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.

Updates and Upgrades

Embed from Getty Images

I have currently got computer issues so this week’s posting has not been written.😱 I’m writing this as a placeholder until I can catch up. The subject will be, as above, “upgrades”.

One of the joys of using a computer is applying the updates that come out for the operating system and applications. With a multitude of computing devices that a person has these days, this can be time consuming.

Embed from Getty Images

On desktop computers running the Windows operating system, this can be made pretty much invisible, but on phones and tablets, and on other operating systems this can be a chore.

Most updates are for applications and not for the operating system itself, but often a user may have no idea of the difference. A tech-savvy person asks what operating system a user is using, expecting to hear “8.1” or “7” or even “Vista” or “XP” he/she is surprised to be told “Internet Explorer” or even “GMail”.

Screenshot of Android 4 on Galaxy Nexus
Screenshot of Android 4 on Galaxy Nexus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An application upgrade is usually benign and the user will not notice any difference as the changes will be behind the scenes, but now and then a user visible change is made and the user often thinks that his machine is broken.

Geeks often have a quiet snigger at this but it is a bit unfair. The user is using the computer as a tool, and tools as a rule do not change. A spanner doesn’t suddenly overnight change from Imperial sizes to Metric sizes and the computer user is not unreasonable in expecting his/her computer to not suddenly change.

Embed from Getty Images

Some updates however are far from benign, causing data loss or serious computer issues. Those not of the “Windows World” frequently blame Microsoft for such issues, but when there are billions of users out there, using different hardware configurations, it is not surprising that things occasionally break. Nastily!

When I talk about the “Windows World”, I am talking about the users of the Microsoft Windows operating system, by far the largest group of computer users. Until recently the other major groups of users were the “Mac World” and the “Linux World”, but more recently these have been joined by the “Apple World” and the “Android World”.

Embed from Getty Images

Since Macs are made by Apple, arguable the “Mac World” and the “Apple World” are the same, but by the “Apple World” I mean those users of iPads, iPhones and even the iPod. The “Mac World” refers to users of desktop and laptop Macintosh computers.

The application updates are arguably more visible on handheld devices and owners of such devices may be notified two or more times a week that such and such an app needs updating or has been automatically updated. It’s not too much of an issue, but naive users may not be performing the necessary couple of clicks to update the apps.

Embed from Getty Images

Of course, by taking this course they may be missing out on security and stability fixes or fixes for serious bugs, to them the risk of fiddling with their devices may seem higher, and I can understand that.

Computer users, especially naive users, develop a pattern of working, a “workflow” if you like that suits them and works around any bugs or issues in their apps. No wonder they get furious when their workflow is disrupted! In one case, (reputedly) a computer user who had her machine updated was outraged that her icon had “gone”, when in fact it had moved to a different line.

Embed from Getty Images

It’s easy to laugh at such happenings, but really, one should try to see here point of view. The icon did something when she clicked. It had moved and even if it looked the same in its new position, she could not be sure that it would do the same thing.

If a more sophisticated user were to notice that an icon had moved, they would probably assume that it would work the same, and in 99.99…. per cent of the time they would be correct. But the naive user did not know the odds and of course, she was correct in that there was a non-zero possibility that the icon would behave differently.

Embed from Getty Images

There is a subtle difference between an update and an upgrade, I believe. I don’t know if it is an official definition, but when updates are mentioned I feel that such changes should be minor and with little visible impact. Updates may be changes made to applications and to the operating system itself, but the key feature is that they do change functionality or user workflow fundamentally, and would predominately be bug fixes or small enhancements.

Upgrades on the other hand, would be more fundamental changes and may result in majorly changed functionality and workflows, like the changes between Windows 7 and Windows 8. The change between Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 would probably be an update rather than an upgrade, but this one is marginal.

Tux, the Linux penguin
Tux, the Linux penguin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m in the “Linux World” and my desktop runs Ubuntu. I’ve recently upgraded to version 14.10 (also known as Utopic Unicorn) and I had a number of issues, none of which was a show stopper, but some of which were annoying. I’ve previously upgraded successfully with few issues, but maybe I accumulated too much junk.

I definitely don’t think that the issue is with Utopic Unicorn as the forums don’t have posts which relate to my issues, which they would if it were a general issue, so it is something related to my own setup, most likely.

Official Ubuntu circle with wordmark. Replace ...
Official Ubuntu circle with wordmark. Replace File:Former Ubuntu logo.svg. Español: logo de Ubuntu + marca denominativa Français : Logo officiel d’Ubuntu. Remplace File:Former Ubuntu logo.svg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I’ve reinstalled, which has taken some time. There is one niggly issue that should be fixed shortly, but I was without access to some essentials, like Facebook and GMail on my desktop machine, for a day or two. Fortunately I was able to access these absolute essentials on my tablet (Android) and phone (also Android).

During this time I had to fix my daughter in law’s Windows laptop and upgrade the iPad to the newest version of IOS. Now my Android phone wants to upgrade to Android version 5.0 (also known as “Lollipop”). I think that I will wait for version 5.0.1 or 5.1!

