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Bill Bennett


Google Docs for journalists and writing professionals

I’m a journalist. I’ve been one for 30 years. I started in a world of manual typewriters and hot metal print.

Long before typing was mainstream I could touch type at secretary-like speeds. I’ve spent most of the last 20 years tapping away at a word processor.

So I know a thing or two about the subject.

For the last decade I’ve used Microsoft Word. Before it either MacWord or WordPerfect. That’s not WordPerfect on Windows – we’re talking about WordPerfect 5.1 – an MS-Dos application.

WordPerfect 5.1 represented the high water mark in PC word processing. I’d still use it today if it were a practical option.

I’d use a manual typewriter if I could hook it up to the net. No. Scrub that. Manual typewriters are hopeless when it comes to edits and rewrites.

Microsoft Word is the standard

Microsoft Word is the industry standard. Every editor I’ve dealt with in the past 10 years requires journalists to file copy in Word format. Or at least they did until recently.

Word has advantages, but from my point of view, it never was as good as WordPerfect 5.1. It is bloated. Not just in terms of the weight of resources required to run Word, but in terms of features.

I don’t need fancy layout, outlining and many, many other tools. I don’t need 90 percent of the features in Word. Most of them are distractions from the task at hand – which is converting ideas into words.

And using a mouse is a pain in the bum. Or, more accurately, a pain in the carpel tunnel.

Distraction free word processor

WordPerfect 5.1 did everything I wanted, well, perfectly. It was distraction free. Word isn’t, but a number of modern applications aim for the same goal. I’ve written about them before.

WordPerfect 5.1 is the closest computers ever came to reproducing the good aspects of typewriters without chucking in the kitchen sink.

It had all the features I needed and they were all just a keystroke away. My fingers could find every command without engaging the brain. While this keyboard control is technically true of Word – the complexity overwhelms me and  I end up reaching for the mouse.

The fact someone even thought of adding a talking paper clip is a sign there’s some badly screwed thinking behind Word. The truth is, Word is a word processor designed for people who are not professional writers by people who are not professional writers.

In a perfect world, someone would take WordPerfect 5.1 and turn it into a software-as-a-service application. I would happily pay money for it.

On a good day Google Docs gets close to the WordPerfect 5.1 ideal. I can hit Ctrl-Shift-F for full screen mode then hit F11 to get rid of Firefox’s browser distractions. This is almost like typing on a clean sheet of paper.

Google Docs has been around for some time, but recently it has matured to the point where it is now a serious alternative to Microsoft Word. I’m not sure when this happened. It snuck up on me. A year ago the program wasn’t up to scratch. Today it is.

Google Docs’ weak points

One niggle is the lack of a zoom facility. If I’m typing in Google Docs using, say, 10 point Verdana, the onscreen text appears small. After 30 years as a journalist my eyes find that hard going. I can change the font size or even use Firefox’s zoom feature, but a quick, single key zoom-unzoom command would be better.

The only other shortcoming in the software is the lack of a British English option in the spell checker. I’m a professional writer, so I don’t use a spell checker while I’m writing, but it is a handy tool later when I’m proofing my copy. It is irritating being told British spellings are incorrect when they are fine.

Google Docs is only useful when I’m connected to the Internet – which isn’t 100 percent of the time. In theory Google Gears works around this roadblock, but in practice I’ve found it difficult to use the Firefox or Internet Explorer browsers when there’s no connection – maybe the experience is better with Google’s own Chrome browser, I haven’t tested it yet.

Google Docs has one clear advantage over WordPerfect – you can share documents.

Word has a whole raft of features for tracking changes and commenting on documents. I’m sure some people find them useful. I’ve only ever used them once – in a job where the client insisted on marking changes this way. And as a journalist I’ve occasionally been amazed at the information left by people who don’t know how to use Word’s collaboration features properly.

Conclusion: Google Docs

When I set out to write this piece my original thoughts were Google Docs is useful but it doesn’t cut the mustard for a journalist’s writing needs. By going through the points logically for this story I’ve changed my opinion. Google Docs appears to do everything I need and, for now at least, seems a worthy successor to WordPerfect 5.1.

As an experiment I’m going to stop using all other writing tools for a few weeks to test this theory to breaking point. At some point I’ll report back on the experience.

Updated: September 5

48 hours into the experiment and I’m throwing in the towel and returning to Microsoft Word. Soon I’ll write a fresh post explaining why Google Docs doesn’t work for me.



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