DIY: Collaborate for free with Google Docs Discussions

Collaboration doesn't have to be expensive. Jack Wallen explains how to use the free Google Docs Discussions for your collaboration needs.

I collaborate on documents on a daily basis, so I was excited to learn about Google Docs Discussions, a collaboration tool that could make a huge impact. Google is trying to make Google Apps the leading business office suite solution, and adding discussions to documents makes for an incredibly business-friendly web-based office suite. And, since Google Docs is free, it makes perfect sense for DIYers.

What you need to collaborate with Google Docs

  • A Gmail account
  • Collaborators with Gmail accounts
  • A Google Docs document

How Google Docs Discussions works

The Google Docs collaboration tool adds a new layer over your document that serves as a space for discussing the document. Only users that have been invited by the document owner can participate in the discussion, unless the discussion is made publicly available.

During the collaboration, you can do the following:

  • Discuss the document with invited collaborators.
  • Hide or move the discussion window and edit the document.
  • Edit, delete, and resolve comments made by collaborators.
  • Chat with other collaborators.

It's not immediately obvious how to use the Google Docs discussion feature for collaboration; however, once you get the hang of it, the feature is an incredible tool for collaboration. Here are instructions and tips on how to use the Google Discussions feature within Google Docs.

How to use Google Docs Discussions

Log in to your Gmail account, and then open the document to be used for collaboration. To invite collaborators to attend the discussion, click the Share button to open the Invite window. When the Invite window opens, you can invite all the necessary collaborators (Figure A). Figure A

After you send the email, all of the invited collaborators will need to view the invite email and click the associated link. Once an invitee opens the link, he or she will have access to the document and the discussion. By default, each collaborator will have full (read and write) document permissions. If you want to change a collaborator's permissions, you click the Shared drop-down menu and select Shared Settings. From that window, you can edit an attendee's status to reflect the permissions (Figure B). You can change the permissions settings at any time. From this window, you can invite new attendees to the collaboration process. Figure B

You can also change the privacy of the discussion to Public On The Web, Anyone With A Link, or Private by clicking the Change link in the Privacy section.

Open the Discussions window The next step is to open the Discussions window by clicking the Discussions button; the Discussions window may cover your entire document. If you click near the top of the Discussions window, you can move the window around so you can view discussions and work on the document (Figure C). You cannot resize the Discussions window, so you will have to place it strategically so it maximizes your screen's real estate. With the Discussion window covering your document, you will notice that when you scroll within your document, the window becomes transparent; when you stop scrolling, the Discussions window will reappear. Figure C

Click the image to enlarge.

If you want to edit a document with the Discussions window open, you have to make sure the window is not covering the document. If the Discussions window is in the way (this is the case if, when viewing the document, the text has a translucent blue box overlaying the text), the discussion box will reappear when you click the text.

This is the only way to be able to keep the Discussions window open and work within your document at the same time -- just move the discussion out of the way of the text.

Discuss the document

Open the Discussions window, enter your comment, and hit the Post button; all collaborators will immediately see your post. Through the discussion process, all posts will be saved and readable. (Discussions do not appear in the chat pane.)

By default, all Google Docs Discussions posts are emailed to all collaborators. If you want to change this process, you can click the Discussions drop-down and then select Discussion Notification Settings. In the new window, you can set how you want notifications to be sent out, if at all (Figure D). Google doesn't recommend shutting off the notifications to participants, but you may have participants that do not want to receive these email notifications. Figure D

Resolve discussions The ability to resolve discussions is one of the tool's best features. For instance, say you're having a discussion about one particular aspect of a document and, at some point, that aspect is resolved within the discussion; you can denote that by selecting Resolve from the Discussions drop-down menu. An overlay will appear that allows you to either cancel or continue with marking a discussion thread as resolved. Once a discussion is marked as resolved, no one can post a reply to that thread. Any collaborator involved in the discussion can mark a thread as resolved. Edit or delete discussions

To edit a discussion within a thread, click the drop-down associated with the thread and select Edit; when you do, the text in the discussion will open for editing.

To delete a discussion within a thread, click the drop-down associated with the thread and select Delete. Fortunately, Google has made it so only the originator of a discussion thread can delete a thread.

Chat about the collaboration

If you want to make comments but not necessarily within the body of the collaboration discussion, you can use the chat pane. In the listing of the attendees, you can open the chat pane (which is in the right side of the document window) and begin chatting about the collaboration. These chats are not saved within the document discussion.

Publish to the web

If you click the Share drop-down menu, you can select Publish The Document To The Web. Before publishing your document to the web, you'll want to think carefully about whether you want everyone to be able to see the document.

End a collaboration session As collaborators close the document, they will no longer appear in the drop-down listing above the chat pane. As long as a collaborator saves the invite link, they can rejoin the discussion at any time.

Even when all of the collaborators and the owner of the document have left the discussion and closed the document, the collaboration discussion remains a part of the document. When any collaborator opens the document, they can view the discussion.


These new collaboration features make Google Docs a serious contender with Microsoft Office and LibreOffice, especially for anyone who needs an office suite and collaboration tool on the go. And, since the Google Docs Discussions feature doesn't cost anything, it makes perfect sense for DIY shops.

Is Google Docs getting close to being the perfect replacement for the costlier, less mobile solutions? Tell us what you think in the discussion.