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The Simple Trick I Use To Keep Track While Writing Novels On Google Docs

Every author will have their preferred way of working on their novel, from their process to their software. If you like Google Docs but find it hard to keep track of where you are, or often get "lost" in it by the middle, this super-easy trick might help.

One question that I've seen pop up quite a few times in online writing spaces is: "What do you use to write your novels in?" Many of us are eager to know how our fellow writers and authors create their work. Do they have any secret tips or clever tricks that might help us too? It's a natural curiosity, and the answers can be incredibly helpful in helping you discover new ways to create, until you find your own go-to methods that work best for you. Yet back when I began writing my first novel, the thought of what software to use for writing never really crossed my mind. It was only when a trusted friend asked me the question, and I stared at him with a blank expression, that he told me about Scrivener. And it was absolutely transformative for my writing process. I soon discovered that it was a widely-held secret among authors and the writing community, and I felt like an idiot for not having learned about it sooner. (Thankfully, I soon let go of that feeling of idiocy because frankly, we're all novices at some point, and word-of-mouth is often the best way to learn about really awesome things. I'm just grateful that I have some very tech-savvy friends who are always ready to tell me about the latest and greatest new software they has discovered, whether that's something like Scrivener, or a new mind-mapping or planning tool that can be used for brainstorming, my day job, or my novel alike).

Anyway, I digress. As wonderful as Scrivener was (and still is) - it was instrumental in helping me learn how to plot things properly, fight my feelings of overwhelm when my novel became this huge monstrous beast that I couldn't make out the head or tail of, and separate things chapter by chapter that I could move around easily - nowadays, I often find myself switching between it and good old Google Docs, which was what I'd first started writing in.

Every bit of software will have its pros and cons, and like most things in life, it comes down to whether it works for your lifestyle, your habits - your brain and the way it works best - or not. For me, I've found that I love using Scrivener for a first draft, so I can clearly plot my story out and figure out how it will best take shape. Now that I've discovered Miro, the combination of those two have helped me save enormous amounts of time and grief in being able to see how my story might flow best. Yet when it comes to my edits - and not just a second draft, or even a third draft, but I mean the deep and heavy edits, where I might actually need something that's closer to a rewrite, I actually find myself preferring Google Docs.

Why? Because firstly, it's a fresh look at it. Staring at the same document for too long makes it harder for me to release my attachment to the way it is, let alone spot any mistakes. Even in Google Docs, I'll sometimes change the font of the entire piece to help me see it differently, and I know I'm not the only one who does this. I also find Google Docs immensely helpful for writing on-the-go, which is a key reason I use it.

Scrivener is actually quite affordable, and when you consider that it's a one-time payment, and that you can download and use it across multiple devices off of that same purchase, it's really good value. But when I am not certain that I can stick to the same devices, and might have to switch around between more than that, it's the flexibility of Google Docs that I really love. I can sign in from my phone (and if you hate writing on your phone, you can even buy handy little keypads for that, which don't cost the moon), my iPad, and whatever laptop I happen to be in front of at the time. The files are saved on my Google Drive, and while I know some people are worried about the security concerns of that, let's be honest - most of us have some form of valuable information in a cloud somewhere in this day and age, and unless that is a major worry for you, the convenience factor is pretty hard to beat. Don't want to be bound to WiFi all the time? No worries - just enable offline access for that document. Bonus: It's also really great for collaboration, like if you have a trusted friend take a look at it and make edit suggestions, if you are comfortable with that sort of thing. I don't want to get into the safety concerns some people have around that - if you're worried that someone might steal your work as their own, then that's definitely not a trusted person who you should be seeking the opinion of anyway, TBH.

The biggest problem that I've come across with Google Docs is when we come to the sticky, messy, busy middle of a story. It feels fantastic writing the first several chapters - it's all clean and fresh, and incredibly satisfying to have a few scrolls before you get to your last end-point. "Look at how much I've done already!" I'll think, marvelling proudly at my ability to smash that word count. But what happens when you get to chapter, say, 8, or 10, or 14? That scroll can start to feel really tedious, really quickly. The first time I did that, I soon found myself thinking, "UGH, where WAS I already?" This is made even worse when I'm not writing in order. Skipping ahead to write the next chapter is great - writing a novel doesn't always have to be linear after all - but no matter how many times you highlight your text in different colours at various stopping points, or use huge bold font to mark parts you want to come back to later, the fact is when you're dealing with a 200+ page document, it can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. Cue overwhelm, and the very reason why I fell in love with Scrivener in draft one.

A compass on a map
Do you feel overwhelmed when trying to navigate through an enormous Google Docs document when you're writing a novel? This easy idea might help! / Image by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

But there's a super-simple trick I've discovered that has helped me through this, and once I found it, I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it earlier. The answer *drumroll* is BOOKMARKS. You can call it a glossary, you can call it a "jump-to" list, you can call it whatever you want. It's a list at the start of the document where you can make the words "Chapter 1", "Chapter 2", "Chapter 3", and so on clickable - so all you need to do is click on that, and boom, it'll jump straight to that point in the document. It's so simple that once I started doing it, I was simultaneously delighted to have discovered it, and horrified that I had been too obtuse to realise it earlier.

There is an official guide for bookmark links from Google, which you can find here, but if you don't want to go through that, this is what I do: When I finish a chapter, I hit "Page Break" for the next one (always use a Page Break! Don't just smash that "enter" button until you get to the next one, or you'll wind up with a formatting nightmare, not just for yourself - that manual method will shift everything every time you make even a tiny tweak down the line - but when you forward it to other people as well). After the page break, I'll write out the chapter name, then highlight it, go to "Insert" in the top bar, and select "Bookmark" from the drop-down menu. You'll see that it's done when you see the little bookmark tab appear next to your bookmarked text. Then, you go to your glossary/chapter list at the start of your document. Highlight the name of that same chapter (if it's not there yet, then write it and highlight it). Go back to "Insert" on that top menu, and this time, select "Link". Underneath the box that lets you search for or paste a link, you'll see a list of recent links/bookmarks underneath - and there, you'll see the name of the chapter you just bookmarked. Can't find it? You can search for it by name, or you can scroll to the bottom of that pop-up box and click on the "Headings and bookmarks" sub-menu. That will open up a list of everything you've used as a Heading/Sub-Heading, and... you guessed it, all Bookmarks. Click on your desired bookmark and... boom. You're done. Save (obvs), and go back to your document page with that glossary. You'll see that it's linked now - and if you double-click on that link, it will either automatically take you to the chapter you've just linked it to, or it'll give you a little pop-up prompt that you can click to take you there instead.

So if you find yourself enjoying writing in Google Docs but with that one point - that painful long-scroll and the overwhelm and confusion it can cause - once your novel reaches its longer points, try this trick. It might be just the one you were looking for, to guide you through your novel until you get that baby done.


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