Google Drive, through Docs, Sheets or Slides, has given users a free way to create documents, share them and allow multiple users to edit simultaneously or asynchronously. So, how would you use this? Say you are on a conference call discussing the language of a document. In Google Drive, everyone on the call can see the document in real time and make edits as discussed. Or, during a meeting your assistant can be taking minutes, and the meeting attendees can correct them in real time.
To start a new shared collaborative document, you will need a Google account. You can have a Google account without having a Gmail address — just sign up at Google.com for free. Next, go to Google Drive and sign in. If you use the Google Chrome browser and you are signed into your account you will see a grid icon for “Apps” in the far left of the bookmarks bar. Clicking this will take you to Drive and other Google properties. (You can add other non-Google apps by going to the Chrome Web Store.)
Creating a New Shared Document and Folder
Open Google Drive, click on the red “New” button and choose to create a new document, sheet or slides (see Figure 1). If you choose “Google Docs” a word processing editor will appear in your browser, displaying a blank document with the name “Untitled document” in the upper-left corner. Longtime Microsoft Office users will find that Google Docs has no “save” or “save as” button, so click on “Untitled document” to name the document and it will autosave for you!
If you will be sharing an entire folder of documents click on “New” and then “Folder.” You can then create as many documents in the folder as you would like to share.
Note: Be careful when setting up permissions and consider Google’s Terms of Service when sharing information that is confidential, privileged or sensitive.
Using an Existing File to Share
Instead of creating a new document, you might want to work with an existing Microsoft Office document. First, you need to upload it and convert it to a Google format for multi-user collaboration. Note that if you upload a Microsoft Office document to Google Drive it automatically converts to a Google document, sheet or slides (unless you are using the Office Editing for Docs, Sheets & Slides Chrome extension), but it can be downloaded to a .docx format when you are done editing. (Go to the File menu and select “Download as” to see all of the options.) If you have a Microsoft Office document that is heavily styled or formatted, though, you will likely lose some or all of the formatting.
Turn on Sharing: The Invitations
Once you have your file or folder created, it is time to send invitations! In the upper-right corner of your open document, you will see a “Share” button in blue. Click it and you will see your options for sharing with others. The default is to share with others whom you identify by typing in their name or email address, and allow those people to edit the document (see Figure 2). These people will be invited via email to collaborate on the document or folder. If the invitee does not have a Google account she will be invited to create one. One wrinkle: If the invitee does have a Google account, but you used a different email address when inviting her to collaborate, she will need to request access to the document from the email associated with her Google account.
You might not want everyone to have editing rights. You can choose to give invitees edit capability, comment-only, or view-only rights. No matter what level of editing rights they have, they must log in to access the documents. If you click on the (tiny) “Advanced” link in the sharing dialog box you will see more options, such as “Prevent editors from changing access and adding new people” and “Disable options to download, print, and copy for commenters and viewers.” Toggle these on and click “Save changes” to further refine user rights.
After people accept the invitation, you can click the “Share” button in the document to change access rights for individuals, including changing them from “edit” to “comment” or “share” or making them a co-owner. Click the “X” to the right of the user’s name to completely remove their access to the document (see Figure 3).
What if you want to share the document with a large group and don’t want to make them sign in? If you click on “Get shareable link” you let anyone with the link view, edit or comment. Use this option carefully. If the link is shared (email, website, social media) anyone can access it from the link. You can change the access back to “only specific people can access” if necessary (see Figure 4).
All sharing permissions for documents can be viewed and changed by clicking on the “Share” button in the document. For a folder, select the folder from My Drive and click on the “Share” icon at the top of the screen on the right.
Once you have established permissions and invited collaborators, invitees can open the document and begin typing. If several people are in the document at the same time you will notice that their identities will appear at the top of the document as avatars. You can have real-time chat by clicking on the speech bubble icon next to their avatars (see Figure 5). You can follow changes made by other users in real time, too, because each user is associated with a color. You can see a colored cursor with their name hovering over it, as their edits appear. If you want to see the last place another user edited, just click on their avatar and to jump to their last edit.
Comments and Suggestions
Much like the Review features in Microsoft Word, Google has “Suggesting” (equivalent to Word’s Track Changes feature) and Comments. In “Edit” mode (the default) users can make changes to the document and add comments, by placing the cursor over the text and clicking “Comments” at the top of the page and then Comment again and type the comment (See Figure 6).
An easier way is to insert the cursor where you want to add the comment and mouse to the right margin of the page and click on the comment button that appears (See Figure 7). Like MS Word, comments are preserved with the document. Clicking on a comment in the comment pane will take you to the place in the document the comment references. Users in the document can respond to comments by clicking on the comment box and typing in the “reply.”
Once a comment has been responded to and users want to dismiss the comment, simply mouse over the comment box and click the “Resolve” button that appears there to remove the comment thread and archive it (see Figure 8). Resolved too soon? Click on “Comments” at the top of the screen, scroll to the closed thread and click to “re-open”. Also in the Comments section you can set notifications to get email alerts if someone responds to a comment.
Google calls inline change tracking “suggestions”. In the upper right, in the same toolbar as the editing features (like bold, italics, etc.) click on the arrow next to the pen icon and choose “suggestions” (see Figure 9). Now, changes will show inline on the document, color coded to the user and also appear in the Comments pane on the right side of the document. There is no accept all/reject all workflow, instead users must accept or reject each change. Users with Comment-only permissions can make suggested changes to the document as well, though only users with edit rights can accept changes.
One thing to note: If you upload a Word document that already has tracked changes, those tracked changes will be converted to suggestions in the Google document. Likewise, suggestions in a Google Doc saved back to .docx and opened in Word will appear as tracked changes.
One last useful feature to mention in Google docs collaboration is the Revision history. Go to File – See revision history to open a panel that shows all edits and revisions to the document and who made them. You can click on the timestamp in the right panel to see previous version of the file and revert (restore) to previous versions. Restoring to a previous version doesn’t eliminate any versions, but merely moves it to the top of your revision history. Changes are shown color-coded by user and you can see more or less detail by clicking on the “show more detailed revisions” in the lower-right corner of the Revision history panel (see Figure 10).
If you want to just see new changes since you last opened a document click on “See new changes” from the File menu. Like versions, added text is highlighted, and deleted text has a strikethrough. This feature is only available for docs.
Easy, Effective Collaboration
The fluid ability to have multi-user, real-time collaboration in an online document may be an itch you have yet to scratch. But the option is there and easy to use. Google Drive doesn’t require you to upload and download multiple versions of a document and when brainstorming and hammering out language for many other uses — collaborating is easy and effective.