Google Docs format sharing non-standards

In the past, I’ve mentioned that blog posts are often transitory. I hope this one is transitory and that I can come up with a technical or a procedural solution, because as of now I don’t have one.

Most of my writing experience over the past…many years has been with various versions of Microsoft Word, with the exception of a brief period in which I used FullWrite Professional. (The then-current version of Microsoft Word was NOT Mac-like, and FullWrite Professional was reputed to have a more graphical interface. It did…but it was slower than molasses, so we switched back to Word.)

Google Docs. Can’t you tell?

However, two of my recent projects used Google Docs instead of Microsoft Word, primarily because of Google Docs’ excellent collaboration features, including:

  • The ability to share a document with multiple collaborators, even outside of your organization.
  • The ability to restrict collaboration permissions to only allow commenting, or only allow viewing.
  • The ability to assign items to collaborators, and have the collaborators resolve them.
  • The ability for multiple people to edit the document at the same time. (This could be a drawback, but in my experience it was a plus.)

Everything worked well in my first project, a fairly simple project in which my collaborator took final ownership at the end and performed the final formats.

It was a different story with my second project, a much more complex project.

From my experience with Microsoft Word, a person could modify the existing styles, define new styles, and ensure that anyone who edited the document used the defined styles.

Google Docs is…a little different, as I found out the hard way.

First, Google Docs doesn’t allow you to define custom styles. So if I’m doing work for WidgetCorp, I can’t define styles like WidgetCorpAnswer or WidgetCorpHeading1.

Second, even Google Docs’ standard set of styles is limited.

Normal, Title/Subtitle, and six levels of Headings. That’s it. Forget about special styles for captions, table contents, or anything else.

Third, while Google Docs lets you modify these nine standard styles, there’s no good way to let other people use your modified styles. Here’s how I shared the issue in a Google community:

How can style customizations be shared between collaborators to avoid this issue?

Person A and Person B are collaborating on a Google Docs document.

Person A defines custom styles for Heading 1 and Heading 2.

Person B moves text from Heading 2 to Heading 1.

Person B’s heading style (not Person A’s heading style) is applied.

Person A has to reformat the text in Person A’s custom Heading 1 style. 

This happened on a recent project. I was Person B.

I was hoping that there was some easy way for “Person A” to share style definitions with “Person B” without having those become Person B’s defaults. (Because, after all, Person B may eventually collaborate with Person C, who has different style preferences.)

Sadly, my hopes were dashed:

I feel your pain. Sadly, there currently isn’t any way around this, as editors have free rein. The only solution would be to change their access from “Editor” to “Commenter.”

In other words, only one person can perform final formatting of a Google Docs document. While this restriction can apply to some business workflows, it can’t apply to all of them.

So is there a solution that allows multiple people to format a Google Docs document, and use common formatting styles?

(And before you say “Use Word,” I should also add that real-time collaboration is essential.)

As I said, I hope this post is transitory and I can come up with an acceptable solution.

(But even then, there are other drawbacks in Google Docs, including the inability to automatically number figure and table captions…)

Behind the scenes postscript: I was getting ready to write another post that referenced this post, and then I discovered that I had never actually finalized or shared this post. So now I’ve shared it, primarily so that I can reference it in the future without confusing everyone.

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