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This handy Google Docs feature is a must-have hack to help writers stay focused

For Google Docs power users -- and the rest of us -- custom substitutions can help make creating documents far more efficient.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Halfpoint Images/Getty Images

Let me set the stage.

You are working on a lengthy document within Google Drive. You get into your groove and every word and sentence is spilling out of you like sweat and blood at a hockey game. You are on fire and nothing can stop you.

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Until you have to type a word with an umlaut (or other accent characters) or you have to add a particular symbol. In that split second, your flow is stopped. Never fear…you can start writing again and hit that zone once again.

Only to be stopped by another non-standard character or word.

And so it goes.

I know this all too well. As a professional writer, those interruptions in creativity and flow can be costly with regard to time and concentration. Every time I am interrupted, you can count on doubling the amount of time for that interruption for me to get back into my groove.

Fortunately, there are always tools that can help you avoid such issues. One tool is Google Docs custom substitutions. 

Essentially, these substitutions allow you to set a sort of shortcut for something that would otherwise take you more time than necessary.

Take, for instance, the word über. Without substitutions (at least with my keyboard layout/setup), I would have to first click Insert > Special Characters and then locate the ü character, add it, and then type the rest of the word. If it were a single instance of that word, it's really not all that much of a problem. But if the word pops up regularly, we're talking about quite a few interruptions.

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Or maybe you have that one word (or a few words) that always trips you up. For me, that word is bureaucracy. For whatever reason, I can never get that word right on the first try. But thanks to Google Docs substitutions, I can always create a shortcut for it. You might have to regularly deal with medical terminology and who wants to type choledocholithiasis even once?

Instead, create a substitution. For example br for bureaucracy or ch for choledocholithiasis.

If that sounds like something that could make your writing life a bit easier, keep reading.

How to create Google Docs custom substitutions

What you'll need: The only things you'll need for this are a valid Google account and a web browser. That's it. Let's create your first substitution.

1. Open a Google Document

The first thing to do is go to either Google Docs or Google Drive. Once there, either create a new document or open an existing one.

2. Open Preferences

From within the document, click Tools > Preferences. 

The Google Docs Tools menu.

There are a number of tools you can access from this menu.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

3. Create your substitution

Let's say you want to type uber and have it automatically changed to über. In the resulting pop-up window, type uber in the left column and then über in the right. When finished, click OK.

The Google Docs Preferences pop-up.

You can create as many shortcuts as you need.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

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Your first substitution is complete and your work within Google Documents can be a bit more efficient. There are a couple of things to keep in mind with substitutions. The first is that capitalization will be ignored. In other words, you can type your initials and expect it to substitute your full name with initial caps. Second, after you type the shortcut, you either have to type a space or hit Tab for the autocomplete to do its thing.

With a bit of creativity, you can create plenty of shortcuts to help give Google Docs a bit more streamlining. I use substitutions all the time and they never fail to give me a much-needed assist.

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