16 Google Docs tips and hacks for freelance writers

Spending most of your client writing time in Google Docs? You’ll love these tips, shortcuts, and hacks to become more efficient in Google Docs.
First published on:
March 15, 2022
Last updated on:
August 18, 2022

Here’s my guess: you spend a lot of time in your Google Docs. For me, it’s where I spend 70% of my working time. Reviewing client briefs, outlining, taking notes from research, writing, editing… Everything happens in Google Docs.

If you want to make your work in Google Docs more efficient, do more with your keyboard, and move through your writing faster and smoother, these 16 Google Docs tips, hacks, and upgrades are for you.

1. View word count while you write

Google Docs automatically counts words and characters in your document, but doesn’t make it obvious.

You can view your word count with this shortcut:

  • Ctrl + Shift + c (on PC)
  • ⌘ + Shift + c (on Mac)
Word count window in Google Docs

If you tick the “Display word count while typing” box, you’ll see your word count at the bottom left corner of your document at all times. Keep in mind that if you refresh or close the tab with your document, the word count will no longer be in the corner, and you’ll have to tick that box again.

Word count preview in Google Docs

2. Use shortcuts for headings and subheadings

Adding H2s and H3s to your document can be tedious. If you’re currently doing it by highlighting a row of text and clicking the “Normal text” dropdown, there’s a better way.

  1. Click on the row with what will be your heading or subheading (for example, an H2)
  2. On your keyboard, use Ctrl + Alt + 2 (on PC) or ⌘ + Option + 2 (on Mac)

The number you use corresponds with the heading type you want, so 1 for H1, 3 for H3, and so on (up to H6). Using the zero digit here will reset your heading back to normal text.

The best part is that you don’t need to highlight a line of text—clicking anywhere in that row of text is enough.

Heading and subheading shortcuts in Google Docs

3. Add spacing to your paragraphs

When you open a fresh Google Doc, you may feel you need to add extra blank lines of text between your paragraphs to separate them and give them a clean look. Without it, your entire draft looks like a wall of text—hard to read or even scan.

Generic text with no paragraph spacing

This isn’t ideal, as your client’s CMS might have some spacing already built in, so they’ll have to delete these lines as they stage your draft for publishing.

Here’s what you can do instead:

Select all your text. Then, click the line and paragraph spacing button (the arrows next to three lines; see below), and choose the ‘Add space after paragraph’ option.

Adding space after paragraph in Google Docs

This adds a nice, 10-point spacing between paragraphs (but not between lines), making it easier to read your draft.

Generic text with paragraph spacing

Grab your printable Google Docs cheatsheet

All the keyboard shortcuts, tips, and hacks in one place. Versions for PC and Mac included.

4. Update heading and paragraph styles to match

A new Google Doc document defaults to a font style and size—it’s Arial, size 11. Headings have a predefined size, too, starting from size 20 for H1 and going down for each next subheading.

Some of my clients have a different preferred font for drafts because it resembles the fonts they use on their blog better—most common examples are Open Sans and Lato.

But even when I change the font to, say, Lato when I begin to write, adding any headings or subheadings defaults these back to Arial. So instead of fixing the font every time you add a heading, here’s a way to only do it once:

  1. Before you kick off your draft, write a paragraph of normal text in your blank doc. Select it and change the font and size to the one you want. Add the paragraph spacing at this step, too (refer to the previous section for this).
  2. Click the ‘Normal text’ dropdown and, under the’“Normal text’ option, click ‘Update ‘Normal text’ to match.’
  3. When you add your H1 title, change its font and size right away.
  4. Click the “Heading 1” dropdown and, under the “Heading 1” option, click “Update ‘Heading 1’ to match.”
  5. Repeat for H2 subheadings (and lower, if you use them).
Updating default formatting in Google Docs

This way, every next paragraph you write or H2 you add to that doc, it will automatically adopt the right font.

5. Use the outline pane to move through your draft

As you add your H1 and subheadings to your draft, Google Docs will automatically generate an outline in the pane on the left.

It’s created and updated in real-time, so it’s an excellent way to see the structure of your draft and move between different parts quickly.

You can also use the arrow at the top left corner to hide this pane if you don’t need it all the time.

Outline pane in Google Docs

A recent, early 2022 Google Docs update also now features a Summary section just above the outline, where you can add relevant details about your draft.

