How to use Google Docs Version History

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Between technical writing and fiction, I spend about nine hours a day with my head buried in Google Docs. This has been going on for years, and over that time I’ve seen several instances where something has gone horribly wrong in a document. For a while I would rely on CTRL-Z or backups to save me from such a dilemma. Most of the time, one of these two options would work.

But not every time. I’ve had a few instances where a document has gone haywire, only to find that undoing what happened was ineffective and there wasn’t a backup recent enough to be really helpful.

Thankfully, Google had my back through the version history feature.

Version history is a collection of iterations for a document. Each time you edit the document, Google Docs creates and maintains a new version of the document. Suppose you start creating a new document at 11:28 am. The first version of this document is created and saved. You then continue to work on that document for a while, adding text, making changes, and generally being productive. Google Docs is constantly saving new versions with these changes.

Over time, Google Docs will have saved a number of different iterations of your document. For example, let’s say you’ve finished the first draft of the document and aren’t happy with the formatting. You start formatting and something goes wrong. Suddenly, your document is unusable in its current state. How are you?

You go to version history and select the version that was saved before you made these formatting changes. Selecting this version reverts the document to how it was before things got shaky.

This feature is also a great way to keep an original version of a document. For example, you spend a lot of time crafting the perfect piece and sending it to an editor. The version history allows you to create an “original version” that you can always look back to when changes have been made. This way you always have a version of the document in its original state.

Once you realize how useful version history is, you’ll wonder how you managed without it.

Likewise: How to Add More Fonts to Google Docs (And Why You Might Want This)

How do you use version history?

Using Google Docs version history is very simple. Let me show you how it’s done.

1. Open a Google Doc

Let’s start from scratch by creating a new Google Doc. Open Google Drive and click New > Google Docs. Once the new document is open, start typing.

2. Check the version history

Once you have created part of the document, you can check the version history by clicking File > Version History > View Version History (illustration 1).

The Google Docs file menu.

Illustration 1: In the Version History submenu you can open the Version History tool.

Image: Jack Wallen

Since you’re just getting started with this document, you can click Rename Current Version (from the Version History submenu), and then when prompted, type something like “ORIGINAL” in the name field (figure 2).

Name the Current Version pop-up window.

Figure 2: Naming the current version of the document.

Image: Jack Wallen

Click save and your new named version is ready. Then, to check the full version history, click File > Version History > View Version History. This will open your document in the Version History window (figure 3).

The Google Docs Version History window.

Figure 3: The Version History of my current document window.

Image: Jack Wallen

3. Select the version you want to view

In the right navigation you can choose which version of the document you want to view. Click on a version and it will appear in the main window. Keep browsing the version history until you find the version of the document you want to restore.

Once you’ve found the right version, click “Restore this version” and you’ll see it’s open in the main window, ready to edit, share, print or whatever you want to do with it.

Note, however, that you cannot edit a version within the version history.

The only things you can do within version history are:

  • View each iteration of the document.
  • Rename versions.
  • Make copies of versions.

You don’t want to edit documents within version history anyway, as that would defeat the purpose of the feature.

And this, my Google Doc-loving friends, is your crash course in version history. The feature is actually quite easy to use and will soon become your best friend for productivity within the Google ecosystem.

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