Recently, the BD-NYC collaboration (me, Emily Rice, and Jackie Faherty) wrote an entire NSF proposal with Google Docs and it was AMAZING! In this post, I detail all the little things that we learned that will make it easier for you to get started using this tool. I’ve also whipped up a proposal template that shows off the final product and illustrates various techniques for figures and captions.
The huge advantage of using Google Docs to write the proposal was that we could all work on the same document at the same time. There was never various versions floating around or emailing comments back and forth that would need to be laboriously incorporated. Instead, we highlighted sentences that we needed to discuss and left notes and comments directly in the text. You can even see the other people’s cursor and selected text so you can either avoid working on the same bit of text at the same time or watch another person’s edits in real time. A couple days before the deadline, we all edited and polished each other’s text. If we weren’t sure about the edit, we highlighted it and the used the sidebar chat to quickly come to a resolution. I think this simultaneous polishing by three different people got us to a high-quality final product extremely efficiently.
Features of Google Docs that Rock
- Ability to upload a PDF and convert it to editable text. Yep, that’s right,
turn a PDF into editable text. This was key for the Bio Sketches since a couple co-Is had existing ones that needed to be updated.
- Ability to include figures. (Convert EPS and PDFs to PNG with Preview.)
- Just enough formatting options. I find that with Pages or Word, I have too many styling options and spend way too much time fiddling. In Google Docs, there are just enough fonts and styles to choose from.
- Sidebar chatting. In the top right of the document, you see a list of the other people who are viewing the doc and you can initiate a chat right there. This was extremely useful in the final hours when we were all online at the same time.
- Mobile editing. This feature wasn’t released before the NSF deadline so I’ve actually never used it. Looks like it would work in a pinch on iPhone and Android, but would be totally awesome on the iPad.
We found that the best way to get figures and captions to look nice was to use tables. See the template for details. Other tips for figures:
- Add spaces between side-by-side figures otherwise they get flipped left-right in the PDF. (Sounds wacky, I know, but it happened.)
- Get rid of extra space below table: Table Properties > Row > uncheck Set minimum height
- Always resize figures with corners to maintain proportions.
- Use the built in heading styles and then create a Table of Contents. The TOC is very useful for navigating large documents and can be removed for the final draft. (Although I couldn’t figure out how to remove it completely.)
- Add page numbers: File > Print Settings
- Tweak the spacing: Format > Line Spacing > Add/Remove space before/after paragraph.
- BEWARE: Line wrapping in editor is different than in the PDF.
- We did references by hand. That is, we typed in “(Smarty et al. 2020)” in the text. I then created a custom template in BibDesk and just dragged and dropped to create the reference list (post forthcoming).
Drawbacks and Features I’m Looking Forward To
In order of importance to me.
- Better pagination and accurate line wrap info in the editor. This can be very frustrating when battling with page limits because you need to generate the PDF to asses the length.
- Text wrapping around tables.
- Option to have chat beep when new messages are received.
- Customize the heading style formatting.
- Easier ways to incorporate equations. Right now, it’s doable, but clunky: Writing Equations in Google Docs
- Google Account required. Some collaborators may balk.
- Security/Privacy. (Full Disclosure: This is not something I give a crap about.) Yes, your documents will be in the cloud. Make sure you have a strong Google password and use the secure versions (e.g., https://docs.google.com/), especially if you are on a public network or unsecure WiFi.
So, there’s the low down on using Google Docs for writing a proposal, or some other document collaboratively. Has anybody else done this? Please share other tips or advice in the comments. I’m also curious if anybody has tried it but ran into some problem that made you go back to the ol’ fashioned way.
Now I can hear you all screaming, what about writing papers with LaTeX!?! That, I’m afraid is not as straight-forward. I’m looking into collaborative LaTeX options now and LaTeX Lab looks promising. If you’ve tried it, or found some other collaborative LaTeX solution, tell us about it in the comments.
Thanks to Sarah Kendrew for comments on an early version of this post.