6. Use shortcuts for bullet point formatting

Bullet points and numbered lists are a great way to make your draft more readable, scannable, and structured.

There’s a great way to move between regular paragraphs and structured lists—and it doesn’t involve using your mouse. When you finish a paragraph and want to make your next line the start of a list, hit Enter to move your cursor to that new line and:

  • For a bullet point list, use Ctrl + Shift + 8 (on PC) or ⌘ + Shift + 8 (on Mac)
  • For a numbered list, use Ctrl + Shift + 7 (on PC) or ⌘ + Shift + 7 (on Mac)

To increase indentation, use the Tab key when your cursor is at the start of the line, and Shift + Tab to decrease indentation. When your list is complete and you want to start another paragraph, just hit Enter one more time.

Bonus tip: just like with headings, you don’t need to select any text to move between different types of lists. Click anywhere in your list and use the keyboard shortcuts to make these changes.

Bullet point and numbered list shortcuts in Google Docs

7. Use shortcuts to leave and reply to comments

Comments in Google Docs are one of my main ways to collaborate with my clients—editors, content managers, and VAs who work hard to shape my drafts into their final form.

When you want to leave a comment, select the text it relates to. Then, use Ctrl + Alt + m (on PC) or ⌘ + Option + m (on Mac) to create a new comment. If you don’t select any text, the comment will automatically highlight the word in front of your cursor.

When you’re replying to a comment, click on the comment and hit r on your keyboard to start typing a response to the comment. When any comment is clicked on, hit j to move to the next comment, or k to move to the previous one. Hit e to mark the comment done.

⚡ Pro tip: You can make your writing in Google Docs even better by using it along with other powerful tools, like:

  • Clearscope, to give your clients a fully search-optimized article every time (it has a Google Docs add-on)
  • Hemingway Editor, to make your writing bold and clear
  • Swipe Files, so you can use the most creative, outstanding examples of emails, landing pages, homepages, and more

8. Use shortcuts for text alignment

Chances are, you use the same text alignment 95% of the time.

But when you need to use a different one—for example, to center an image (that’s my most common use of text alignment)—you can use a keyboard shortcut to do so quickly.

Make sure your cursor is placed in the same line as the element you want to align differently. If it’s an image you’re aligning, you can also click on it. Then, use these shortcuts:

  • To center your text: Ctrl + Shift + e (on PC) or ⌘ + Shift + e (on Mac)
  • To align right: Ctrl + Shift + r (on PC) or ⌘ + Shift + r (on Mac)
  • To align left: Ctrl + Shift + l (on PC) or ⌘ + Shift + l (on Mac)
  • To justify: Ctrl + Shift + j (on PC) or ⌘ + Shift + j (on Mac)

9. Add dates, mention people, link to documents

When you type in the @ sign in Google Docs, you’ll see a list of elements you can add to your document, including headings, images, formulas, lists, and more (similarly to what Notion lets you do when you type in @).

Some of these are more relevant than others, and many can be added in a quicker way thanks to shortcuts. But there are three options that are super useful:

  • Dates: type Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow, or a specific date
  • People: type a name or email address (Google Docs will pull from your account’s history)
  • Documents: click the arrow next to Files and type to search for the right doc or folder
Menu in Google Docs

The range of what you can link to or mention within the Google universe is quite broad, and it’s a practical way to keep all your references to important information in one place.

10. Type in doc.new to create a new doc from your browser

The easiest tip on this list: open a new browser tab and type in doc.new to create a fresh, new document.

Using doc.new to start a new Google Doc

This document will be stored at your default, root Google Drive folder called My Drive, but you can move it elsewhere through the folder button next to your document name.

Changing a document location in Google Docs

11. Build and save templates you can reuse

If you’re using Google Workspace (formerly G Suite)—the paid, business version of Gmail, Drive, Docs etc.—you have an option to upload your own templates to the template gallery and start your drafts from them instead of from scratch.

You’ll find your template gallery on docs.google.com at the top right corner:

Template gallery in Google Docs

Inside the template gallery, you’ll see a tab for your own templates and another one for templates from Google’s library. Click Submit template at the top right corner to set an existing document in your drive as a template (you’ll need to create templates beforehand if you don’t already have some).

