Earlier this year, when setting out as a freelance writer, I found myself for the first time without the backing of a work computer with Word or a free student account. I faced a dilemma: to pay or not to pay for Microsoft Word. With a perfectly good word processor attached to my Gmail, was it really worth about $7 or $8 per month to be able to type onto the traditional white page I was used to? What settled it was the realization that I needed trusty old Word to communicate with my hopefully soon-to-be editors. Track Changes was the language in which the writer-editor conversation was carried out, at least in my experience. Even if I were to convert my Google words to Word words, and my editor’s Word edits to Google edits, and download my Google response to those edits as a Word response to be sent back, too much could get lost in translation.
Journalism is just one of the many industries debating its continuing relationship with Word. But unlike most industries, we let this debate play out within our work. Writers have been calling for an end to Word for more than a decade now, from Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times to Tom Scocca here in Slate. In his 2012 piece, Scocca compared filing a story in Word in 2012 to filing a story via fax in the ’90s, calling it “cumbersome, inefficient, and a relic of obsolete assumptions about technology.” In a post responding to Scocca’s piece, the pseudonymous blogger Otaku-kun points out that the program is still incredibly important to other professionals, even if not for writers: “Ask any lawyer writing a brief, a scientist writing a grant, or a student writing a dissertation how useful Word is and you’ll get a very different perspective than that of people writing tweets about how Word is too complicated for their blogging.” (Remember blogging?)
Google Docs has a lot going for it. Like journalism, it’s fundamentally collaborative: Editors and writers can literally “back-and-forth” on the same page, almost as if sharing a computer. In fact, multiple people can work on a document at once, something essential for large pieces under tight deadlines. We can look at edit notes on our smartphones on the run. And it’s free.
Some publications—barbarians or brave iconoclasts, depending on how you feel—are in the process of transitioning from Word to Docs. Writers and editors are collaborating in Google Docs at a variety of outlets, including both the highly digital Vice and the traditional New Yorker. One perhaps-surprising group of publications at the forefront of this Google Docs transition: local papers. Ian Murren, the editorial-production coordinator at Hersam Acorn Newspapers, which publishes 21 weekly publications in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont, says that they made the switch to Google Docs in 2015. When I ask why local papers seem to be at the forefront of the shift to Google, Murren says, “We were ahead because we were so behind when we updated.” Part of Google Docs’ appeal was that it was free.
Peter Rugh, associate editor at the independent Indypendent (unrelated to Hersam Acorn) in New York, says that 95 percent of their editing is now done in Google Docs. If a writer or freelancer submits a piece as a Word document (as most still do), they get it back with edits as a Google Doc. But when he started at the Indy two years ago, they were still using very old software. “We were just out of touch,” Rugh says. Using Google Docs has improved their workflow: They spend less time having to track down files, because they are all arranged in the cloud, and it’s clear to everyone which is the current version. And on the night of production, they’re all looking at the same mock-up and know when changes are made.
That’s also the problem—with Google Docs, we really can look at the same version of a piece at the same time. The more experiences I have with the “collaborative” Docs, the more I understand why we’re still clinging to the relative privacy of Word. In her mediation on Google Docs—written in Google Docs—for the New Yorker, Katy Waldman writes, “I cannot be in the same Google Doc as my editor; it is a mutual violation of privacy, and the surest route in the Google cloud to an anxiety attack.” Whose document is it anyway, when you can both access the current draft? If I pop into a Google Doc in the middle of the night to check that a random thought was covered and find my editor’s color-rimmed avatar in the corner, I will immediately, awkwardly exit—even if they are grayed-out from inactivity—as if I’ve just walked in on someone in a private moment, praying they didn’t see me. Some grayed-out editors seem to never leave, keeping the article open as one of their many tabs—but you never know when they might click on that tab and catch you in your own private suggestion-grappling moment. (Frankly, I’m glad there’s no way my editor can see how many times I just moved those clauses around.)
It’s rude to gawk, but for the shameless among us, there’s the ability to watch an editor work—silently, or not so silently. (One editor told me about a writer responding to suggestions as she edited.) Jason Diamond, a writer and editor who has experienced the Google Docs edit from both sides, still vacillates between Word and Google Docs in his own work. Despite a hilariously apt GIF he tweeted about creeping on his editors, he says he doesn’t actually lurk on the Docs midedit. But he has been tempted to go in and make a tweak or two. “I do find myself thinking, ‘Oh shit, I didn’t do this right. I gotta go back in there and fix it. Maybe they haven’t gotten to that part yet,’ ” he says. “And I can see where their cursor is, so sometimes I’ll like sneak it in there, and be like, ‘Oh if I just change this sentence … ’ And I’ve been caught doing that. An editor once called me out—they were like, ‘Hey, I’m working on this.’ ”
As an editor himself, Diamond gets it. He says it ticks him off when a writer goes into the Google Doc while he’s editing and tries to talk to him while he’s in the process of editing. “I find that really intrusive and weird. … It’s literally somebody standing over your shoulder, the internet version of it.” He doesn’t want a person standing over his shoulder as a writer, either. “When you’re writing, your biggest fear is that you’re writing trash,” he adds. “If there’s somebody on the other end looking at me rewriting this sentence 30 times, that’s so humiliating.” Word, meanwhile, is our own private space to write as many bad sentences as we please.
But even when not in the doc, a writer can feel their editor’s digital presence. A pleasant evening of Netflix can be ruined by constant Google alerts sliding into the upper-right corner of their screen: “Editor has made 14 suggestions to Precious Article You Thought Was Finished.” Then the Google Docs emails begin: “New: 5 comments, 33 suggestions.” “New: 12 comments, 47 suggestions.” You don’t want to rudely open the Doc they’re working on, but Google is showing you their progress (their deletions) anyway, your despair drawn out in a drip feed. This would never have happened in Word.
For now, writers—whether Docs fans or Word stans—need to be ready to accept edits in whatever form they come. But Google Docs appears to be coming for us all, slowly but surely—even if we’re not quite ready to Accept This Change.