[REVIEW] : Google Docs adds a hint of Markdown

Google Docs will receive an update in the coming weeks with a new feature: the ability to identify Markdown syntax and convert it on the fly. As a reminder, this syntax was created to format text using a few simple characters, such as *, – and #. For example, a word in bold is surrounded by two asterisks: **bold**. Markdown is especially used by anyone writing for the web1, because it allows you to create HTML without having to type all the full tags, but it has other uses.

The proof, Google Docs will partially support it. Google’s word processor is still thought of as a competitor to Word, Pages and the others, i.e. it works on the WYSIWYG principle: you see the result directly on the screen, with text displayed in italics when you activate this mode.

Google Docs goes Markdown for fast layouts

Google is now improving compatibility with Markdown, the markup language for formatting text.

Markdown has been more and more talked about in recent years, and not without reason: simpler and more accessible than HTML, anyone can now try their hand at quick text formatting.

Improved compatibility

Present in the Google Docs word processing tool, the Markdown syntax was already supported, in particular for the creation of lists using the “*” and “–” symbols, or checkboxes with []. Today, Google is announcing to expand Markdown compatibility by including Quick Layout of:

  • Securities
  • Texts in italics
  • Texts in bold
  • Texts in italics + bold
  • Texts crossed out
  • Hypertext links

How Google can automatically generate summaries in Docs

Google recently announced a series of new additions to the Google Workspace office applications. Including a function for creating a summary of a text in Docs, which should soon go into general availability. In a blog post, the firm reveals the details of the development of this tool based on machine learning.

The feature is more exactly about generating suggestions to help document writers create content summaries, in Google’s terms. The machine learning model reviews the text and, if confident enough that it understands, produces one to two sentences summarizing the text. The editor can then accept the abstract as is, edit it, or discard it. Like an interactive summary, the summary is also used to navigate within the document.

Transformer + Pegasus

To create these text summarization capabilities, Google researchers used a deep learning model called a “transformer” combined with another model called Pegasus. The latter makes it possible to overcome the tedious mass labeling of input and output data (here, respectively, the words of the document and the words of the summary). Pegasus is a model that introduces a self-supervised pre-training goal prior to training the final model. “In the Pegasus pre-training, also called Gap Sentence Prediction (GSP), complete sentences from unlabeled news articles and web documents are masked on input and the model has to reconstruct them, based on the remaining sentences unmasked”, explain the Google researchers. A subsequent fine-tuning step is nevertheless essential for the model to fit the application domain. “We refined the first versions of our model on a corpus of documents containing summaries generated manually and corresponding to typical use cases”, explain the researchers further.

Google Docs supports Markdown for headings, formatting, and more.

Google is adding Markdown support to Google Docs on the web, letting you format your document using text shortcuts instead of keyboard shortcuts. Google says it does this with its own autocorrect feature, so it will automatically format the text for you after you type it in Markdown format. For example, if you type “#Google Docs gets more Markdown support,” it will automatically convert to a top-level heading.

Google says Docs has already supported some Markdown autocorrects for bulleted, numbered, and checklists. However, this adds much broader support – you can now use Markdown to add headings and bold and italicized text (or do both), strikethrough (although this is done with – on either side of your content, rather than the traditional ~), and links. It’s far from a full implementation of the Markdown process, but it at least covers most of what I personally use the language for.

A new option has appeared!

To enable the feature, go to Tools > Preferences, and check the “Automatically detect Markdown” box. If you don’t see it, it might not be available for your account yet – Google says it can take “over 15 days” for the feature to appear to everyone (I personally had to trying three different Google Accounts before finding one that had it).

An overview of the different ways you can view Markdown – clockwise from top left: unmarked in Google Docs, with markup and formatting in iA Writer, showing markup for the font in being edited and formatted elsewhere in Obsidian, with markup and no formatting in TextEdit.

Whether or not you like this approach is probably a personal preference. Google’s app probably won’t appeal much to people who use Markdown to take full control of their text (without having to worry about annoying HTML closing tags). But for anyone who just wants to be able to use Markdown as a formatting shortcut and doesn’t mind messing with plain text, Google’s method may be relatively accessible — instead of selecting text and hitting Command/Control+L to insert a link, you can just type in some parentheses and square brackets.

(It’s also worth noting that this implementation is much more user-friendly when sharing a document with a colleague who doesn’t know what Markdown is.)

Google says the feature is off by default – perhaps a good option, as it’s easy to imagine a lot of people would get confused if they typed a pound sign in front of something you’ve automatically converted to a header – and that this is coming to “Google Workspace customers, as well as G Suite Basic and G. Old Suite Business customers”, as well as personal accounts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to start a campaign for Google to add Vim mode to Docs, because it’s used to add fun and cheesy features.