Google Docs Hero

If you’re just getting started with Google Docs, its extensive features and add-ons can be a little overwhelming. Here are some tips to help you get started with this powerful alternative to Microsoft Word.

What is Google Docs?

If you’ve heard of Google Docs before, feel free to skip ahead. If you’ve never heard of it before, here’s a crash course on what you need to know. We’ll go over the basics and get you brushed up with what Google Docs is and how you can get started right away.

Google Docs is a free, web-based word processor offered by Google as part of its complete office suite—Google Drive—to compete with Microsoft Office. The other main services included in the cloud-based suite are Sheets (Excel) and Slides (Powerpoint).

RELATED: What is G Suite, Anyway?

Google Docs is available on all devices and platforms; all you need is an internet connection and a web browser (or, in the case of mobile, the applicable apps). Google does the rest and handles the brunt of the heavy lifting while it runs the software in the cloud.

Docs supports several different file types, including .doc, .docx .txt, .rtf, and .odt, making it easy to view and convert Microsoft Office files directly from Google Drive.

And since Docs is an online word processor, you can share and collaborate with multiple people on the same document, tracking revisions, changes, and suggestions all in real time.

Have you heard enough? Let’s get started.

How To Sign Up for an Account

The first thing you’ll need to do before you can use Google Docs is a sign up for a Google account (an @gmail account). If you already have an account, feel free to move on to the next section. If not, we’ll go over the simple way to create a Google account and get you set up with Docs.

Head over to accounts.google.com, click on “Create Account,” and then “For Myself.”

Click Create Account, then click For Myself

On the next page, you’ll need to provide some information to create an account, like first and last names, username, and password.

Enter your personal information into the form provided

Also, you have to verify your phone number to make sure you’re an actual human and not a bot.

As a security percaution, you have to verify your phone number

After you verify your phone number, the subsequent pages require you to provide a recovery email address, date of birth, and gender, as well as agreeing to the privacy statement and terms of service. Finish that, and you’re the proud new owner of a Google account.

How to Create a Blank Document

Now that you have a Google account, it’s time to create your first document. Head on over to Google Docs and place the cursor on the multi-colored “+” icon in the bottom right corner.

Hover over the multicolored plus in the bottom corner

The + turns into a blue pencil icon; click on it.

Click on the blue pencil to create a new document

Chrome Pro Tip: If you’re using Google Chrome, you can type docs.new into the Omnibox and hit Enter to automatically create and open a new blank document.

How to Import a Microsoft Word Document

Drag and drop a file from your computer to upload it to Google Drive

Even if you’re new to Google Docs, you might already have a collection of Microsoft Word files you’d like to be able to use. If that’s the case, then you’ll have to upload all your Word documents before you can view them. While it might not support some of the more advanced features and formatting of some Word documents, it works pretty well.

When you import a Word document, you can use either Google Docs or Drive to upload your files. Both methods let you drag and drop a file from your computer directly into the web browser for easy uploads. Your Drive houses all of your uploaded files, but for convenience’s sake, when you head to the Docs homepage, it only shows you document-type files.

Google Docs homepage preview

From the Google Docs homepage, click the folder icon in the top right, then click the “Upload” tab.

Click the Folder icon, then the Upload tab before dragging a file into the browser window

Once the Word file uploads, Docs opens it automatically, ready for you to start to edit, share, and collaborate.

To open a Word document that you want to edit, click the file with the blue ‘W’ next to the filename from your Google Docs homepage.

A Word file has a blue W located next the the filename, click on it to open in Docs

Click either view the Word file or edit it in Docs.

Choose to either View the Word file or edit it in Google Docs

When you finish with the document, you can download your document back into DOCX, or PDF, ODT, TXT, HTML, or EPUB format. Click File > Download As then click on the desired format, and it will download directly to where files save from your browser.

Click File, Download As, then choose a file type to download to your computer

RELATED: How to Import a Word Document into Google Docs

How to Check Your Spelling in Google Docs

Example of poor spelling and grammar in Docs

Now that you have a few documents, it’s time to make sure your spelling and grammar are correct. Docs comes equipped with a spell-checker all ready to go for you—any time you misspell something, it underlines the error with a squiggly line, prompting you to make a change.

