Saturday, June 15, 2024

Why I Wrote “Designing with LibreOffice”

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Usually, I write about the news, not make it. Today, though, I am making a small exception. Today, I am releasing my new book, “Designing with LibreOffice,” under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, with a free download and a for-sale trade paperback.

Why bother, when LibreOffice already has some of the best documentation in free software?

A Matter of Perspective

The most obvious answer is that Jean Hollis Weber, who until last week oversaw LibreOffice documentation, asked me to do so for her non-profit, Friends of Open Document Format. Her concern — which I share — is that, in trying to cover all aspects of a piece of software as large as LibreOffice, it is difficult to emphasize properly how important styles and templates are for getting the most out of the software.

Originally, we expected the book to be ready in under a year. However, the book grew in the writing. I once worked as a technical writer because I personally had so much trouble with most instructions that I was determined to provide the clearest and more thorough how-to information possible. As I set to work, it wasn’t too long before this old motivation revived, stronger than ever.

Moreover, LibreOffice Writer is as much an intermediate desktop publisher as a word processor, and this orientation spills over into the other LibreOffice core applications, all of which use styles in places where other office suites do not. Before I could talk about individual features, I had to explain why using styles and templates was advisable, and how using them changes your work flow compared to when you manually format and treat LibreOffice as a high-end typewriter.

I soon realized that, for a discussion of styles and templates to be meaningful, I would have to talk about other features as well, some of which had no direct connection to styles and templates except that they, too, were about design.

Even more important, I would have to talk about typography and the current conventions for layout. After all, the fact that Writer has — for example– seven different ways to set line-spacing means little if you don’t know which to use when. Also, which options are a matter of choice? As soon as I started asking the unspoken questions, I realized that the book would have to be much longer than I originally expected. Otherwise, it would be only minimally useful.

As a result, “Designing with LibreOffice” soon became more than a description of the menus or a set of procedures — what I like to call a death march through the menus.

Inescapably, it does include procedures, of course. However, I have tried to give more than the basics. I wanted to reinterpret design, to steer readers away from the idea that design is layout that calls attention to itself, like an HTML blink tag. Instead, I have tried to redefine it as layout which supports the text, making it easier to read and visually scan, and easier for the writer to revise and maintain.

At each step, I try to explain the possible choices in terms of their pros and cons, referencing typography, not as a series of restraints, but as the accumulated expertise of five centuries of publishers at work. This expertise can be ignored if you have a practical and effective reason, but if you ignore it altogether, you will simply end up looking as though you have no idea of what you are doing.

In places, keeping this balanced attitude requires telling readers to avoid using a feature. Two decades ago, when LibreOffice was a proprietary office suite called StarDivision, digital typography was new, and novices often became giddy and overwhelmed by the number of things an office suite could do that a typewriter never could. StarDivision reflected the times, and now LibreOffice is obliged to continue to include legacy features that generally should never be used unless you want a retro-Nineties look.

This comment is not a criticism of LibreOffice, which I maintain is the best office suite currently available — proprietary or free — but an attempt to keep readers from basic mistakes. Although design can be a lifelong study, if I can only impress on readers that all layout choices must have a purpose, and, when in doubt, they should keep their choices simple, then they will have the basics of what they know to use LibreOffice effectively.

Nobody else was talking from this perspective. More — in all humility, very few have the eclectic background in free software, design and writing to be comfortable in the topic. Since nobody else seemed likely to write from this perspective, I decided to do so myself.

I just didn’t know that it would take me three years to figure out how to carry out my self-imposed goals.

Paying Forward

Now I’m going to gush. Linux and free software have been an important part of my life since 1999. Not only have they shaped my career, but they have put me in touch with some of the finest people I have ever met.

I like to think that writing articles to entertain and inform is a way of paying back all that free software has given me. However, “Designing with LibreOffice” is on a larger scale altogether. It required all my knowledge and experience of writing, design, and free software in a way that nothing else I have written has ever done, and giving the result a free license means that, with or without me, the book has a chance of continuing to useful.

In the same way that cooking show contestants often describe their efforts as “me on a plate,” “Designing with LibreOffice” is me on the page (or on the screen). It’s me working to the full extent of my knowledge.

It’s also my way of thanking Linux and free software for their influence on my life. Thank you all, and I hope that you find it and my future book-length efforts worth your time.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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