Original Poster
Bas Braams

Issues with the GDocs documents text editor

In this posting I collect together some issues with the GDocs documents editor. I consider only the “new” editor (introduced Apr/May 2010) and only issues having to do with editing text; not issues having to do with the equations editor (see [1] for such issues) and not issues having to do with print or with conversion to or from other formats. All these issues have been raised previously and most have been raised many times; I don't provide citations here. (One can use Search and look it up.)

The general page layout capabilities of the GDocs editor are very poor. There is no multicolumn format capability. The system will just as happily break a page immediately after a heading (bad) as immediately before a heading (good). The TeX/LaTeX concepts of glue and of good and bad breaks are unknown in the GDocs editor.

There is no concept of automatic numbering and having the number available for later reference (for equations, citations, list items or headings). (The automatic numbering of list items doesn’t count, because the number is not available within the editor for later reference.)

Flexible page layout (depending on window width) was lost with the switch to the “new” editor.

For text on the web one wants some sort of expansible and collapsible text; it isn’t offered by GDocs. Hover-tips or mouse-over text would be expected; it isn’t available. The GDocs editor product is utterly boring in its capabilities, never mind the failures of implementation.

We now turn to the failures of implementation.

The mechanisms for inserting special characters are atrocious. The direct mechanism is to use the Insert menu. In that case, as an example, the steps to insert a special accented Latin character are: Insert / Special Characters / Symbol / Latin; then multiple clicks to scroll down the menu, carefully looking for the desired character, then click on the character, then Okay. I make that a minimum of 6 clicks, and it takes substantial mental effort to locate the character among the thousands of characters in the menu. An alternative is for a user (each user) to create a separate text document containing frequently used special characters only and from which one copies. Without enough screen space to have two Docs side-by-side one will have that document under another tab in the browser. Then, to insert a special character, one click to move to that other tab, one click-and-drag to highlight, one Ctrl-c to copy, another click on the tab to move back to the primary document, and then a Ctrl-v to insert for a total of 5 clicks or click-like operations, plus the effort to maintain the second document.

The Insert menu saves recently inserted special characters, but the list isn’t saved across sessions and does not survive closing and re-opening a document and doesn’t transfer from one document to another.

There needs to be a convenient method within the Docs editor to insert at the very least the most common Western European accents into text through the keyboard without using point-and-click. The method should be portable; it should work in a manner that is independent of the precise keyboard mapping so long as the keyboard can produce basic ASCII text. Something that resembles TeX/LaTeX escape sequences or the control sequences used in Word would serve fine. Each of these actually offers a much richer collection of accents through the keyboard than just the acute, grave, tilde, circumflex and umlaut that are the most important in Western Europe.

The treatment of formatting with Edit / Find-and-Replace is seriously deficient. It is not possible to use subscripts or superscripts in the replacement text. (Usecase: Replace H2 by H<sub>2</sub> throughout a document.) It is not possible to use linebreaks (or any of many other special characters) in the search text. (Usecase: replace linebreaks by space.)

Find and replace loses all formatting: bold, italic, underline, foreground and background color, first-letter capitalization. More precisely, it takes formatting from the context, not from the word that is replaced.

It seems not possible to insert special characters into the replacement text using what would seem the natural approach, via the Insert menu. More precisely, enter find-and-replce, put something into the find box, then try to enter a spacial character into the replacement box. Bring up Edit / find-and-replace, click on the search or the replacement box, and then go back to Edit / Insert special character; but then the special character gets entered into the main text, not into the search or replace box. One has to go outside Google Docs, locate the desired special character someplace else, and then do a cut-and-paste into the search or the replace box.

It seems not possible to search for formatting symbols such as tab, paragraph break, manual line break, page break, etc., and replace them with text and/or the same or other formatting symbols.

It is not possible to use find and replace to italicize a certain word throughout the document. (Usecase: initialize ab initio wherever it appears.)

It is not possible to center a table on a page.

Every table is preceeded and followed by a carriage return / line feed (CR+LF) pair before and after. This creates padding top and bottom that can’t be removed. This in turn means that one can’t create the effect of local cell refinement by inserting a table into the cell of another table; the un-removable added space messes up the formatting. Similarly the space top and bottom means that one can’t stack tables directly on top of each other. (Usecase: create the effect of horizontal cell merge or cell refinement.)

