Using Google Lens/Google Documents to transcribe handwritten work

UPDATE 5/8/20! Google posted a new feature of Lens that allows you to upload the text to your computer directly, provided that you are logged into the same version of Chrome on both your phone and your computer. Now all you need to do is use Lens to take a picture, select “send to computer”, and it will go to your computer’s clipboard. Then, you just paste it in whatever program you want. Easy peasy and so sweet!


You know the two posts I wrote over Good Friday and Easter Sunday? Those two posts came from a handwritten journal entry I wrote on the Thursday before those days.

What you don’t know is that instead of rewriting those posts from scratch, I had them transcribed using Google Lens.

What is Google Lens? It’s a feature that comes in the Camera app in Android. It turns your camera into something like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that you point it at something and it can do funky things. You have a plant you’re trying to identify? Point Lens at it and it will pull up a search of likely plants. See a restaurant on a walk? Take a picture of the storefront with Lens and it will pull up a menu. Trying to read a text in a foreign language? Use Lens and the words will be translated for you on your phone.

In fact, I first discovered Google Lens back in January when I brought a fountain pen and couldn’t figure out how to open it, even with the pictures, because the instructions were in Japanese. After searching the web, I came across the instructions for Lens, pointed my phone at the Japanese instructions, clicked the translate function, and on the screen, the Japanese turned to English! Granted, it took a few tries for it to be meaningful English, but still.

(At which point, I shrieked and ran down to my library and pulled out all my Sailor Moon manga and doujinshi because HECK YEAH AUTOMATIC TRANSLATION FOR THE WIN!!!!)

But the true gamechanger came when I learned that there was a text function in Lens. If you point it at text, any text, it will copy and transcribe the text for you. This apparently works for handwritten text if it’s written legibly. You can find steps on how to do it in this article.

This was amazing because I’ve been handwriting drafts for a long time, but never had a good way to transcribe that text into my laptop. Either I had to type in a whole fresh draft, or dictate it using Google Notes. Now, if I have a page or shorter of handwritten text, I use Lens to copy it, then paste it into a Google Document or a Keep Note. Then I can move it into Scrivener later on.

But what if I have two or three pages of handwritten text? Or what if I’m at a place where I’ve written something and I want to keep a picture of what I’ve written as well?

Ho, ho, friendly reader, here is another way to transcribe your text. Google Drive also has the capability to transcribe text. Take a picture of your pages to Drive, then open the photos with Google Docs. It will open the picture with a transcription of the text below it. You can also scan the pages into a single PDF if you want to transcribe multiple pages; however, you only get the transcription — similar to the Lens function. I like transcribing the photo rather a scan because not only is it taking a backup of my handwritten note, but if I’m revising and I don’t have access to my notebook, the picture of my handwriting is right there.

Want to see it in action? You can view the first few paragraphs of my Good Friday post here (a short page) and here (a full page). You’ll immediately notice that it’s not super perfect — it does weird fonts and spacing. Also, it can’t figure out formatting. The key to this is that your writing has to be legible. My handwriting is pretty decent, but towards the 5th page, my handwriting was getting more scrawly, so I had more errors pop up. But when I do this, I’m not looking for perfection. I just want to get it into text form. If anything, when I’m going through it, I treat it like a second draft. You can also view this video that shows you the steps; you don’t have to get Grammerly if you don’t want to, but it does make it easier for cleaning up the text.

I’ve been doing this for four months now AND HOLY COW THIS IS THE BEST WRITING HACK EVER IT’S AWESOME AND WONDERFUL AND I LOVE IT SO MUCH. I’m also surprised that no one else has written about this yet, particularly since Google Lens has been around since 2017. Then again, we are in the midst of a pandemic, and okay, yeah, the world has been a bit of a trash fire for that long. Consider this a gift, then, from little ol’ me as a way to shine a tiny light into the ever-present darkness.

Okay. Back to novel edits for me.