Get to know Google Workspace

Google Docs cheat sheet: How to get started

How to use Google Docs to create, edit, and collaborate on documents online.

Google Docs / A user types on a laptop surrounded by abstract alphabetic characters..
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Google Docs is a powerful word processor that you use through your web browser. It’s integrated with Google Drive to store your documents in the cloud. Anyone with a Google account can use Google Docs for free. It’s also available with Google Workspace — Google’s subscription-based online collection of office apps that also includes Gmail, Google Slides, Google Sheets, and more. There are Google Docs mobile apps for Android and iOS, too.

This quick guide will get you started with Google Docs and show you how to share your documents and collaborate on them with other people.

Share this story: Google Workspace admins, pass this guide on to your users to help them get up to speed with Google Docs.

Create or open a document

To start a new document or load one you’ve already saved in Google Drive, you’ll need to sign in to your Google or Google Workspace account. If you haven’t signed in yet, you’ll be prompted to do so when you click either link below.

From the Google Docs home page: To start a new document, click the Blank thumbnail or select a template to the right. To see more templates, click the Template gallery button in the upper-right corner of the screen; click any thumbnail to start a new document in that template.

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The top of the Google Docs home page. (Click image to enlarge it.)

From the Google Drive home page: To start a new blank document, click the New button at the upper-left of the screen and then click Google Docs. If you want to select a template to start a new document, click the New button, then move the cursor over the > to the right of “Google Docs” and select From a template. The Google Docs home page will open, showing its full template gallery.

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Creating a new document from Google Drive. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Documents that are already in your Google Drive storage appear on either of these home pages. Double-click a document, and it will open in Google Docs. You can use the search box at the top of either home page to search for your document’s file name or text that is in it. On the Google Docs home page, you can also click the folder icon on the right above the documents list. This opens a simplified version of your Google Drive inside a panel.

To open a document that someone else has shared with you via Google Drive: On the Google Drive home page, click Shared with me in the left column, and then double-click the document to open it in Google Docs.

Upload a document or PDF for editing in Google Docs

If you want to edit a document that’s not already stored in Google Drive, here’s how to upload it.

From the Google Docs home page: Click the folder icon on the right above the documents list, then click the Upload tab on the screen that appears.

From the Google Drive home page: Click New > File upload and select the document from your PC’s drive.

Through either method above, you can drag-and-drop a file onto your web browser screen or browse your computer’s storage drive and select a file.

Microsoft Word documents

Traditionally, when you uploaded Microsoft Word files to Google Drive, they were automatically converted to Docs format. That’s stll the case when you upload Word files via the Google Docs home page.

However, since mid-2019, Google Docs has supported the ability to edit Microsoft Word (.docx) files in their native format. By default, any .docx files that you upload via Google Drive will remain formatted as Word documents. You can edit and collaborate on a Word file right in Docs, with all changes made by you or your collaborators saved directly to the Word file.

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Any Word-formatted document appears listed on your Google Docs home page and Google Drive home page with a “W” icon next to it instead of the usual Docs icon.

If you prefer that Word files that you upload via Google Drive be  automatically converted to Docs format, click the gear icon in the upper-right corner of the Drive home screen and select Settings from the drop-down menu. In the Settings box next to “Convert uploads,” check the checkbox marked Convert uploaded files to Google Docs editor format.

PDF or image files

You can also upload a PDF or image file of a scanned document to Drive, then convert it so that you can edit it in Google Docs. The accuracy of this conversion depends on how readable the text is in the PDF or source image.

From the Drive home screen, click New > File upload and select the PDF or image file. After the file is uploaded, right-click its filename on the Drive home screen and select Open with > Google Docs. Drive converts the PDF or extracts the text from the image file and opens the result in Google Docs for you to view and edit. This converted version appears listed on your Google Docs home page and Google Drive home page as a new Docs document. Note that only the text from the source file is converted; if your PDF has images, those will not appear in the new document.

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Converting a PDF to Google Docs format for editing. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Work in a document

When you open a new or existing document, here’s what you’ll see:

The toolbar along the top of your document has buttons for the most common word processing functions, such as formatting text and paragraphs, inserting links and pictures, running spell check, and printing.

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The Google Docs compose/edit screen. (Click image to enlarge it.)

The menu bar above this toolbar includes the following drop-down menus: File lists commands for taking action on the whole document, including Page setup, Print, Rename, and Share. Edit lets you copy, paste, undo, redo, find and replace, and similar. View lets you change your view of the document and how you interact with it (more on that in a moment), and Insert is where you go to insert anything from a table to a special character to a header or footer. Format lets you format text, paragraphs, and other elements including tables. Tools contains extras like getting a word count and translating the document into another language.

The document’s title appears at the top of the screen, above the menu bar. To change the title, place the cursor in the title and start typing.

Note that Docs automatically saves any changes you make to your document as soon as you make them.

Editing, Suggesting, and Viewing modes

When you create or open a document, it is presented in Editing mode, in which you compose or edit your document normally. You can switch to two other modes:

In Suggesting mode, changes to your document appear as colored “suggestions” that can be accepted or rejected. This mode mostly comes into play when you’re collaborating with others; more on that later in this guide.

In Viewing mode, you can’t edit the document, only scroll through and read it. Viewing mode can help you focus on reading through a document without being tempted to stop and edit it. You can also share a document with others in a way that limits them to Viewing mode; we’ll cover that in the sharing section of this guide.

To switch among these modes, click the Editing pencil icon at the far right of the toolbar and make your selection. Alternatively, you can select View > Mode from the top menu bar.

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Switching to Suggesting mode. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Get suggested content for your document with the Explore tool

On the lower-right corner of your Docs window is the Explore icon. Click it and the Explore panel opens on the right. This tool suggests topics or research relevant to the content of your document.

Click a topic and you get search results pulled from the web, images from Google Images, and any files in your Google Drive that might have related content. If Explore doesn’t offer any suggestions or you want to search for a different topic, you can use the search box near the top of the Explore pane to search the web and Google Drive for a topic you choose.

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The Explore tool shows search results and images related to your document.

To use a web result as a citation for your document, hover over it in the results pane and click the quotation mark icon (“Cite as footnote”) that appears. A footnote will be added linking to the source. Similarly, if you hover over an image thumbnail, a plus sign will appear over it. Click the plus sign to insert the image directly into the document, or click the thumbnail itself to see a larger version of the image and decide whether you want to use it.

Recover older versions of a document

To look up older versions of an open document, click File > Version history > See version history. A panel opens on the right that shows a list of older versions of your document, organized by date and time. To see what an earlier version of the doc looks like, click its date or version name in the list. That version will appear in the main window.

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Viewing an earlier version of a document. (Click image to enlarge it.)

If you want to use this older version to replace the current version of your document, click the blue Restore this version button at the upper-left of the screen. This restored version will then appear at the top of the version history list.

If you want to give an older version a unique name, click its date. You’ll be prompted to type in words to replace the date. The version’s date and time will then appear in smaller type underneath its new name.

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