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 documents. This has been going on for years, and during that time I’ve come across several instances where something went horribly wrong in a document. For a while, I would depend on CTRL-Z or saves to save me from such a dilemma. Most often, one of these two options would work.

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

Fortunately, Google had my back with the version history feature.

Version history is a collection of iterations for a document. Each time you make a change to the document, Google Docs creates a new version of the document and keeps it. Say you start creating a new document at 11:28. The first version of this document will be created and saved. You then continue to work on this document for some time, adding text, making changes, and generally being productive. Google Docs continues to save new versions with these changes.

After a while, Google Docs will have saved a number of different iterations of your document. Say, for example, you’ve finished the first draft of the document and you’re not happy with the formatting. You start working with formatting and something goes wrong. Suddenly, your document is unusable in its current state. What are you doing?

You go to version history and select the version that was saved before you made these formatting changes. When you select this version, the document returns to where it was before everything went wrong.

This feature is also a great way to keep an original version of a document. For example, you spend a lot of time creating the perfect piece and sending it to an editor. With version history, you can create an “original version” that you can always go back to after 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 ever lived without it.

Also: How to Add More Fonts to Google Docs (and Why You Might Want to)

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 square one by creating a new Google Doc. Open Google Drive and click New > Google Docs. Once the new document is open, start writing.

2. Check Version History

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

The File menu of Google Docs.

Figure 1: The Version History submenu is where you can open the Version History tool.

Image: Jack Wallen

Since you’ve just started with this document, you can click Name Current Version (in the Version History submenu) and then, when prompted, type something like “ORIGINAL” in the name (Figure 2).

The Name Current Version pop-up window.

Figure 2: Name the current version of the document.

Image: Jack Wallen

Click save and your new named version is ready. To check the complete version history, then click File > Version History > View Version History. This will open your document in the Version History window (picture 3).

The Google Docs Version History window.

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

Image: Jack Wallen

3. Choose the version you want to view

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

When you find the correct version, click “Restore this version” and then you will find it open in the main window, ready to be edited, shared, printed or whatever you need.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that you cannot edit a version in the version history.

The only things you can do in version history are:

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

You wouldn’t want to edit documents in the version history anyway, as that defeats the purpose of the feature.

And that, 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 productivity friend within the Google ecosystem.

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