Writing in the cloud (part 3)

There’s few topics that deserve a third examination here on writer.support, but cloud computing is surely one. The benefits it offers are unheralded and incredibly useful, and the modern writer dismisses it at her peril.

What is the cloud?

Cloud computing is about letting you work wherever you happen to be, no matter what computer or device you have access to. The only requirement is that there’s an internet connection.

Compare that to how most of us work currently, wherein our files are stored on the hard disk of our PC or laptop in the home or office. This ties us down. While we can escape this by carrying our files around on a USB memory stick, as many do, there’s no guarantee any other computer we use will have the software we need to work. And that’s before we lose the USB stick, or it simply stops working.

Cloud computing overcomes this by putting both software and our files online – or “in the cloud”, as it’s described. For example, below I look at using the Google Docs word processor. On a desktop PC or laptop, Google Docs is typically accessed via the same web browser used for everything else. You just visit https://docs.google.com and the word processor appears within the browser window. Files you create are stored in Google Drive, which as its name suggests is like having a personal online hard disk.

It’s very liberating being able to access your work from anywhere, via virtually any computer or device, and at any time. I’ve written fiction on my phone at 2am while lying in bed, following a (seemingly!) good idea waking me from sleep. Similarly, provided a cafe has an internet connection then you can take your iPad or other tablet computer and work away as and when inspiration hits. Does your bus or train have Wi-Fi, as many do nowadays? You can work there too!

The other huge benefit of cloud computing is that you don’t worry about ensuring all your computers and devices have the up-to-date version of your file. If you’re working in the cloud, there’s only one copy of your file and therefore it’s always up to date. In fact, Google Docs doesn’t even require you to bother saving your file. It saves it for you every few seconds. If you’ve ever lost data via forgetting to click File > Save prior to a computer crash then this is surely good enough reason in itself to investigate cloud working.

Workflow

Cloud computing remains a very nascent technology, and that’s another way of saying nobody’s really sure of the best way to use it. However, I think I’ve figured out a good workflow that will benefit many writers.

It grew out of the realisation that, despite their claims, no cloud-based word processor is (yet) a swap-in replacement for the traditional desktop variety. All have weaknesses. Therefore it’s best to take the useful bits from both the cloud and the traditional word processor and combine them.

The trick is to treat the cloud-based word processor as a virtual jotter that, just like the real thing, you have access to at all times. Do your creating there. If you can access a computer or gadget then you can scribble.

When it comes time to edit and prepare your work to be passed on to somebody, download the file to your computer where you can work on it with the more precise and useful traditional word processor. Doing this will also create a permanent copy.

I’ve been working in this way for several months, creating both journalism and fiction in the cloud and then downloading and editing it on my Mac. This article was written using this setup.

Making an app

However, first it’s necessary to fix an irritation with cloud-based word processors when it comes to accessing them from a PC or laptop: it’s downright weird to work within a browser window. I could never get used to spending hours tapping away in the same program window in which I get my news and sports fix, and I know I’m not alone.

The solution is to turn the Google Docs website into a real Windows app, complete with its own entry on the Start menu, and its own taskbar button. This is extremely easy to do and the following steps need only be done once to set things up.

docs_app

Start by downloading and installing the Google Chrome browser, if you haven’t already: https://goo.gl/VX68F7. You’ll also need a Google account to use Google Docs. If you use Gmail then you already have one but you may need to sign up: https://goo.gl/MSBIj5. Don’t worry – it’s free to do so, and in fact nothing described here costs money.

Open Google Chrome and visit Google Docs: https://docs.google.com. Login when prompted so that you see the main Google Docs documents listing.

Now for the clever part. Open the Chrome menu (the three-bar icon at the top right of the window), then click More Tools > Add to Taskbar. In the dialog box that appears ensure there’s a tick in the box that reads Open As Window.

A new button will be added to the taskbar, and when clicked it’ll open Google Docs as if it’s a genuine program on your computer, without a browser toolbar. You can continue to run Google Chrome alongside this, and indeed close Chrome if you need to, all without affecting your new Google Docs app.

If you’ve a Mac you can use Epichrome to create a Google Docs app: https://goo.gl/deq0p3.

Working with the flow

From now on you can work on documents in your new program window. Google Docs is extremely simple to use, so I won’t explain the basics but you can get started by clicking the large plus icon marked Blank, to create an empty document. To give the document a name, click the Untitled Document heading at the top left.

You’ll find Google Docs apps for your Apple iPhone and iPad within the Apple App Store, and similar apps for Android phones and tablets in the Google Play store. One of the fantastic things about Google Docs is that you can edit a document simultaneously on several different devices – open the document on your iPad while it’s already open on your PC, for example, and you’ll see a second text cursor appear. Anything you type on either the PC or iPad will be near-instantly reflected on the other.

Note how to the right of the menu there’s a status display saying either “Saving”, or “All changes saved”. This lets you be sure that your edits and additions are being recorded. Remember that there’s no File > Save menu option because Google Docs automatically saves your file – even if you haven’t yet given it a filename!

When you decide it’s time to edit the document for dispatch to an editor, you’ll need to switch to the PC app you created and then click File > Download As > Microsoft Word (.docx). This will download the file to your hard disk – most likely into the Downloads folder – and there you can copy it to its permanent home on your computer’s hard disk, as well as open it for editing and tidying-up in your traditional word processor (e.g. Microsoft Word, or LibreOffice).

Offline syncing

It might sound counterintuitive but Google Docs on the PC offers an offline mode, which has two benefits. The first is that it lets you edit your documents via Google Docs even if there’s no Internet connection. Yes, you’re right – that kinda defies the supposed purpose of cloud computing. However, offline working is for emergencies such as when your Internet connection dies, rather than to be used an everyday tool. The second benefit of offline mode is that it saves copies of the Google Docs you create to your hard disk. You can’t actually get at these files other than through your Google Docs app (put simply, they’re saved as browser data rather than as Microsoft Word files) but offline access adds at least a feeling of safety to working in the cloud because you can be sure that, if your account somehow becomes inaccessible, you can always use your PC app to get at the files.

To activate offline mode, use the PC app you created to return to the documents listing, and then click the menu icon and then Settings. Click the Turn On link under the Offline Sync heading, and follow the instructions that appear.

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