Use these lesser-known features to become a Google Docs pro

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The deeper you dig into this web app, the more there is to find.

Google Docs icon inside of a pink circle and surrounded by small illustrations.

Image: Samar Haddad / The Verge

Part of the appeal of Google Docs is its clean, accessible interface: open up a document, and the invitation is there to simply dive in and start typing without having to bother with settings screens or page configurations.

However, that doesn’t mean the word processor app is lacking in features. Since its arrival way back in 2005 under the name Writely, it’s gradually been adding more and more in the way of useful functionality.

If you’re busy with your actual writing, you might not have discovered all of these features yet. Here are a few worth checking out. Take a look and see if they can give your productivity a boost or enhance the way you go about creating your documents.

Look up definitions

The dictionary built into Google Docs isn’t just there to put red lines under misspelled words — it can help you look up words you don’t know. Select a word, then choose Tools > Dictionary to see a definition. Alternatively, select a word and then press Ctrl + Shift + Y (Windows) or Cmd + Shift + Y (macOS).

Switch to a pageless view

If you’re not printing out your work, then you might want to do away with the on-screen page borders and give yourself an infinite canvas to work with (along the lines of something like Notion). In this mode, elements like tables and pictures can be stretched to fit the screen rather than the page.

To switch between the Pages and Pageless views, open the File menu and choose Page setup. On the same dialog, you have the option to choose which view is the default for new documents you create.

Page setup popup showing change between Pages and Pageless.

Page setup popup showing change between Pages and Pageless.

Go pageless to make full use of the screen.

Create building blocks

When you create a new empty document, you will see three choices at the top of the page: Meeting notes, Email draft, and More. The first two come under the auspices of what Google calls building blocks — in other words, templates that offer a variety of useful starting points.

For example, if you’ve got a longer email to write, you might find it easier to compose it in Google Docs rather than Gmail. It’s also great for collaborating on email drafts with other people in the same way you would collaborate on a standard document.

Choose Email draft or (if you don’t see the choice at the top of the document) select Insert > Building blocks > Email draft. You’ll be supplied with an email template that includes fields for the recipients and the subject header. When your email looks good to go, click the Gmail icon to the left, and you’ll get a preview of the email. You can then make changes or click Send.

You can also pick Meeting notes to create a template for taking notes at a meeting (with the option to attach the document to the relevant Google Calendar entry).

Google Docs has other building blocks you can make use of: find them on the Insert > Building blocks menu or by clicking More at the top of a new document. For example, there’s Project roadmap, Review tracker, Project assets, and Launch tracker. In each case, you get elements added to your document, like tables and drop-down menus, that help with that particular task. 

Create a table of contents

You don’t have to spend time manually creating a table of contents for longer documents because Google Docs can do it for you. Just make sure you use one of the heading formats throughout your document — either from the drop-down list on the toolbar (that says Normal text by default) or via the Format > Paragraph styles menu option.

Whichever method you use to apply headings, you’ll see you get two options for each heading: to set the selected text in the heading style or use the format of the selected text as the heading style (should you want to change the default heading styles).

You can create the table of contents before you start working on the text, after you’ve finished, or at any point in between — as long as the headings are there. Go to the point in the document where you want the table of contents to be, then choose Insert > Table of contents and pick a style.

If you make changes after inserting the table of contents, right-click anywhere on it and choose Update table of contents. To tweak the text formatting for the table of contents, hover over it and click the three dots to the left and then More options.

A compare documents pop-up with fields for My Drive and David Nield.

A compare documents pop-up with fields for My Drive and David Nield.

Point Google Docs to another document and it’ll compare it with the current one.

Compare two documents

There may well be times when you need to compare two documents against each other, and Google Docs can help. Open the Tools menu and pick Compare documents, then select the other document to compare with the current one: Google Docs will present you with a detailed breakdown of where they differ in a new document.

Explore beyond your document

Select Tools then Explore and a new panel opens up on the right-hand side. You can use this panel to search the web and your Google Drive account. Click and drag to drop anything you find into the document you’re working on.

React with emoji

Sometimes an emoji reaction is all you need — you can, for example, speed up the collaboration process by using them instead of comments. Hover over the right-hand side of a paragraph in a document, and you’ll see an emoji option appear alongside the option to add a comment. (If you’re in editing mode, you’ll also see an icon that lets you switch to “suggest edits.”) You can choose any emoji you like. Hover over comments, and you’ll see there are emoji reactions there, too.

text on left, a box of emojis on the right.

text on left, a box of emojis on the right.

Sometimes an emoji reaction is better than a comment.

Copy and paste formats

As well as copying and pasting text and images, you can copy and paste formats, too, which can be handy if you’ve got a heading style (for example) that you want to duplicate multiple times without going into the formatting menus each time.

Select any text formatted in the way you want to copy, click the Paint format button on the toolbar (it looks like a paint roller), then select the text you want to apply the format to. The keyboard shortcuts Ctrl + Alt + C (Windows) and Cmd + Option + C (macOS) can also be used to copy a selected format, with Ctrl + Alt + V (Windows) and Cmd + Option + V (macOS) used to paste it.

Keep the word count on the screen

Even if you’ve found the Word count option on the Tools menu, you might not have noticed the Display word count while typing checkbox on the dialog box. Enable this and you’ll always know exactly how many words you’ve written. Click on the arrow next to the word count box to change it to character or page count instead.

Google Doc with pop-up Preferences box showing automatic substitutions.

Google Doc with pop-up Preferences box showing automatic substitutions.

Google Docs can do automatic text substitutions, too.

Text expansion

Select Tools then Preferences, open up the Substitutions tab, and you can tell Google Docs to automatically replace certain bits of typed text with something else, like turning “(C)” into the actual copyright symbol, for example.

You can use this feature to create abbreviated shortcuts for sentences you type a lot or to make sure the words you misspell most often are corrected. You can also use it to have something like “–” turn into an em dash if your keyboard doesn’t have a dedicated key for it. There are lots of potential uses.

Find a tool or feature quickly

Not sure where a tool or feature lives in Google Docs or even if it exists at all? Open the Help menu, click Search the menus, and you can look for something specific.

Alternatively, there’s a little Menus search box on the far left of the formatting toolbar you can use if it’s visible. The Alt + / (Windows) or Option + / (macOS) keyboard shortcut gets you to the same search box as well.

Speaking of keyboard shortcuts, a whole host of them are supported in Google Docs, and they can save you a lot of clicking, whether you’re formatting text or counting words. Press Ctrl + / (Windows) or Cmd + / (macOS) to see a full list.

Drop in smart chips

Smart chips are dynamic bits of information you can drop into documents; you can find them by choosing Smart chips from the Insert menu or by clicking More at the top of a new document — but the selection differs depending on which route you take.

From the Insert menu, you can choose from Date, People, File, Calendar event, or Place. When you’ve made your choice, you or anyone else who accesses the document can hover over the smart chip for more information. With the Place smart chip, for example, you get a mini Google Maps thumbnail of the location in question.

It’s also a great way of linking to other files from Google Drive. Choose the File smart chip and choose the file from the pop-up menu, and its name will be shown in your document. You can now hover over it to see a preview of the file along with its link.

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