Google Docs is convenient, cheap, and compatible with just about any platform, making collaboration incredibly simple. It’s also infuriating, incomplete, and limited. Google Docs wafts in the cloud, just beyond your tinkering fingertips, and you’re at the whim of the Google engineers who control the tweaks, fixes, and enhancements.
Since launching Google Spreadsheets in 2006, Google has steadily improved Docs to support complex text documents, worksheets, tables, forms, and presentations. You might have to wait for its software wizards to make the big changes, but you can still apply a few workarounds and hidden features. Want to trim the number of Google Docs browser tabs? Compensate for the lack of a guided spelling checker? Create shortcuts for frequently used text? To make your overall editing experience a bit better, read on; we also offer some tips that you can use with Google’s spreadsheet and presentation applications.
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(Editor's note: This is the first part of an ongoing series covering fixes for Google Docs annoyances. In this first edition, we tackle the Google Docs text editor.)
Manage repeated text
Desktop text editors can use plug-ins and utilities, such as TextExpander for OS X and iOS, to autocomplete frequently repeated words and phrases, such as your professional title or an oft-used line of HTML. If you want to move your text editing to the cloud, Google Docs provides a similar -- but limited -- function.
Let's say you're a teacher who constantly writes "Needs more explanation" in your students' papers. To save time, go to Tools, Preferences from inside a text document in Google Docs. In the pop-up window that appears, under 'Automatic substitution', type "nme" below the 'Replace' heading and "Needs more explanation" below the 'With' heading. Next, click OK.
Back in your document, type nme and press the spacebar: You should see "Needs more explanation" appear automatically. If it doesn't work, go back to Tools, Preferences to make sure that 'Automatic substitution' is checked. Try to choose substitutions that are short and use unique letter combinations so that Google Docs won't mistakenly overwrite a desired word with a substitution.
Substitution settings are universal, so your canned text will be available to you in any text document in Google Docs. One limitation to this feature is that Google Docs inserts an automatic substitution only as a single line of text, so full signature blocks are beyond its capacity -- for now.
View plain text files
If you prefer to use plain desktop text editors like Emacs, Gedit, Notepad, or Vim, you may find that files created in those apps won't display in Google Docs. This happens when you upload a text file with a filename extension that Google Docs can't recognize (such as .sh for Bash scripting files) or when your plain text file lacks an extension entirely. Before you upload a plain text file to Google Docs, right-click the file and select Rename, and then add the .txt filename extension to the end. Now you'll have no problem reading your document in Google Docs.