Styles in Word Processors

A Dark and Stormy Night

I use LibreOffice Writer for writing my stories and for other similar writing tasks. It’s free and it runs on Linux, and it does everything that Microsoft Word™ does and probably more.

I haven’t got anything against the current version of MS Word. It’s a very good program, but it isn’t free, it doesn’t run on Linux, and I’m not keen on the interface, as it is, in my opinion, needlessly complex. But then again, I’ve not used it much.

I have used MS Word extensively in the past, and my memories of using it are not pleasant ones. I’ve lost work that I have done in it on many, many occasions. although that was many, many years ago!

However, in spite of my preference for LO Writer over MS Word, I’m always on the lookout for something else. After all, these fine products are general purpose word processors, and I wondered if there were programs designed to specifically write short stories and longer works.

And of course there are. Many of the writing programs only run on Windows, and I prefer Linux, but I decided to give the Windows-based software options a chance. Who knows? But sadly, I’ve found that the offerings are disappointing when compared with LO Writer and MS Word.

Many of the programs that I’ve looked at are not pretty, but if they work, does that matter? They don’t have as many features as MS Word or LO Writer, but again, if they do the job, so what? No, the real reason for my disappointment is related to the way that I work. It’s all about ‘styles’.

A ‘style’ is a collection of rules which describe how the document should appear. There are subsets of these rules, which apply only to parts of the document. For instance there will be rules for paragraphs, other rules for whole pages, and rules for the whole document. Once set up to the writer’s satisfaction, they should be applied automatically as the author writes, and the author then doesn’t have to worry about making the story or whatever look good, as it happens as if by magic!

Say you are writing, something, anything! You starting typing and the words appear on the screen, and your thoughts appear in concrete form. They are a certain size, a certain colour, and they are in a particular font. A font is the collection characters that, in this case, is shown on the screen in the editor.

They are also in a particular position on the screen. In the WordPress editor that I am using at the moment each paragraph that I type will appear as a paragraph on the page that the user will eventually read. In this case the lines of type will all start at the same distance from the left of the screen. Technically, all the lines in a paragraph are ‘left aligned’.

I’ll just mention here that all modern word-processing editors try to show the text as it would appear in the final result, whether it is in print or on a screen. This doesn’t matter so much for an email, but it is crucial for a story or novel which will be printed or read on a small device. What the screen shows should close to the required result.

Left alignment of all the paragraphs is fine for web pages, but I prefer a different arrangement for paragraphs in my stories, whether my story is read on a device or on paper. I prefer that the first paragraph in the story, chapter, or scene is left aligned, but that subsequent paragraphs are indented a little. You can see the effect in any of my stories, which you can find in this part of my website, and also in the image below.

To achieve this, I use ‘styles’ in my word processor. Without getting too technical, a paragraph style describes how the paragraph should look. For example it describes what font should be used, what size the characters should be, their colour, and how the lines are laid out, and many other things.

To save myself work I start with the ‘default’ style, which will be laid out more or less like the paragraphs in this post. I copy it and give it a name like ‘paragraph no indent’, and save it. It inherits all the settings from the ‘default’ style, even the fact that it is based on the ‘default’ style.

Then I copy the ‘paragraph no indent’ style and call it ‘paragraph ident’, tell it to indent the first line, and save it. Now that I’ve got my styles I link them together. I change the built-in ‘Heading’ style so that, by default the next style is ‘paragraph no indent’. I change the ‘paragraph no indent’ style so that by default the next style is ‘paragraph indent’ and finally I change the ‘paragraph indent’ style so that the next style is still ‘paragraph indent’.

Indentation Example

That all takes a minute or two and is harder to describe than to do. I then save the whole thing as a template. So I can open a new document and type a heading, assigning it the ‘Heading’ style. When I hit enter a new paragraph will automatically be created with a style of ‘paragraph no indent’. After I’ve typed the first paragraph and hit enter, another new paragraph is created with a style of ‘paragraph indent’. All subsequent paragraphs will have a style of ‘paragraph indent’.

Sounds complex? It isn’t really, and I only have to do it once. If I start a new document from the template all the styles are already there, so I can just start typing. And suppose for some reason I wanted all the indented paragraphs to be in a different font in a particular document. If I didn’t use styles I would need to go through my document and change the fonts by hand. But I can just change the font in the ‘document indent’ style, and all the indented paragraphs would be changed, in a second.

This is the big deficiency that I have found in most story writing software. The programs either do not allow the use of custom styles at all, or the custom styles are not easy to use.

Where the story writing software programs do excel is in organisation of the writing process. Most story software allows you to make notes, define characters, storyboard the story, and it breaks down the writing process into chapters, scenes, and so on. It also links all these things together in a logical way.

I’m impressed, but I don’t work that way. I often don’t have a clue what the story is going to be about until I’m actually writing it. I don’t know if a character who turns up is going to be pivotal to the story or whether he or she is just a spear carrier. I don’t have chapters or scenes in my mind. They just happen. This style of writing is known as ‘seat of the pants’ writing, and I’m firmly in that camp.

Many other writers prefer to plan out their writing projects to varied levels of detail, and may take longer to plan a story than to actually write it. I suspect that the whole process takes about the same amount of time, whichever camp you fall into – ‘planner’ or ‘pantser’.

One of the most popular of the story writing packages is called ‘Scrivener‘. It runs on Windows and Mac only, so it wasn’t really on my radar, and if you are a planner (who works on Windows or Mac), then it may suit you very well. From a quick look over, it seems to me that Scrivener can take your minimally formatted document when it is complete and can then ‘compile’ it into a format that suits you, with all the styles that you might desire.

Once again, I don’t work that way. I like to see roughly what I am getting as I write. And surely, if you want to make a change after the document has been compiled you will need to make the change and then re-compile?

To be fair, Scrivener advertises itself as “everything you need to craft your first draft”, and it is suggested that you use another program for the final formatting, but from what I have seen of it, Scrivener actually seems to be much more than that. You can compile your story so that it can be used to create a paperback. And you can compile the same story to be suitable for an e-reader, and you could also generate a PDF of your story. That feature is pretty cool!

But, Scrivener aside, the story writing packages don’t impress me much, because of the style issues, and the other facilities that they provide I wouldn’t find much use for. So, I’m sticking with LibreOffice Writer for now.

Photo by Janusz Hylinski from FreeImages

Some of my stories have been published on Amazon (as eBooks and paperbacks) and Kobobooks and Smashwords (as eBooks). Here are the links to my Author Pages on those sites.

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