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How to automate the creation of Google Docs with Python

written by Eric J. Ma on 2023-03-08 | tags: python google docs automation markdown html programming api google drive google cloud service account environment variables mimetype permissions templating jinja

The backdrop

At our church, I teach a Sunday school class about how to lead a Bible study. As part of the training, we ask our class to collaboratively create study notes and study questions for an assigned scripture each week.

Previously, I would hold a template in Google Drive, one for each of the four weeks of class, then copy and paste them into another folder in Google docs and then share the link with others in the class. I would use the most permissive setting when sharing - anyone with the link could edit. (Doing so mainly was for simplicity.) Then, I would compose an email and send it to everyone in the class.

The problem

As it turns out, this workflow was a hassle in several ways.

Firstly, because the template looked identical to the copied doc, I would have to double/triple check that I didn't accidentally send a link to the template rather than a copy. Checking that I had the correct doc then was tedious. It involved clicking around on the screen, checking permissions, and checking filenames... and even then, sometimes, I would still send out a link to the template.

Secondly, the docs were quite similar, differing only in scripture references and links to other resources. If I wanted to update the standardized formatting or text in one doc, I would have to copy it seven more times into the other docs. If I forgot to do so, that would lead to a drift between the docs. Also undesirable.

Thirdly, I would compose a weekly email, which was also relatively standardized. However, copying and pasting the text felt tedious. Writing from scratch in Chinese, my second language, was sometimes a mental challenge -- compounded even more so with two kids who fragment my attention span.

The solution: Python!

Thinking hard about the problems above, I noticed a common thread: it was all about putting standardized text into the right places. That sounded like a problem I could use Python to solve -- and that was precisely what I did! My desired end goal for this project was to write a Python program that could:

  1. Create Google docs for me,
  2. Grab the docs' URLs automatically, and
  3. Insert them into an HTML email that the program composed.

Step 1: Create a Google service account

To create Google docs with Python, one needs a Google account, specifically, a service account that can remain authenticated without needing a human to sign in. To do this, we need to head over to our Google cloud console. There, we'll do the following things:

  1. Create a new "project." Google keeps track of which service accounts are associated with which user by having a "project" between them.
  2. In the new project, enable the Google Drive API. This allows the project to access Google Drive.
  3. From the project's UI, we'll create a new Service Account and grant the Service Account the ability to access project APIs.
  4. For that service account, we'll then create a key credential file that will be used to authenticate the service account.

I compiled a series of screenshots into an HTML slideshow below. Following the instructions on the slideshow while replacing "Test Project" with a more relevant name will get you to the place where you will have a JSON file that will act as the credentials to authenticate with Google.

(Best viewed on a desktop browser!)

Step 2: Store the JSON file contents as environment variables

When working with a deployed API, application, or other services, I habitually stick to the 12 Factor App patterns. These are battle-tested patterns that enable secure app/service deployments. The third principle listed in the 12 Factor document is to store configuration in the environment as environment variables. This includes credentials (a.k.a. "secrets" in techno-lingo).

However, Google just provided me with a JSON file for authentication; the usual expectation here would be to store the JSON file on disk in a remote server, for which a Python process can read the JSON file and pass it to Google's Python API client. However, this clearly violates the idea of storing configuration as environment variables. So how can we get around this?

My answer is to store the credential file's information as part of the runtime environment variables available to the app. Looking at the contents of the JSON file:

    "type": "service_account",
    "project_id": "*****-******-******",
    "private_key_id": "cc8823e98******d66da83f55aa0f3f74b8aedc05",
    "private_key": "-----BEGIN PRIVATE KEY-----\n******\n******...\n-----END PRIVATE KEY-----\n",
    "client_email": "test-project-service-account@******",
    "client_id": "******",
    "auth_uri": "",
    "token_uri": "",
    "auth_provider_x509_cert_url": "",
    "client_x509_cert_url": "******"

It's clear that there are specific key-value pairs uniquely identify the project and its security credentials. We merely have to store those values as environment variables.

How about we go about doing authentication? I had a choice between two options: one was to use the Official Google Python API, and the other was to use the PyDrive2 package. As it turns out, authentication from a Python package is only part of the whole picture; I also needed to know which Python package was, overall, easier to use. So, I had to study them first. That meant taking them for a test drive in a Jupyter notebook. After a bunch of experimentation, I concluded that although the Google Python API is officially supported, it also involved abstractions that felt less natural than PyDrive2's. Hence, I went with the PyDrive2 package instead.