This should be on by default, but you can make sure in Tools > Spelling > Underline Errors.

To see spelling corrections and suggestions, right-click the word with the line underneath. Alternatively, or press Ctrl+Alt+X (Windows) or Command+Alt+X (Mac) to open the Spell Check and Grammar tool.

Right-click the error to view the spell checker's correction

Another way to access the spell check is to click the icon with an A and checkmark. This enables the tool and parses your document for spelling and grammar.

Click the A icon to enable spell check

Along with a spell checker, Google Docs comes loaded with a built-in dictionary and thesaurus. All you have to do is highlight a word, right-click on it, then click “Define [word].”

Defining words using Google Docs

While this should get you started, we have a deeper dive into Docs’ spelling and grammar checker if you want more info.

RELATED: How to Check Your Spelling in Google Docs

How to Collaborate on Documents with Others

Collaborate on documents with others using a share link

One of the best features of Google Docs is the ability to generate a shareable link that lets anyone with it to either view, suggest edits, or edit your document. Instead of sending a file back and forth between collaborators, you can make edits and suggestions all at once, as if you were all huddled over the same computer in real time. The only difference is that each person has their own text entry cursor to use on their personal computer.

From the document you want to share, click on the blue button “Share” to choose how and with whom you want to send a link to your file. You can enter email addresses manually or click “Get sharable link” in the top corner to hand out the invitation yourself.

Enter the email addresses to send an email or click Get Shareable Link to manually send the link

From the drop-down menu, you can edit how much power the shared user(s) have over the file when you select one of these options:

  • Off: Sharing is disabled. If you’ve previously shared a link with others, it will no longer work and revokes any permissions they once had.
  • Anyone with the link can edit: Gives the shared users full read/write access. They still can’t delete it from your Drive, though—this is just for the contents of the file.
  • Anyone with the link can comment:  Allows shared users to leave comments if desired—this is great for team projects.
  • Anyone with the link can view: Shared users can view the file, but can’t edit it in any way. This is the default action when you share a file, and the best option if you’re trying to share a file for download.

You can do a lot more with these shareable links, which also work with other Drive files and on mobile. For a deeper look at how these links work and how to generate them, check out our post.

RELATED: How to Create Shareable Download Links for Files on Google Drive

How to See All the Recent Changes to a Document

Example of showing recent changes to a document

When you share documents with others, it’s difficult to keep track of all the small changes that happen if you’re not present. For that, there’s revision history. Google Docs keeps track of all the changes that occur in a document and groups them into periods, keeping the clutter down. You can even revert a file to any of the previous versions listed in the history with the click of a mouse.

You can view a list of all recent changes by clicking File > Version History > See Version History.

Click File, Version History, then on See Version History to see recent changes to the file

RELATED: How to See Recent Changes to Your Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides File

How to Suggest an Edit to a Document

Example of suggested edits in a document

If you’re the owner of a document and would prefer for collaborators to have to suggest edits to your file (instead of directly edit them), you can set the access permission to “Suggestions.” This lets others make an edit to a document without the worry of others messing about in your file. When a collaborator makes an edit, the owner receives an email notification regarding the suggested edit and can choose to keep or discard the change.

If you look up at the top right of the document window, you’ll see your current state. If you see “Suggesting” then you’re good to go. If you see “Editing” or “Viewing” then click that button and then click the “Suggesting” option.

Click the drop-down menu with either Editing or Viewing, then select Suggesting to have edits show up as suggestions

RELATED: How to Suggest an Edit in Google Docs

How to Find the Word and Page Count

The word count of a document

By default, Google Docs doesn’t display the word or page count, but it’s easy to check them without a manual count. So, if you have a strict word limit for an assignment or like to keep track of the amount you write, you can see the details to your labors with the word count. You can even highlight text from any paragraph to check how many words there are in the selection.

To view your document’s word/page count, click Tools > Word Count, or press Ctrl+Shift+C on Windows and Command+Shift+C on Mac.

Click Tools, then on Word Count to see a file's word count

You can also find the word count for a specific string of text by highlighting it, and jumping back into Tools > Word Count (or using the key combo).

