LibreOffice – Style Considerations

Photo by Krzysztof (Kriss) Szkurlatowski from FreeImages

Every modern word processing program comes with a feature, usually called ‘styles’, which allows you to control the look of your final document. Microsoft Word does. LibreOffice and OpenOffice do. I’d be surprised if there was a major program word processing program that doesn’t.

A style is a collection attributes, such as font, font size, indentation, alignment, colour, and many other attributes that describe an element in a document. The element can be a page, a character or set of characters, a paragraph, an image, and many other things. A style can be applied either by default, or by selecting an element and clicking on a list of available styles.

Sounds complex? It isn’t really. When you want to create a heading for example, you can type some text, select it, change the font type to make it bold, change the font to make it stand out, and increase the size. Or you could simply type the text and then apply one of the builtin Heading styles with a single click and everything is done for you.

I’m mostly concerned here with paragraph styles. That is, styles which apply to whole paragraphs, and not just single characters or words. In MS Word, LO Writer and other word processing programs, if you start typing a paragraph it will be formatted according to a default style. In MS Word I believe it is called “Normal”. In LibreOffice it is “Default Paragraph Style”. The current paragraph style is usually shown somewhere in the editing screen.

(In my text below I will refer to things in LO Writer terms, because that is what I use. But the concepts should apply to MS Word and probably other word processing programs too, even if the details are different.)

It is my strong belief that everything that affects the look and feel of a document should be achieved with styles, because it makes it so much easier to change things.

For instance, suppose you decided to make one of your paragraphs stand out. You could select the paragraph text and make it bold using the style toolbar at the top of your editor screen. That would work.

But several hours later and many pages later, you decide to also indent it. You have to search back through the document for it. Again you could use the on-screen tools to indent the paragraph. Again, that would work.

You return to end of your document, and create another paragraph, which you bold and indent. So far, so easy. But then, you decide that the bold paragraphs would look better in a different font size. Now you have two places to go to change the font and each time you create a bold paragraph, you need to bold it, indent it, and change the font to be consistent.

By the time that you have six or more bold paragraphs, and you want to change something else about them, you will find yourself flicking about in your document. And what if you miss one of the bold paragraphs? Your formatting is no longer consistent!

It would be a lot easier if you had created a “Bold Paragraph Style” (based on the “Default Paragraph Style” for example) the first time that you decided that you needed a bold paragraph. Then you could change all the occurrences of the bold paragraphs without needing to visit all of the occurrences individually. Just change the style!

Creating a new style is not hard. You don’t have to supply all the attributes. You base your new style on an existing one, and just change the things that you want to be different.

I would avoid changing the builtin styles. This is because every style except the “Default Paragraph Style” is based on another style, and all builtin styles are descendants of the “Default Paragraph Style”. In other words the style system is hierarchical, and if you change the “Default Paragraph Style”, any styles which inherits from it, directly or indirectly, may change.

I would not use “Default Paragraph Style” for ordinary text paragraphs, as it is the ancestor of all builtin style. Instead I would choose “Text Body” or one of the styles that inherit from it, and then the consequences are limited.

Since styles are arranged hierarchically, a style such as “Heading 1” for example inherits from the style “Heading”, which in turn inherits from the “Default Paragraph Style”. So some of the settings of “Header 1” come from “Heading” and some from way back in “Default Paragraph Style”.

This is all pretty straightforward and logical, but difficult to explain. The main lesson is that if you use styles, be really cautious about changing the builtin styles, as changing one style may affect any styles which inherit from it.

This is not a good reason to avoid styles as they can make life so much easier for you!

But what if you want all your documents to have the same formatting. The chapters of a book should ideally all look the same, so that when you combine them, it all looks neat and tidy.

You don’t have to modify the styles in each document that you create! That would be tedious and error prone. Instead you can take a document that is in the format that you require, and save it as a template. I’m not going to detail the process here, because there are a couple of ways of doing it in LibreOffice Writer, and that is almost certainly true in MS Word and other word processing programs too.

You can edit the template to remove all the text, if you wish, but the template will have all the necessary styles in it, and writing a new chapter will be easy, with just a click now and then to apply the styles!

One final point is that once you have created a template and are using it to create documents, then everything is not set in concrete. You can change the styles in the template and revisit and save your documents to update the styles in them. This may be tedious, but it is simple! You can even apply a template retrospectively to your old documents, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

In conclusion, I strongly believe that anyone who uses a word processing program that provides a style-like feature and a template-like feature should use the features in almost situations. OK, you write a letter and may think that you would not need to style that, but then you come to write another similar letter. If you had spent a few minutes styling your first letter, you could use it as a template for any subsequent letters. “Dear Mum…”

Don’t be scared of styles. They aren’t really that complex. Styles will not cause you to lose any work or break your word processing program. If things get too messy you can always cut and paste your text into a brand new empty document. I ended up with a mess because I like to experiment with things and only read the documentation after I’ve tried something (and usually screwed it up). But my documents are going to look perfect by the time that I’ve finished.

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.