While Google's Python API allows for service account authentication from a Python dictionary, PyDrive2 only supports loading from a credentials JSON file. As such, I had to figure out how to write the credentials to disk at runtime. I finally settled on the following hack:

# contents of
import os
from dotenv import load_dotenv
from pyprojroot import here
import json


def write_creds():
    """ Write service account credentials to disk based on environment variables."""
    credentials = {
        "type": "service_account",
        "project_id": os.getenv("GOOGLE_PROJECT_ID"),
        "private_key_id": os.getenv("GOOGLE_PRIVATE_KEY_ID"),
        "private_key": os.getenv("GOOGLE_PRIVATE_KEY"),
        "client_email": os.getenv("GOOGLE_CLIENT_EMAIL"),
        "client_id": os.getenv("GOOGLE_CLIENT_EMAIL"),
        "auth_uri": "",
        "token_uri": "",
        "auth_provider_x509_cert_url": "",
        "client_x509_cert_url": os.getenv("GOOGLE_CLIENT_X509_CERT_URL")
    with open(here() / os.getenv("GOOGLE_CREDENTIALS_FILENAME"), "w+") as f:

With this in place, authentication could be much easier! All we need to do is store environment variables with appropriate values. (In Dokku, this is easy to configure.) With this code, we can avoid checking in the credentials JSON file while remaining compatible with the PyDrive2 API. Furthermore, the single-line variables are easy to store, as we would do something like:

export GOOGLE_CLIENT_ID="cc8823e98e6cb5d69da83f5aca0f3f7rb8aedc05"

However, how do we configure multi-line environment variables, such as the private_key above?

It turns out the answer is to wrap the environment variable in single quotes:


I had to do a bit of digging to figure this out, and eventually found the answer in a GitHub issue comment. Thank you, @nelsonic, for providing such an informative answer!

Taken together, to store this information locally for testing purposes, we create a .env file in the top-level directory of our project with the following contents:

export GOOGLE_PROJECT_ID="psyched-brush-373815"
export GOOGLE_PRIVATE_KEY_ID="cc8823r48e6cb5d66da83f55aa0f3f74b8aedc05"
export GOOGLE_CLIENT_ID= "110659425807002683920"

(I have, for obvious reasons, changed the contents to invalid credentials!)

Once the contents of the .env file are populated, we can use the python-dotenv package to load the environment variables from the .env file during the first execution of the app when testing locally.

When it comes to storing them on the runtime environment, because I use Dokku on DigitalOcean to host my apps and APIs, I used Dokku's configuration tooling to set up environment variables as well. Doing so is a one-time setup; the environment variables will remain available at runtime on subsequent deploys.

Step 3: Create the Google Doc's contents using Markdown

The first two steps are one-time setup steps for each project. Once we've set them up, we can create the Google Doc content.

As it turns out, Google Doc (and MS Word) documents actually have a 1-to-1 correspondence with HTML documents -- and hence, by extension, Markdown documents too! (Pandoc users will likely have long known about this fact!) So, for example, the contents of an <h1> tag are converted to Header 1 in Word documents, and so on and so forth. Therefore, we should be able to template out our Markdown documents in our favourite templating engine, whether it is Jinja or simple Python f-strings, and then use the Python Markdown package to convert the document into HTML... and then pass that to the Google API to create collaboratively-editable Google Doc!

Let's see how we can accomplish this. For simplicity, I will show how to make this happen with f-strings, which are usable in a pinch (and I was in one!). That said, if you are fluent with Jinja2 templating, I recommend using that because it offers the advantage of the separation of concerns, where the contents of the templates are kept separate from the contents of the source code files.

Firstly, we create the Markdown document that we want to template. Instead of using the text I initially used, in this example, I will use a more generic example with placeholder content.

def document_template(content: dict):
    text = f"""# My Google Doc!

## Abstract

This is some introductory text.
We could have lorem ipsum'd it,
but that would be too generic for my tastes.
So instead, I have chosen to write freely from my mind.

## Section 1

- First bullet point
- Second bullet point

<hr class="pb">

## Section 2

{content["lorem ipsum"]}

| hello | world |
|  1  |  a  |
|  2  |  b  |

<hr class="pb">

  return text

If you were wondering what the <hr class=" pb"> tag is all about, this turns out to be the way to represent a page break in HTML. (I learned this from this StackOverflow answer.)

