LibreOffice is essential to the Linux desktop. However, it is also burdened by useless baggage—features that are hopelessly obsolete today and should never be used by anyone hoping to create an impression.
I’m not talking about features like master documents in Writer that have become less useful as the average amount of RAM on a workstation has risen into the gigabytes. Nor am I talking about the interface, which, although serviceable, is decidedly uninspired. Still less am I talking about features such as the fields for hidden text or paragraphs that have only a handful of users but remain essential for rare yet sophisticated purposes.
Rather, I am talking about features that make users look clueless—features that encourage typographical nightmares of illegibility or excess. Some of these features look as though they might date to LibreOffice’s first incarnation as StarWriter in 1984, because they result in the kind of excess that people used to commit when office suites were new. Certainly, in the decade that Sun Microsystems oversaw the code, very little was done to update it with the result that much of the code has a nineties-like look to it.
But regardless of when they were added, here are nine features in LibreOffice—and its cousin Apache OpenOffice—that you should think twice about using unless you are trying to re-create some of the monstrosities of the early decades of the office suite. Although some have occasional uses, most of the time applying them means being laughed at for your incompetence. Fortunately, few are essential, and those that are can be replaced by more reliable features.
9. Heading Levels
Writer is equipped with ten predefined paragraph styles for headings, not including titles and subtitles.
To say the least, this is excessive. Headings are supposed to both help readers scan and identify the structure of the information. For example, a Heading 2 paragraph indicates information that is subordinate to a Heading 1 paragraph, so that a Heading 1 section entitled “Choosing Fonts” might have Heading 2 sections called “Finding Fonts” and “Identifying Types of Fonts.”
The only way this hierarchical system works is if each heading is immediately identifiable. Typically, several indicators are used, such as typeface, font size, color or indentation.
Ten headings, though, are more than users can be reasonably expected to perceive. Moreover, as a designer, you soon run out of ways to differentiate them.
Use a maximum of three headings—they are far easier for you to use and readers to perceive. Ten is simply too many paragraph styles for everybody.
8. Font Effects
Font Effects are a tab in the dialog windows for formatting characters and paragraphs. While some of the options on the tab are useful—especially Font Color and Effects (that is, letter cases), at least five are considered gauche by modern standards: embossed, engraved, outline, shadow, and blinking (which, of course, only works for online documents).
If you absolutely must use one of these settings, you should be able to find a font that uses it with more precision—and legibility—than the setting on the Font Effects tab.
7. Justification Options
LibreOffice Writer includes options for how a short final line should be handled when full justification is set—that is, when a paragraph starts at the left margin and ends exactly at the right modern.
When a paragraph’s last line is too short to fill this space, Writer lets you choose what to do. Three of these options should never be used, because they leave the last line looking strange compared to the rest of the paragraph above it: Centered, Justified and Expand single word. The last two are especially ugly, leaving extra white space between letters or words unless the last line is just short of being long enough to fill the space.
The only option that consistently works is Left, which lets the line start at the left margin and end on the right where it may.
6. Graphic Bullets
The Bullets and Numbering dialog contains a variety of pre-defined options, as well as the ability to add your own through special characters or a character style that uses dingbats.
However, one tab you should avoid in the dialog is Graphics. This tab contains over sixty graphical bullets of different colors and shapes that you can either embed in a document or link to.
The trouble is, such bullets haven’t been used since the mid-1990s. They’re perfect for a retro-look, but if you use them today you only look outdated.
5. Tab Indentations
Tab indentations were useful for typewriters, and remain a feature of plain text editors. However, in a word processor, they are unreliable, especially when a document is being revised. Yet the dialogues for paragraph formatting continue to provide a tab for tab settings.
You can eliminate the most common of tab indentations—to mark the start of a new paragraph—by setting a First line indentation on the Indents and Spacing tab in the Paragraphs dialog, then selecting the Automatic box below it. For other tasks where indentations might be useful, such as headers or footers, a table with a single row and invisible borders generally positions text more accurately than tab indentations can.
4. Fill Characters in Tables of Contents
The one feature in which tab indentations are unavoidable are tables of contents, which use them automatically.
Unfortunately, the default settings also use periods as fill characters to connect the table entry on the letter with the page number on the far right. This formatting became the norm in the early days of word processors, and has remained so ever since. Yet it is really a sign of failed design, since the relation between the table entry and page number should be available at a glance. Nor does it do much good at establishing the relation—most of a line separates it from the table entry from the page number.
Fortunately, Insert -> Indexes and Tables -> Indexes and Tables -> Insert Index/Table -> Entries lets you edit the default. Just eliminating the fill characters won’t solve the problem, but eliminating them and positioning the page number closer to the table entry will. Better yet, position the page number before the table entry, which starts an indentation of 30-40 points.
3. Heading and Footers Boxes and Shadows
Page dialogues include a default tab for headings and footers, plus an additional Borders and Background dialog that opens when you select the More button.
The Borders and Background dialog includes settings for adding lines to one or more sides of the header or footer. However, anything more than a single line, as thin as possible, is old-fashioned overkill. Even worse are a shadow (with your choice of color and distance from the header), and a colored background for the header or the footer.
2. The Gallery
In theory, LibreOffice’s Gallery is a convenient way to store and access clipart.
However, in practice, it is less useful today unless you are stranded without a high-speed connection. Even more importantly, its default contents look like the graphic buttons, textures, and sounds that haven’t been considered appropriate for a website—let alone a document—since 1998 or earlier.
If you think the Gallery is useful, locate its Path under Tools -> Options and delete all the default content. Then fill it with clipart that might actually be useful.
1. Backgrounds and Borders for Paragraphs and Characters
You can give both paragraphs and selected characters a border and a different background color—but the question is whether you should.
Regardless of whether you are working online or printing to paper, both backgrounds and borders are awkward, because you can’t move them around. If you are doing layout that requires sideboxes or different backgrounds, you will be far less frustrated—and enjoy far more options—if you use text frames rather than paragraph or character formatting. In particular, text frames are far easier to move around and include wrap settings for other elements.
Cutting through the Clutter
I don’t mention these alleged features to criticize LibreOffice. The project inherited the code and can hardly be held responsible for parts of it becoming obsolete. To the contrary, LibreOffice has already reduced the size of the code in many areas and apparently plans on continuing the effort.
Still, any project is understandably reluctant to eliminate features, even if they are rarely used or have become things to avoid. I wouldn’t mind in the least if my suggestions were taken up by those tidying the code.
However, more to the point, knowing what you should ignore can be useful for those who want to learn LibreOffice at an advanced level. Not only can the knowledge encourage best practices, but more to the point, it can help you focus on the features that are useful.
LibreOffice has some powerful features, particularly in Writer, which is more a desktop publisher than a word processor. However, finding those features can be difficult amid some of the clutter that the code has accumulated in the last three decades. Once you know where the clutter is, learning LibreOffice becomes both less of a task and less alarming.