RELATED: How to Find the Page and Word Count in Google Docs

How to Use Google Docs Offline

Editing a document in Offline mode

What happens if you need to access Google Docs but don’t have an internet connection? Although Google Docs is a web-based product, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it offline. You need to download an extension for Chrome and make sure you enable the file for offline use beforehand. Any changes you make to the file update the next time you connect to the internet.

After you download the official extension for Chrome, go to Google Docs’ homepage and in the top left corner, click the Hamburger menu > Settings. Once here, toggle “Offline” to the On position, then click “OK.”

Toggle Offline Mode

To save storage space on your local machine, Google only downloads and makes the most recently accessed files available offline. To manually enable a file, click the three dots icon, then toggle “Available Offline” to On.

Enable offline for specific documents

RELATED: How to Use Google Docs Offline

How to Add Page Numbers to a Document

Example of page number on a page

Page numbers are a visual tool used to show the reader what page they’re currently on. They also help you organize physical sheets of paper and place them in the proper order (you know—if you print them). Google Docs doesn’t automatically generate page numbers in files, you have to add them manually, but it’s easy to add them to the header or footer of your document.

To add a page number to all pages, click Insert > Header & Page Number > Page Number. You’ll see a pop-up window where you can choose a page number style.

Click Insert > Headers and Page Number > Page Number, then select one of the four options for the page number's position

RELATED: How to Add Page Numbers to Google Docs

How to Control Margins in Google Docs

Location of the margin selector on the ruler

Margins are the white space that borders your document on all sides. Because margins create an invisible border, when you decrease the margin size, you increase the amount of usable space on the page. If you need to change the amount of space on the edges of all a file’s pages, then you need to manage its margins with the ruler along the side and top of the document.

If you’d rather enter the margins manually, click File > Page Setup, enter the amount of white space you want to see on each side, then click “OK.”

From the Page Setup menu, choose the margin's white space size, then click OK

RELATED: How to Control Margins in Google Docs

How to Add a Text Box to a Document

Adding text Boxes is easy and fun!

Adding text boxes to Google Docs is a great way to highlight pertinent information and draw attention to specific elements of a document. However, to create one isn’t a straightforward process and is hidden in an unlikely place: from the Drawing feature.

To access the Drawing menu, go to Insert > Drawing and click the text box icon in the menu bar.

Click the Text Box icon

Now, click and drag your mouse to create a text box in the space provided, and then add your desired text.

Enter some text into the empty text box

Click “Save & Close” to insert the text box into your document when finished.

RELATED: How to Add a Text Box in Google Docs

How to Add a Table of Contents

Example of a table of contents

A table of contents is a way to show readers each topic/chapter listed in the document. This feature automatically generates one and uses links that jump to each section when clicked. So if you have a large document, this lets anyone quickly access specific parts without the need to scroll through the whole thing.

Click Insert > Table of Contents, and then click on either of the two options provided. The first option is a plain-text table of contents with numbers on the right side intended for printed documents. The second option doesn’t use page numbers but instead inserts hyperlinks that jump to the noted section for documents to view online.

Click Insert > Table of Contents, then choose one of the two options for the contents table

Note that to create an automatically generated table of contents that links to specific sections of your document, you must format each chapter—or title—using Google Docs’ built-in header styles. This lets Docs know how to populate the table and add clickable links.

Make sure each chapter, or title, uses one of the Heading tags for it to populate the table of contents

RELATED: How to Create a Table of Contents in Google Docs

The Best Google Docs Add-ons

Google Docs Add-ons

Now that you’ve learned all the basics to Google Docs, you can become a true power user with the addition of add-ons. Add-ons are a lot like extensions for web browsers but are specific to Google Docs and let you gain additional features from third-party developers. You can install tools to increase productivity with additional proofreaders, document signing apps, an in-document translator, and even a rubric creator for teachers.

RELATED: The Best Google Docs Add-Ons

Brady Gavin Brady Gavin
Brady Gavin has been immersed in technology for 15 years and has written over 150 detailed tutorials and explainers. He's covered everything from Windows 10 registry hacks to Chrome browser tips. Brady has a diploma in Computer Science from Camosun College in Victoria, BC.  
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