Cool! With this template, we can now create the new Google Doc. Firstly, we authenticate to Google Drive:

# inside a Jupyter notebook or a Python script
from pyprojroot import here
import os
from pydrive2.auth import GoogleAuth
from import GoogleDrive
from .authenticate import write_creds


secret_file = here() / os.getenv("GOOGLE_CREDENTIALS_FILENAME")

settings = {
    "client_config_backend": "service",
    "service_config": {
        "client_json_file_path": secret_file,

gauth = GoogleAuth(settings=settings)
drive = GoogleDrive(gauth)

Then, we create the HTML version of the Markdown contents:

from markdown import markdown

content = {"lorem ipsum": "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet."}
text = document_template(content)
htmldoc = markdown(text)

Finally, we create the file and upload it to Google Drive.

gdoc = drive.CreateFile(
        "title": "My Shiny New Google Doc from Python!",
        "mimeType": "application/vnd.openxmlformats-officedocument.wordprocessingml.document"

That last set of code is where the magic happens! Now we have a gdoc object that connects to the created Google Doc. It is a dictionary-like object; if we take that object and access the alternateLink key, we will get back a URL to the actual Google doc!

# should give you an https:// URL to the doc!

Step 4: Share the doc

We can also set the sharing permissions of the Google document. If the security of the contents doesn't matter much, you can select the widest permissions possible:

# Most permissive
gdoc.InsertPermission({"type": "anyone", "role": "writer", "value": "anyone"})

On the other hand, if you'd like to grant "write" access to just a group of people by their email addresses:

# Write-access to specific email addresses
email_addresses = ("", "",...)
for email in email_addresses:
    gdoc.InsertPermission({"type": "user", "role": "writer", "value": email})

Through some digging, I found the official documentation for sharing permissions here, which lists the permissions we can set.

Non-obvious new knowledge gained

This exercise taught me many new things that weren't obvious to me before. Here's what they are.

Conversion from Markdown to Google Docs

First, we can template new Google Docs by converting from Markdown through HTML into a Word document. Conceptually:

Markdown --> HTML --> Word --> Google Docs

The following line, where we set the MIME type of the new doc, is where part of the magic happens:

gdoc = drive.CreateFile(
        "title": "My Shiny New Google Doc from Python!",
        "mimeType": "application/vnd.openxmlformats-officedocument.wordprocessingml.document"

As one can tell, there is a particular MIME type for Word-compatible documents - application/vnd.openxmlformats-officedocument.wordprocessingml.document. Correspondingly, there is a MIME type for spreadsheets and slideshows too. (This blog post on how to use Google Sheets as a database for Python is another great example! It also is where I went to recall how to create a service account.)

Page Break has an HTML tag

And that HTML tag is:

<hr class="pb">

That is a piece of trivia I will keep in my back pocket. I vividly remember searching online for "Google Docs page break HTML" before finding the relevant SO answer.

How to set multi-line environment variables

I remember having difficulty setting multi-line environment variables. But once I figured out how, it's mostly a set-and-forget affair. Just to recap, the key here is single quotation marks:

export MULTILINE_VARIABLE='something
and then something on a new line
and then another new line
and finally a final line

This was something for which I remember doing intense searches across the internet. It was challenging to figure out!

Document MIME types are non-obvious

It also took me a lot of Google searching to find the correct MIME type for a Word document. I stumbled upon the right answer by testing every plausible code chunk.

Permissions can be set programmatically

I appreciated this much once I figured it out with the API. Though I didn't use the feature in my Sunday school project, I can foresee the use for programmatic permissions being done later. For example, we have an Airtable database containing information about those participating in the class. So, we can pull down each student's email address and grant permissions programmatically that way.

How to create a service account on Google Cloud

For whatever reason, service accounts on cloud services have baffled me. This time, I finally understand how (at least) Google Cloud's service accounts work - and their relationship to "projects." Knowing this for the future will be immensely helpful as I try to automate more of my personal life!

The Future

Being able to create a Google Doc programmatically is pretty powerful. Also quite powerful is the ability to read from a Google doc. Combining it with GPT-3 to auto-generate personalized versions of templated documents based on known context about a situation or person would be rad!

Cite this blog post:
    author = {Eric J. Ma},
    title = {How to automate the creation of Google Docs with Python},
    year = {2023},
    month = {03},
    day = {08},
    howpublished = {\url{}},
    journal = {Eric J. Ma's Blog},
    url = {},

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