GdocsFormatting: Collaborative Formatting in Google Apps



Google Docs Basics

Complete this challenge if you want to:

  1. Create a Google doc to use for collaborative writing.
  • Use consistent formatting in your documents
  • format quickly in word processing documents

Why this Challenge

Google Docs is a great tool for working on a document with more than one person. In the old days (or even using only one person can edit a document at once. Sure, Microsoft Word has a track changes feature that is supposed to help deal with edits done by multiple people, but for many uses it is cumbersome and clumsy. With Google docs multiple people can edit a document simultaneously. If you have not done so, it is pretty striking the first time as you see text appear and disappear right before your eyes as your collaborators type on their computers across the room, town, or planet.

It would do you well to learn about how Google’s permissions work (e.g., For this challenge, though, it is enough to learn how to share a document such that anyone with the link you provide them can edit the document.


Most people use computer-based tools that continually show what the product you are producing looks like. I suspect that for many people, the notion of WYSIWYG is so deeply embedded into how they use computers, that the term makes no sense. “What else would my text look like?”

As you (presumably) learned in the Markdown challenge, however, you saw examples of how the text that you type does not look just like the text that is rendered by that text. It might seem like making the user type funny characters to format text is due to lazy programming, but it is really a very efficient way to work with text. Separating the production of your thoughts from trials of formatting and typesetting can be a real joy.

Remember in markdown that you can just put a certain number of #s before a line of text to make it be a heading, subheading, and so on? You didn’t have to decide whether it should be bold, centered, bigger, or whatnot? It is pretty freeing to not worry about such details.

As it turns out, most word processors have built into them the very same notion of headings. You should use them. Always.

Here’s why: Computers are good at doing the same thing over and over again. You are not. You want all of your headings to be formatted exactly the same. Have you ever had to go back through a long document and painstakingly see that you have made headings bold, centered, italicized or whatever other nonsense some editor or teacher has required of you? Learning this will make that problem go away.

There are two parts. First is learning to tell your word processor that something is a heading. Second is learning to tell your word processor how that heading should be formatted.

Controlling headers in Google Docs

As a rule, I hate step by step instructions, but I’m breaking my rule, because if I leave you to your own devices, you will never figure this out (or so I am afraid).

Open a Google Doc and type

My Heading
My text.
My other heading
My other text

It’ll look like this:

Setting A Heading Style with the Keyboard

Put the cursor on the “My Heading” line and if you are using Windows or Linux, type control-alt-1 (that is, hold down the control and alt keys and press the number 1). You Mac people, type command-option-1 and adjust accordingly in the directions below. See how it made it look, well, different? See how it now says “Heading 1” on the formatting tool bar? (There is an example screenshot below.) See how you never tool your hands off the keyboard? Feel the power?

Now type control-alt-2, and then control-alt-3 and so on up to 6. Then change it back to control-alt-1

Now, do the same thing for “My other heading.” See how the headings both look exactly the same?

How lovely that they are the same and it was so quick to format them. See how they are in a different font and a different font size? That is wrong. You should never do that!

Triple-click (click three times fast) on “My Heading” so that it is all selected. At the top of the page where you see the font name “Trebuchet”, change it to Times New Roman. Like this:

So it looks like this:

Oh. No. That looks horrible. You should give up now and never use headings again.

Not really. You are about to take control.

Here is the Magic, The Point Of This Whole Exercise

Right-click on “My heading” and select “Update ‘heading 1’ to match”, and lo! Now both of the heading 1s look exactly the same. This is a bad example, though, as now the headings do not look much like headings except look how they have the additional space before the heading already set! No need to type return a bunch of extra times.

Again, the above paragraph tells you to right-click and see this menu. If you do not, you have missed the whole gosh-darn point.

If you wade down on the Format menu, you can find a place to save your current document’s format as the default for every document you create in Google docs.

Remember how you typed control-alt-1 to set that top level heading?

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine that you had a 20 page document with 3 levels of headings and subheadings and after you’d done the whole thing your teacher/editor/co-author said “Oh, we have to format it [this really stupid and complex way]”. All you’d need to do is format one of each of the headings and update the style and those changes would propagate across the whole document.

What to do

  1. Create a Google Doc
  • Create a sharable link that lets anyone with the link edit the document
  • Create a document that has all 6 levels of headings and normal text.
  • Copy and Paste the page so that everything shows up twice (so you will know when you have correctly updated the style)
  • Change the rest of the headings to something different (Bold, italics, font size, color, whatever).
  • Make Heading 6 have a hanging indent. (You need to know how to do hanging indents.)
  • Use the “Update STYLENAME to match” command so that your styles all match

There are a couple ways you can go. You can make the styles silly so that you can see the power of the styles or you can make them useful (e.g., ones that you would use for some kind of document you often create, like a test).

What is a hanging indent, anyway?

The Owl says

Check Your Work

Here are things you need not to miss that are surprisingly easily overlooked.

  1. Is your link really edit-by-anyone-with-the-link? You must test it by pasting it into a Chrome incognito window.

  2. Did you update the styles of all the headings to something different? You must check by typing a new heading and typing control-alt-1, control-alt-2 and so on. When you do, your new heading should match the styles of the other headings in your document.

  3. Did you make a hanging indent? If you do not have text that is longer than one line, there is little no way to know whether you have configured it as a hanging indent. Make sure that assigning Heading 6 to a paragraph will make it have a hanging indent.

When you are done

Reply as linked topic, make sure that you have selected the correct topic for your journey (aka class), describe how you figured out anything that was confusing, what you learned, how this challenge could have been improved and include the link to your document so that we can see it and tag with #gdocsformatting. The link to your document is your “proof” that you did it. Failure to do the things in the “Check Your Work” section will result in loss of credit.

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