There needs to be a mechanism to produce itemized lists with custom item labels: not the predefined variants of bullets or numbers but rather things such as a time of day or a room number.

The cursor drift (cursor misalignment) problem that was introduced with the new editor of Apr/May 2010 has been somewhat ameliorated in recent months, but it is still a big problem and it is pretty much unique to Google Docs. The problem is most severe when tables or equations are used.

Google Docs wrongly follows Microsoft Word 2010 in their error that every explicit page break is preceeded by an explicit new line. It means that a page that is terminated by an explicit break is limited to a number of lines one fewer than the standard limit, and it serves no good purpose.

There needs to be some kind of mechanism to include (LaTeX \include{file}) one file into another. This is important for large documents and also for documents that have several authors each with their own responsibility. It would address the issue that with shared editing one sometimes wants to restrict the sections that some person on the share can edit.

Larger page sizes (larger than A3) are needed, all the way up to A0. In order to create a poster for presentation at a scientific meeting one could then use, for example, A2 size with standard fonts, scale it up to A0 for the poster and down to A4 for a handout.

There needs to be a way to use a different header or footer or pagenumber style on selected pages, for example on the title page or on the first page of a chapter.

The page break algorithm should not be completely blind to context; it should have some preference for breaking a page before a heading and not immediately after a heading, for example. The user should have a way to provide soft hints to the page break algorithm; something nicer than waiting until the final production stage and then using manual breaks where needed.

Spell check is terrible. It may flag perfectly ordinary words, although the precise manifestations vary over time. One can’t force the language against which the text is checked and the system may get itself into a confused state. Words can be added to a dictionary for spell checking, but there appears to be no way to remove words from that dictionary.

If page breaks are to be shown during editing (as they are) then also page numbers should be visible. Really there should be a fluid edit mode in which page breaks are not shown and in which the full width of the editing window is used, as was the case with the “old” (before Apr/May 2010) editor.

The table of contents feature is deficient. It doesn’t show page numbers and it doesn’t provide clickable links.

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All Replies (7)
I'd also add that you cannot merge cells in tables, which means you can't have header rows running across several cells for instance.
Andrea D
Andrea D
Thanks for posting this admirably thorough rundown, Bas (and Gill). I agree with every point.
I will add that when viewing a new document on a mobile device (such as an iOS5 device using Safari or Mercury), the page doesn't show properly if you've changed the font or margins. It cuts off the left and right sides of the document, and it's impossible to scroll horizontally to see the text that won't fit in the window. So basically the "mobile" view doesn't always work and often renders the documents useless. 
The Android screenshots shown in the googledocs.blogspot.com current top post suggest that the docs work properly on that, but to have to scroll a page side by side on a small screen would make the application almost impossible to practically use.
Well, thanks to someone else's post, I noticed another of my often-used features that's no longer available. I didn't notice before because I haven't been using the new docs unless absolutely necessary.

The ability, when creating a link, to select another Document in your own repository is gone. You can select a web address, email, or bookmark, but you can no longer select another document. Why on earth not? I know I can create the same link by manually copy/pasting the URL of the other document, but why take that away?? 

In addition, you can no longer manually name a bookmark. So what happens if you have to delete a bookmark for some reason and then recreate it--you have to then manually update your table of contents or any place where that bookmark was linked? That was the beauty of being able to name a link--you could remove the original bookmark, create a new one with the same name, and your link would still work.
@ElleCC - sigh! Sad, isn't it?
Original Poster
Bas Braams
Let me record that all the issues mentioned in the original posting here are still issues on 2012-11-11. I believe that all of them date back to the introduction of a new editor in May 2010 and many of the issues are older than that. Improving the basic functionality of the text editor seems to have very low priority within the GDocs effort. The same is true for improving the basic functionality of the equations facilities [1] or, come to think of it, for correcting manifest errors in the spreadsheets program [2].

[1] (2012-02-21) Issues with the equations editor

[2] (2012-05-06) Errors and other issues with statistical and mathematical functions in GSheets
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