Fifteen years after Sun Microsystems released the code for OpenOffice.org, most users still don’t know what they have, especially in the text processor Writer. Far from being an inadequate substitute for Microsoft Word, in LibreOffice, the code’s latest incarnation, Writer is so far ahead of its rival that there’s no competition. You would have to compare Writer with a professional tool like FrameMaker to find a suitable comparison.
Don’t believe me? If you don’t, the reason is probably that you rarely use styles and templates, or write documents of more than a few page.
The truth is, many features that make Writer efficient are related to styles. Consider these seven features, some of which are obvious, and some of which many users are hardly aware:
A Style-based Orientation
Styles are collections of formatting choices that are applied together. Their advantage is that, when you need to make to changes, you change the style, and every occurrence of the style in the document changes as well.
Unlike most word processors, Writer does not just include styles. Rather, it positively insists on them. Where word processors include character and paragraph styles, Writer adds frame, list, and page styles as well.
Users who are not willing to learn their tools often complain about this orientation, and over the years features have been added to make the code more accessible to casual users. However, for those who write long documents and maintain them through many revisions, Writer’s style-based orientation saves hours of time.
Writer does not simply let you add superscript characters, bullets, or footnotes — it allows you to customize every aspect of them. For example, go to the Position tab of a character or paragraph style, and you can set the exact height and relative size of superscript characters.
Similarly, open a List style, and you can set the exact character and size for a bullet or number, the space between the bullet and the list item, and automatically add text before or after the bullet, working, if you choose, with ten levels of indentation all at once.
However, many users are unaware of this flexibility, even if they use styles, because they simply accept Writer’s defaults.
The Navigator is a combination outliner and in-progress table of contents. You can use it to move blocks of text around instead of cutting and pasting, and also to jump around a document according to paragraph style, table, comment, or half a dozen other elements. But, like many of Writer’s features, it is a tool that only reveals its usefulness in long documents.
If you have seen Outline Numbering in Writer’s Tools menu, you may have assumed that it is a tool for creating outlines. In fact, that is one of its functions — but only one. The paragraph styles that are assigned in their dialog windows to one of the ten levels in Outline Numbering are also the ones that Writer displays in the Navigator. It’s available for cross-reference, and automatically generates table of contents from.
By assigning paragraph styles to an Outline Level, you can control much of Writer’s behavior. For example, you can improve the efficiency of the Navigator’s outlining by assigning Text Body or the Default paragraph style to an outline level, which makes instances of them appear in the Navigator.
The use of styles is enhanced by the creation of templates, or documents that you can base other documents upon. Setting up templates requires extra work, but once they are perfected, you can continue to use them for years, allowing you to focus on your thoughts instead of formatting.
Of course, word processors have templates, too. But LibreOffice’s are distinguished by being organized to prevent applying more than one template to a document, which used to be a major source of corruption in MS Word (and may still be, for all I know). By contrast, in Writer, you can replace styles, but you cannot apply two templates to a document.
Editable Tables of Contents (TOCs)
MS Word automatically creates tables of contents, but offers no control over formatting. If you manually format a Word TOC, the formatting is lost when you re-generate the TOC to display changes.
Even worse, Word’s TOC consists of text, followed by a series of periods to a page number on the right margin. This design is clumsy, because it makes finding the page the text entry more a matter of concentration than it should be.
Admittedly, Writer uses the same default. However, you can rearrange the elements of which a TOC entry consists in any number of more readable ways: for example, by reducing the space between the text entry and page number, by joining them with a straight line, or placing the page number first.
Even better, once changed, the formatting remains until you specifically change it.
Page styles are probably the feature that separates Writer the most from word processors. In word processors, the largest unit you can design in is a paragraph. This limitation makes the formatting of footers or headers or the position of footnotes difficult. In particular, it makes maintaining different page designs difficult.
In contrast, Writer’s page styles allow you to see the effects of page-oriented formatting, and to change easily between them. By using the Next style field on the Organizer tab, you can even automate the changes in page style so that you rarely have to think of them while writing.
The Superiority of Styles
Writer is not perfect. It is long overdue for Table styles, rather than pseudo-styles it has now. Other features are legacies from the mid-1990s, and tempt users into retro-formatting that reflects poorly on them. Some typographical features, such as the automatic use of ligatures, are also needed to make Writer an advanced text formatting application.
However, if you want to appreciate Writer, explore its use of styles and the applications that rely on them. Like word processors, Writer has dozens of useful features, such as embedded fonts and mail merge. But it is because of styles that free software has not just a mature word processor but an intermediate layout program.