Using the LibreOffice free Office Suite

Word Processor

© Lead Image © Oksana Alekseeva, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © Oksana Alekseeva, 123RF.com

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The LibreOffice Writer word processing tool offers all the basic functionality you expect, along with a couple of features that really make it stand out. We also look at the other LibreOffice components: Calc, Impress, and Base.

For many users, daily computing means writing and editing documents in one form or another, so a decent word processor is an essential tool. Although other word processors are available for Linux, such as AbiWord and KWord, they are no match for LibreOffice Writer. It's a real heavy-duty word processor that you can use for pretty much anything: from simple letters and invoices to books and mail merge documents – Writer handles these tasks equally well.

Users familiar with other word processors will feel at home with Writer: It sports a rather conventional interface, and all its basic features are immediately available via the main toolbar. The Formatting toolbar gives you quick access to the formatting options, such as font, font size, alignment, numbered and bulleted lists, etc. In other words, even if you are completely new to LibreOffice Writer, you can start using it right away. However, behind Writer's simple interface hides a rather powerful application containing a slew of clever features.

Writer, for example, includes a built-in PDF export feature, which lets you generate a PDF version of your document in just a few clicks (Figure 1). To do this, choose File | Export as PDF. This opens the PDF Options dialog window that allows you to tweak the available export options. Besides PDF, LibreOffice supports a number of other formats, including Rich Text Format (RTF) and Microsoft Word 2003. The latter can be particularly useful for people who need to exchange documents with Microsoft Office users. Keep in mind, however, that although LibreOffice Writer usually does a commendable job of handling the Word format, it can occasionally stumble on some complex documents containing a lot of formatting. Using LibreOffice's export feature, you can also save Writer documents as MediaWiki-formatted text files – a boon for users using wikis for web publishing.

Figure 1: Save your Writer documents in PDF format with ease.

Like any good word processor, Writer supports version tracking, on-the-fly spell checking, footers, headers, footnotes, tables, and other features essential for basic and advanced word processing. Users interested in doing mail merge will be pleased to learn that Writer comes with a powerful yet user-friendly Mail Merge Wizard. The Frames feature can help you to lay out complex documents in Writer, and there is even a Media Player you can use to play media files and insert them into documents. All these are indispensable tools, but two features really make Writer stand out from the crowd: styles and master documents. Moreover, you can expand Writer's and other LibreOffice applications' capabilities using extensions.

Work in Writer with Style

Styles is one of the features that makes LibreOffice Writer a rather powerful word processing application. In fact, if you really want to get the most out of Writer and take your word processing skills to the next level, you should really learn how to use styles. The Styles feature lets you specify paragraph and character-formatting properties (Figure 2). For example, you can create a character style called My_bold_character (or edit the default bold character style), which uses Open Sans 11pt Bold font. The next time you have to format a portion of text as bold, you simply apply the My_bold_character style to it.

Figure 2: Tweaking styles in Writer.

"But, why bother creating a separate style if you can just use the Bold button on the Formatting toolbar?" you might ask. Suppose you have a 99-page document with dozens of words and text fragments in bold, but you need to change all the headings to bold italic. Without styles, you would have to go through the entire document and change every single head manually. That's a lot of work. With styles, performing this operation is simple: Open the My_bold_head style for editing, choose the Font tab, select Bold Oblique in the Typeface list, press OK, and you are done.

The Styles feature offers a few other creature comforts. The Organizer tab in the Style dialog window allows you to specify which style should follow the current one (the Next Style option), and which style inherits its properties (the Linked with option). For example, you can create a special style for the document header and set the Next Style option to the Text body paragraph style. Then, when you type a header in your document and press Enter, Writer automatically switches to the Text body style.

Using the Linked with option, you can link several styles together. For example, you can link the Heading 1 style with Heading 2, so the latter style inherits the properties of the former. If you later change, for example, the font in the Heading 1 style, this change will be automatically applied to the Heading 2 style and any style linked to it. This way, you don't have to go through each style and change its properties manually. To keep tabs on styles, Writer also offers the Stylist tool, which can be evoked by pressing the F11 key or by choosing Format | Styles and Formatting. Styles can be a bit intimidating in the beginning, but once you've learned the ropes, they can save you a lot of time and make you look like a real LibreOffice Writer pro.

Mastering the Master

Styles is not the only feature that makes Writer a perfect word processing tool for complex documents. When working on a long document, such as a book or research paper, you save individual chapters as separate .odt files and assemble them in a master document. Creating a master document in Writer couldn't be easier: Choose File | New | Master Document, and Writer creates an empty master file ready for use. You can then use the Navigator tool (press F5 or choose Edit | Navigator to open it) , which allows you to add subdocuments to the master and manage them with ease.

Extending Writer

As with Firefox, you can add new features to LibreOffice applications using extensions. The best place to find extensions for LibreOffice is in the official extension repository [1]. Here you can find extensions for all LibreOffice applications as well as rate and comment them.

Installing LibreOffice extensions is straightforward. To begin, you have to download the desired extension. Then, launch LibreOffice, choose Tools | Extension Manager, and select My Extension section. Press Add and select the downloaded .oxt file. Once the extension is installed, restart LibreOffice to enable it. Which extensions you choose to install on your system depends largely on your needs, but one you might want to try is the LanguageTool [2].

Although LibreOffice comes with a competent spell checker and thesaurus, it lacks a grammar module, which many users find useful. If you are among them, then you should try LanguageTool (Figure 3). It may not be as powerful as the grammar checker bundled with Microsoft Office, but it does let you perform basic grammar checks with ease, and it supports several languages.

Figure 3: Checking grammar with LanguageTool.

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