Embed from Getty Images

Granny has an iPad

Español: Tim Berners-Lee En el Foro de la Gobe...
Español: Tim Berners-Lee En el Foro de la Gobernanza de Internet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 12 March 1989 Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for what would become the “World Wide Web”, now enshrined in the “www” that is part of the name of many websites. This is often now voiced as “dub, dub, dub”, causing many people to cringe. Through 1990 and into 1991 Tim’s idea was refined until the idea was announced publicly on 7 August 1991.

Granny would have about 30 at the time, or maybe younger.

English: Graph of internet users per 100 inhab...
English: Graph of internet users per 100 inhabitants between 1997 and 2007 by International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recreated in OpenOffice Calc, source: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s worth remembering that the Internet had been around for a decade or so, in rudimentary form, so the chances are that Granny might have come into contact with it if she was working in it at the time, maybe at a university. It’s far more likely though that Granny’s first contact with computing would have come from working at a large firm where they had a mainframe computer.

IBM 3279-S3G
IBM 3279-S3G (Photo credit: vaxomatic)

Maybe she sat at an IBM 3270 screen and typed accounting data into it, or maybe she was one of the people who loaded punched cards into a reader or tended the huge printers  that spat out piles of paper with horizontal green stripes and sprocket holes down the edge. Or maybe she loaded magnetic tape reels into one of the tape reader machines which for some reason came to signify “computing” in many films of the era.

The Internet started as a linked network of computers, running online databases, using names such as “Archie” and “Gopher”. Everything was text based and there was no linking. That had to wait for Tim Berners-Lee’s insight. Universities embraced the new medium and most databases were held on University servers.

Gopher (Photo credit: cambodia4kidsorg)

When you blithely click on link to visit a web page a number of things happen. Firstly your computer recognises that you want to do something. A program on your computer called the browser (Firefox, or Chrome or Internet Explorer) analyses your input and decides what you want it to do.

This may involve sending a request to a remote server, but your computer doesn’t know where the server, so it needs to find out. This is done by sending a message to yet another server which has information about where the requested server is on the Internet, or knows how to find out.

Description unavailable
Description unavailable (Photo credit: Forest Service Southwestern Region)

In the early days of the Internet, when Granny may have first come into contact with it, this system did not exist, so every computer on the Internet was required to know the whereabouts of every other computer on the Internet. As you can imagine, updating the address information became a tedious chore and that is why the system that I sketchily outlined above was invented.

Once Granny found a document whose title looked interesting, she would have to download it. Today we click on a link and the document appears on our screen. But Granny would have had to tediously search likely sources for the document, then she would transfer it to the server that she was connected to, and finally she would be able to print it on a printer. If she was lucky the printer would be nearby and it would actually have some paper in it. Granny’s document would be printed in a fixed width font on striped paper by a printer with a ribbon and little hammers, like a glorified typewriter.

English: demonstration of how an impact printe...
English: demonstration of how an impact printer works (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Granny would have been around 20 when IBM introduced the first “IBM Personal Computer” in 1981, but she might have first come into contact with something like a Commodore 64 or Sinclair ZX 81 or Spectrum. She might have played games loaded tedious by command line commands from cassette tape. It’s possible that she was amazed by the blocky coloured graphics and the clunky game play, considering that the next best thing around was “Pong”, a primitive tennis game on a fixed device, sometimes set into a tabletop, or maybe “Space Invaders”, also hosted on a single purpose device.

English: Commodore 64 computer (1982). Post pr...
English: Commodore 64 computer (1982). Post processing: BG, B/C, noise, dust, spot Français : Ordinateur Commodore 64. Suomi: Commodore 64 -tietokone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Granny had anything to do with computers in the early days of personal computers she would have had to deal with machines that by default booted into BASIC. That’s pretty much a fall-back as usually would have inserted a floppy disk with some version of DOS into the machine. Then she would have had to have loaded whatever program she wanted to run by using another floppy disk.

She would have had to become familiar with the DOS command line, including such quirks as the A: and B: drive referring to the same device. Most of the time. She might even have edited configuration files by hand.

Computer directory listing in a command shell.
Computer directory listing in a command shell. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When she got her first hard disk she would have installed DOS or even Windows on it from maybe three or four floppy disks. The first Windows versions ran as a shell on top of DOS, so she would have still needed to have a knowledge of DOS.

In addition she would have had to handle the dreaded device drivers. These were (and still are) small programs that handled interactions with specific installed hardware. Which in the early days of DOS and Windows meant just about any piece of hardware.

Mini CD used for delivering USB drivers for a ...
Mini CD used for delivering USB drivers for a webcam. Photo taken by user: O mores. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Granny installed her new scanner she would have received a disk with it containing the drivers. She would know from prior experience that installing a driver could possibly make her system crash and be unbootable. But she would have still installed it and most probably (eventually) come out on top of it.

In addition before Granny got broadband she would have experienced the doubtful pleasures of using a dial-up modem, and would be familiar with the weird little song it sings to itself when it is handshaking with the remote modem. And she would certainly be familiar with waiting for half an hour to download a megabyte file and Grandad picking up the phone one minute before the end and breaking the connection.

Quicktel 2400EX
Quicktel 2400EX (Photo credit: debagel)

So, now Granny has bought an iPad. Don’t be surprised if she takes to it like a duck to water. After all, she probably has decades more experience with computers and networks, the Internet and downloading than you have. You weren’t born when she started!

she has a thing for it
she has a thing for it (Photo credit: creaid)

Enhanced by Zemanta