Real-time collaborative writing with Google Docs

Last week Google launched “a new Google Docs”, offering improved tools for collaboration when creating documents, spreadsheets and drawings. The new features include multi-user editing in real-time, more prominent sidebar chat, a revamped commenting system and improved document formatting. In this blog post, we look at each of these in turn, considering how they might affect your practice for collaborative writing… and the changes we might need to make to our existing Web2practice guide to Collaborative Writing.

Working in real-time

“Real” real-time working functionality is perhaps the most interesting new feature in Google Docs, enabling truly synchronous working with all contributors’ edits appearing as they type, character by character.

Experiencing this for the first time is rather a shock to your word processing habits formed over the years! It challenges your existing practice and forces you to re-evaluate. You become distinctly aware that others may be watching your every keystroke, whether new word, typo, deletion or false start. However, once your own personal paranoias are overcome, there’s something interesting and creative re. watching someone else’s text appear, observing their approach and at times, predicting their patterns of thought.

Synchronous working is nothing new. No doubt you regularly work face-to-face with others, and perhaps communicate in real-time with remote collaborators using Instant Messenger, telephone or VOIP. However, the “in the same room” comparison is perhaps best here; real-time collaboration in Google Docs allows you and other authors to exist in the same online space, working towards a shared purpose and, importantly, with effective tools available to work, engage, communicate and interact as required.

Improved communication tools

In our collaborative writing guide, written last summer, we wrote that: “Additionally, some web2tools for collaborative writing allow users to add comments to a document, or to text chat synchronously with co-authors.” Both have been improved and updated in Google Docs.

Chat with your collaborators

If you and others are working on a document at the same time, it’s great to be able to engage with them and discuss the document you are working on. When more than one author is editing the document, Google Docs now shows a right side-panel indicating the people “currently editing”. Clicking the drop-down arrow opens up a chat window – immediately useful! Note however that the chat conversation isn’t saved as part of the document, and therefore cannot be referred back to from session to session.

Make comments

Improved commenting in Google Docs has been one of the demanded features from users. Using them is now far more usable and effective, with the ability to add comments and move them around. They can also be used synchronously (yes, just as in the main document window, text appears in real-time) or asynchronously, with authors able to add threaded replies at their convenience. However, note that comments need to be attached to text within the document, and deletion of that text also results in the removal of attached comments.

Improved formatting

Additional functional updates have been made to Google Docs. There’s improved document formatting and layout of embedded images, the option to add margins and tab stops plus better import/export fidelity.

Alarmingly, the heading structure option appears to’ve been removed from the toolbar, encouraging users to edit specific text with specific font, bold etc. information – definitely a backward step. (Note however that heading options are still available from the ‘Format’ drop-down menu, or by using the keyboard shortcuts.) Also, there’s no longer the ability to edit or attach Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to documents. We hope these are temporary measures, as Google launches the new version.

Our reactions from (initial) practice

Steve and I began writing this post in real-time, using the new version of Google Docs, and have since independently returned to the document to add additional content and make edits. Here are some of our reactions:

On first use, working concurrently in real-time certainly ‘feels’ very collaborative, there is a sense of togetherness, creativity and immediacy that you wouldn’t get if writing in isolation (even if at the same time!). As the document grows, you become drawn into the collaborative process – at times discussing a specific section or at others observing your co-author’s activity or concentrating on the specific text you’re writing. The real-time nature also adds a level of commitment to the task at hand, with authors less likely to be distracted by external communications or activities.

Our experiment, beginning with a blank document, was somewhat forced and unrealistic. However, this perhaps highlights the importance and usefulness of having a skeleton heading structure within a document, providing a framework for the collaborative writing, and the option for individual authors to concentrate on specific sections.

As with the adoption of many new technologies, existing practices are questioned. Clear communication and work-flow are vital. For example, we take for granted the need to write, edit and review a document. However, even with only two authors, we began using the Instant Messenger panel for clarification regarding progress and to ask questions such as, “Are you ready for me to review this section?”

Finally, we both wondered upon the situation that would demand the need for real-time document editing, posing that short documents requiring swift sign-off might perhaps be most obvious. However, instead of considering specific use cases, it’s perhaps better to think of the real-time functionality as enhancing the collaborative process, providing the ability to take advantage of a situation when authors happen to co-edit a single document synchronously.

Updating the Collaborative Writing Web2practice guide

We will undoubtedly update the Web2practice Collaborative Writing guide, including further mention of working in real-time. However, all of the key points still stand, including the following suggestion towards ‘fluent’ practice: “Selecting the right tool for the job is an apt statement in today’s digital age.”

One important function that may be affected by the new features is version history; with so many concurrent edits, it’s unclear how Google Docs differentiates between versions of a document, or if it is able to keep track of sections of content added or edited by a specific author.

Finally, if you know of researchers, teachers or administrators using the real-time functionality of Google Docs (or any similar web tool) please do get in touch – We’re always looking for examples of innovative practice to feature in these guides, passing on experiences to new users.


This post was written in one document, by two authors, in multiple locations, on five different computers and using three different web browsers!

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