Better Looking Documents in Google Docs

I use Google Docs on a regular basis, and decent looking documents are important to me. Not fancy, just professional.

The document editor in Google Docs is decent enough for productive use. It has a bit of friction though; it’s easy to create incorrectly formatted text, but it can be hard to fix the mistake.

This post distills some knowledge I’ve gained, and techniques I’ve adopted, for maximizing my productivity when writing Google documents.

Spacing Between Paragraphs

By default, Google has no spacing between paragraphs or list items—therefore encouraging the bad habit using two line breaks to separate blocks of text. You’ll need to do two things to resolve this. First, add some custom CSS to create a gap between paragraphs, and second, learn how to make Google use p (paragraph) elements instead of the div and br elements that it uses by default.

On the Edit menu, click Edit CSS.

In the dialog window that appears, add the following:

p, li {
    margin-bottom: 1em;
}

You can, of course, add much more CSS to specify formatting options for other HTML elements (you can’t use CSS classes yet as far as I know, but I would love to see this in the future).

Click OK, and you’re done. Now, for this to work right, we need paragraphs to actually be p elements. That’s next.

Understanding Paragraph Styles

A block of text can have no paragraph formatting, be normal paragraph text, or ne one of the headings 1 through 6. When text has no paragraph formatting, the Styles dropdown simply displays the word “Styles”, otherwise it displays the applicable paragraph format.

When no paragraph formatting has been applied, Google Docs surrounds the text you type with a div element. When you press enter a new div element is created to contain the next block of text. If you hit enter multiple times, the div elements get replaced with a br (line break) element instead.

Yuck!

To convert the block of text to a paragraph. choose “Normal Paragraph Text” in the Styles drop-down, or hit Ctrl+0.

Make sure your mouse cursor is somewhere within the text block first; paragraph styles are always applied to the entire text block, unless you select that text first. However, if you want to remove an existing paragraph style, you must select the text before clicking Clear Formatting in the Styles menu.

Shortcut Keys

These are the only ones you need, and they are easy to remember. You will use them continuously when writing a document.

  • Ctrl+0: Paragraph
  • Ctrl+1..6: Headings
  • Ctrl+7: Ordered List
  • Ctrl+8: Bulleted List
  • Ctrl+Space: Clear Formatting

Fixing Formatting Issues

I mentioned earlier that sometimes formatting gets messed up. If this happens, sometimes it is easiest to select the problematic text, and then Ctrl+Space it.

I also like a visual indicator for text that I’ve forgotten to format. Make the following additional change to your CSS if you would like unformatted text to jump out at you in an obnoxious pink color:

div {
  color: #ff0099;
}

Document Title and Table of Contents

Resist the temptation to put the title of your document at the very beginning, formatted as Heading 1. Google doesn’t provide a Title style, so if you must have a title at the top (or in the header), then use the Normal Paragraph Text style, select the text, bold it, and change the font size to 24pt.

This frees up Heading 1 to be used for the main headings in your document. One of the pay-offs with doing this, is that you can easily create a proper table of contents for your document. The TOC feature is found on the Insert menu.

In Closing

Google Documents is a feature rich online word processor, and the nice thing about it is that many of the available features are actually useful to the majority of users. It is easy to learn, and with a little practice it can become a pleasure to use. It’s not perfect, but, without exception, every web-based WYSIWYG editor I’ve come across has idiosyncrasies in dealing with user-managed markup. Google Docs is must better than most.

Hopefully, this article provides some value for folks actively using or considering Google Docs, to help ease the work of writing documents online.

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