Google Docs does a lot of things well, but…

Google Error

…writing an academic paper with APA formatting isn’t one of those things. Which I learned writing my first paper for my Masters last week.

The first is such a basic feature that I (wrongly) assumed that it was part of Google Docs – page numbering.  Um, turns out, I was wrong, but only discovered this at the last minute as I was cleaning up the formatting to make the paper submission ready.

Now, I could have gone in and manually added page numbers as this was a relatively small paper of 1500 words, but if I happened to be working on a 50 page paper (or, eeks, longer) that would have been a pain.

I did discover a page numbering hack, but it involved going into the HTML code – something I have no problem doing, but that others who are just looking for some basic word processing capabilities may not.

But the clincher for me was the failure to get APA references formatted correctly in the bibliography. The problem was the hanging indent in the second line of the reference. In order to get a hanging indent, I had to modify both the HTML and create a custom CSS class.

.hang {
        text-indent: -0.5in;
        margin-left: 0.5in;

I used inches since this was something that will be printed.

Again, not a huge problem for me, but for someone who doesn’t know either HTML or CSS a real barrier.

But the disappointing part was that when I applied the CSS to create the indent, it appeared to stick, but then it suddenly reverted back to no hanging indent. In front of my eyes. One minute it was there, the next it wasn’t.

I did some digging and I found that if I applied the style and then quickly hit save,that seemed to work (of all the kludges in the world, this has to be the kludgiest and makes NO sense to me). However, it was really random and occasionally I would be working on the document and it would suddenly revert back from the hanging indent to regular formatting.

Needless to say, this was both  frustrating and disappointing. The one time it did stick long enough for me to print/download, I noticed that the APA formatting worked when I printed a pdf copy of the paper, but when I downloaded a Word version (as requested by my instructor), the APA formatting was gone.

This was a deal breaker for me with regards to relying on Google Docs for anything more than casual use. Which is fine. It is still a hugely useful product. The night before, for example, one of my team members and I were working collaboratively on a Google Doc over IM. She was in Ontario and I was at home in BC and it worked flawlessly for collaboration.

But to rely on Google Docs for something as structured as an APA formatted paper? I downloaded Open Office last night.

Yes, there is a reason why it is still in Beta.

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Clint Lalonde

Just a guy writing some stuff, mostly for me these days on this particular blog. For my EdTech/OpenEd stuff, check out


2 thoughts on “Google Docs does a lot of things well, but…

  1. I use Google docs to create the drafts of all my grad school papers. It has worked wonderfully well for collaborating with others on group projects, as you mentioned. Also, I love the ability to access my works-in-progress from any computer since they are stored in the cloud. You never know when inspiration will strike! So much easier than carrying around a thumbdrive. Storing all my docs there in folders organized by class made putting my eportfolio together super easy, too.

    I've found that trying to format a paper for APA is not worth the headache on Google Docs. Weird line spacing, indents, etc. always make an appearance. Instead, when I'm ready to turn it in, I simply copy and paste all the text into a Word doc, apply the APA formatting I've already set up and saved in Word and — poof! — paper is ready to turn in.

    1. I wouldn't think it would be a difficult feature for Google to add, but it's not a dealbreaker to using it for sure. GDocs has so many other features and does so many other things really well that it is still a much used tool in my online toolset, and useful for both academics and educators. But with this one little task (APA formatting) it's a bit of a bust.

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