available everywhere

I love that I can stop in the middle of a sentence on my Chromebook, and when I get to my work PC or my phone or anywhere else I happen to jump on-line, there it’ll be. No manual syncing or other setup involved. This is fantastic news for absentminded dopes like me who tend to walk out the door without their laptop, or forget to grab that USB drive when stepping away from a computer. If I have access to the Internet, I have access to my documents.

I know other companies have some sync solutions, but I don’t think any others work quite as well on as many platforms as Google Docs does. I’m not restricted to Apple or PC or Android or any subset or variant thereof.

Plus, my personal dictionary travels around with me from device to device. For those of us writing fantasy or sci-fi with worlds and words of our own making, this is a pretty sweet boon.

2. It doesn’t get in my way

Google Docs is a relatively simple word processor. It doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles–no big grammar checker, minimal auto-formatting options. For the drafting stages, at least, I don’t need any of that. They’re just distractions. Speaking of distractions, I like that I can set Docs to full screen (View/Full Screen), clearing away everything but the text I’m working with.

(I do wish there was a single keyboard shortcut that would take me to full screen mode. If any Google dev folks happen to wander onto this post…can I have that for Christmas? Pretty please with a cherry on top? I know it’s only a few clicks as is, but I love me some keyboard shortcuts.)

3. It’s simple to add comments and track changes.

Right now, I’m just trying to get my first draft down as quickly as possible. This means there are occasionally times when I need to come up with a name for a person or place, but get stuck, or want to add a note to correct a discrepancy or plot hole when I have time. It’s very simple to jot down a quick note to self (“The window shouldn’t be broken until after the party, you knucklehead.”) so I can deal with these later, but keep plugging along without losing the flow.

Google also keeps an extensive revision history, so I can easily go back and see what I added or changed at any given time. (Click on File / Revision History, or press Ctrl-Alt-Shift-H). Constant snapshots. Me likey. I have a tendency to change important sentences, then regret changing them but forget how I’d originally worded them. This makes it simple to flip back.

4. Because it’s lightweight and runs from a browser, I don’t need anything fancy to run it.

I bought a small Chromebook about a year ago, mostly for some very specific media consumption purposes, but it’s become my primary computer the vast majority of the time. It’s cheap, it’s fast, it boots quickly, the battery runs forever, and (maybe most importantly) I don’t fret about taking it out into the world. I’m about to receive a refurbished  Dell Chromebook 13, and I’m looking forward to the bigger screen, better keyboard, and even more ridiculous battery life. Both computers together cost less than a several-years-old Macbook would. Score.

5. It functions off-line as well.

I admit, I’ve had an occasionally rocky relationship with Google Docs offline on my Chromebook. But for the most part, when it comes to working on an existing document offline for a little while, it works fine. It’s still more stable when working online, but it’s perfectly sufficient if I need to spend an hour or two typing away without wireless access.

Most of the cons of Google Docs for me come down to “it’s not Scrivener.”

In particular, I miss the binder / outline function.

1. I love the way Scrivener lets you divide documents into easily manageable chunks, yet still compile them in a single manuscript.

I tend to dash scenes down willy-nilly once I get going, rarely writing in completely chronological order. I then go back to organize and apply spackle between scenes at the end. This gets messy with novel-length works. When you’re wrestling with tens of thousands of words, it can be really tricky to remember where you left the first sentence of that scene where Juan and Steve argue about the moral implications of rhubarb, or that one really good description of Bob’s Special Sauce That Changed the World. I can use comments or bookmarks to mark off scenes to some extent, but it’s not as slick.

Having folders and a hierarchy in Scrivener also makes it easy to have separate non-manuscript text documents with character sketches, setting descriptions, notes, links to research, etc. For the time being, I just have a sort of dump document to accompany my primary manuscript, but again, it isn’t as slick or friendly.

2. Reordering scenes or chapters in Scrivener is as easy as dragging and dropping a document within the binder.

No need to painstakingly scroll and scroll to the right spot, highlight the text to be moved–all of the text and only the text–copy or cut, painstakingly scroll and scroll to where it needs to go, paste.

Granted, this method is still light years beyond redoing whole paper manuscripts by hand like they did in the bad old days and I’m ridiculously spoiled and whiny, but…you know. It’s still clunky.

3. It’s very easy to output documents from Scrivener in a variety of preferred manuscript formats.

Once you have everything set up, it will generate your cover sheet, add useful headers, remove or add smart quotes, etc., per submission guidelines, and then output in pretty much any document format known to (wo)man. I’ve not found anything to rival those features, though they can be daunting.

I’ll likely stick with Scrivener for the editing and manuscript compilation stages.

However, It’s still not quite there when it comes to device transparency and easy access. They’ve worked hard and come a long way, and I highly admire the developers. If I was the sort of person who was joined at the hip to a single laptop (many are!) the lack of cloud integration might not matter so much. If I lived more in iOS, it might not matter so much–from what I hear, Scrivener’s iOS version for iPad and iPhone is pretty excellent. But I don’t have an iPad or iPhone. And I’m cheap frugal enough I’m much more likely to lug a Chromebook around than a tablet costing twice as much, plus an expensive keyboard.

Still, Scrivener really shines when it comes to polishing up the end product.

But for better or worse, I’m a Google girl. And Docs works well for most drafting purposes.

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