Google Docs has become one of the most popular word processing apps available today. Its strong collaboration features, along with always-accessible availability and automatic saving on any device has made it a leader in the space.
While many people are using Google Docs instead of word processors like Microsoft Word to conduct business, novel writers might wonder if the software is sophisticated enough to handle writing a full-length novel.
So the question becomes, do you need a special writing app in order to write and publish your novel, or can you just use Google Docs for free?
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of Google Docs, it’s important to remember one thing about writers throughout history.
They didn’t have apps
Many people will compare features of different writing programs when they are considering which software to use. Logic would dictate that the more features that you have available to you, the better the piece of software is for your writing.
But that isn’t necessarily the case. If you are looking to match the quality of storytelling that has been published over the years by some of the legends, like Hemingway or Shakespeare, then let’s get a little perspective.
None of these writers had writing apps to begin with. All they had was paper and a pen. If your writing app can put words into a document, then it is enough for writing a novel.
Sometimes we get too lost in technology to remember this. At the end of the day, you need to have good writing. And good writing does not rely on features.
Now, back to Google Docs. What are the features that can help you as a novel writer, and what are the drawbacks to using Google Docs?
Why Google Docs can work for you
There are a lot of reasons why Google Docs can work for novel writers. Besides the fact that it is able to put words on a page, the unique features of Google Docs put it a step ahead of, say, a text document on your computer.
The best reason to use Google Docs is its automatic saving feature. Whenever you type any words onto the page, Google Docs automatically saves it. Plus, those changes are then synced to your Google account. That means that, no matter where you try to access your Google Docs, you will see those saved changes automatically.
And that gets into the next reason why Google Docs is a great app to use for writing a novel. Because it syncs everywhere, you can write anywhere. Want to write on your computer? Great. Looking to knock out a few paragraphs while you’re waiting in line, so you pull out your phone to do some writing? Perfect. Prefer to use your tablet at the coffee shop? Do it. No matter where you want to work, as long as you can open up a Google Doc in a web browser or an app, you’ll be able to write as though you were writing from the same place all the time. That’s a powerful feature.
Another great reason to use Google Docs is its ability to restore old versions of your work. Sometimes, you make a decision about the direction you want the story to take. And without knowing how that writing is going to end up, you might make mistakes in deleting some good content that you want to go back to. With Google Docs, you can preserve every version of your manuscript and restore it as needed. This makes it very easy to change directions and go back to previous versions of your work.
The collaboration can actually work in your benefit as well. Any successful author will tell you that the editing is where the novel is really made. And if you work with an editor, you don’t want to be managing multiple versions of your manuscript. With Google Docs, you can share your writing with your editor and they can make suggestions or direct edits right in the document for you. That saves a lot of time and hassle trying to keep track of different versions of your files.
Of course, we do have to talk about the cost of the app. It’s free. And while many writers will tell you that you need to invest in your work, it’s also important to recognize your limitations. Some of us simply don’t have the budget to spend $50 to $100 on writing software. Because Google Docs is free, starving artists are able to take advantage of its features without having to make any sacrifices.
And no, you don’t have to have an internet connection to use it. Many people still believe that Google Docs needs an internet connection. But you can work offline with Google Docs just like you can work offline with any other writing app.
Google Docs is a feature-rich writing app that gets out of the way of your writing. That’s a very important characteristic of a writing app. With Google Docs, you open the document and you can start writing within seconds. No setup needed. And all your work will be saved automatically.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the perfect writing app, either.
Why you might want to consider a different writing app
Out of the gate, the biggest drawback to using Google Docs might be its performance with large manuscripts. I’m not entirely sure where the limit lies, but once you reach a certain length, the performance of Google Docs tends to suffer greatly.
This might not be a deal-breaker as I’ll discuss below. But if you would rather just have your entire manuscript in one file, then Google Docs might not be the choice for you. Once you get a few chapters in, it’s going to slow to a crawl.
Also, while Google Docs is feature-rich for a word processor, it isn’t necessarily built for novel writing. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it for novel writing. Many writers do. But there are other writing apps that are built for novels specifically. If you want to work in an environment that is purely focused on writing long-form novels, then Google Docs isn’t for you.
Finally, Google Docs uses a proprietary file format. This isn’t the end of the world, as you can certainly download your work into different formats that are more open. But if you don’t want to have to go through that extra step all the time, then look elsewhere. You can’t automatically save your work in a Word document or PDF, for example. Those options are available, but you’ll have to do so manually.
Tips for writing a novel in Google Docs
Writing a novel in Google Docs is very doable, and you can save a considerable amount of money in doing so.
But you also don’t want to be making sacrifices for your work. Rather than allowing yourself to be limited by the limitations of the app, you can find a workflow that can work around those limitations and allow you maximum control over your work.
Probably the most effective way to write a novel in Google Docs is chapter by chapter. If you can swing it, creating a novel in chapters lets you take advantage of the speed of Google Docs without bogging it down with the whole manuscript.
I understand that some writers don’t like to work this way, so this may be where you decide not to work in Google Docs.
Then, when you do finally finish your novel, you can either copy and paste the documents together, or you can use an add-on like Merge Google Documents that will allow you to combine those documents into one master manuscript.
As far as actually publishing your work, Google Docs is so-so. It’s not exactly a professional publishing suite. You would be far better off exporting your work out of Google Docs into a Word document, for example, and then importing that into a different publishing app.
Or, you can outsource your publishing formatting to someone who does it professionally. Google Docs does have publishing capabilities, but many authors say that they are more trouble than they’re worth to deal with.
Google Docs is a fantastic tool, and it has the perfect price tag. For authors, you could do a lot worse than use Google Docs to write your novels. But it does come with some drawbacks, so if you would rather save the money and deal with the drawbacks, Google Docs is the perfect solution. If you want a more novel-focused writing app, then you might want to look for a different solution for you.