Custom template gallery in Google Docs

I’ve created client-specific templates so that I can automatically add relevant sections and details to my drafts. For example, some clients ask for three headline variations and a meta description, while others ask for copy for Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Templates make it easy to create the space for these parameters upfront (instead of having to remember later on)—and delight your clients.

When I’m ready to start a new draft, I click the + New button at the top of my Google Drive and select Google Docs > From a template.

Starting a new Google Doc from a template

12. Remove A4 restrictions with pageless

I’ve always found writing into an A4 format—when I know my writing will be on a web page that doesn’t know paper limitations—a bit ridiculous.

I did try some writing tools that didn’t have a paper-like layout over the years, but I never managed to stick with any of them long enough. I always returned to Google Docs.

It’s why the February 2022 Google Docs update that added a Pageless option is one of the best ones yet. Here’s what my writing layout looks like as I type this:

Google Docs pageless layout

I find this layout liberating and gorgeous. No more page breaks to clean up a weirdly separated subheading and similar hacks, and the draft I’m working on looks a lot more like pieces that are already published. Super beneficial to the writing brain. 💪

You can enable Pageless in File > Page setup:

Setting up Pageless in Google Docs in Page setup

13. Insert a table of contents

Do you have a client that adds a table of contents at the top of every draft?

If so, there’s an easy way to add it that doesn’t involve any manual typing. Once you’re finished with your draft, head to Insert > Table of contents.

Google Docs will populate your table of contents for you. Chances are you don’t need the hyperlinked items from the table of contents, so highlight everything in your table of contents below the main headline, copy it, and paste it outside of the box using the ‘Paste without formatting’ option (do it by right-clicking and selecting the option, or use the shortcut ​​Ctrl + Shift + v on PC and ⌘ + Shift + v on Mac).

Inserting a table of contents in Google Docs

You can then delete the original table of contents box.

Based on what your client needs, use this pasted table of contents as is, or turn it into a bulleted/numbered list. You can also delete subheadings (H3s and lower) and only keep the H2s—again, based on the client preferences.

14. Use your revision history

All the changes you make to your Google Doc are saved in its revision history. Access it by clicking on the ‘Last edit was…’ link next to your document’s menu.

Revision history access in Google Docs

Inside, you’ll find batches of edits in reverse chronological order. Click on any of them to see a previous version of your document along with highlights of what exactly changed. For example:

Revision history in Google Docs

While you probably won’t need to access your revision history often, it’s really useful in two scenarios:

  • Finding a sentence, link, phrase, image etc. you used earlier, but have deleted in the meantime. Maybe you had an idea that felt good at the time but no longer fit into your draft later on, so you deleted it (without saving it elsewhere). Revision history means it’s not lost.
  • Reviewing your client’s edits. Even if your client leaves you comments and suggestions instead of editing your work, they still may have done some changes they didn’t explicitly call out. Browse through their edits to see if there’s anything you can learn from them.

15. Drag and drop to add images

This might be something you’re already doing, but I recently learned that many freelance writers don’t, so here it goes:

Add images to your draft by dragging them from your computer directly into Google Docs. Once it’s in your document, you can resize the image, move it elsewhere, crop it, rotate it, and more.

Dragging and dropping to add images to Google Docs

This works both for static images and dynamic GIFs and makes adding visuals quick and straightforward.

16. Download all images

Oftentimes, clients will ask you to give them easy access to all the images you used in your draft. I do this by uploading all images to a Google Drive folder, setting up sharing so that anyone with the link can access it, and adding that link to the top of my drafts.

If you do a good job of keeping track of all images and screenshots you’re using, this upload to Google Drive should be easy. But if that’s not the case, it’s easy to retrieve all images as files again.

In your Google Doc, go to File > Download > Web Page. This will create a zipped folder on your computer. Unzip it, open it, and find an ‘images’ folder inside—all the images from your draft are in this folder. Rename them and upload them to a Google Drive folder you’ll share with your client.

Google Docs downloaded images

Note: images in this folder usually aren’t in the same order as in the draft. Just something to keep in mind.

Upgrade your Google Docs workflow

That’s it! I challenge you to choose a few Google Docs tips and upgrades from this list and try them when writing your next draft. Want to let me know how it goes? Tweet me anytime.

If you found this useful, please share this post with a fellow freelance writer!

⚡ Enjoyed this list? You might also like the list of 8 planning and productivity tools for freelance writers.