Writing with Style

Writing with Style

Article from Issue 188/2016

An Interview with the author of Designing with LibreOffice.

Bruce Byfield has been the writer of the Command Line column for Linux Pro Magazine (LPM) since mid 2009. In addition to his "Off the Beat" blog he writes for us at the LPM website [1], he keeps a personal "Off the Wall" blog [2], where he addresses art, specifically Pacific Northwest art and First Nations artists, writing, feminism, and life in general.

Bruce recently published Designing with LibreOffice, a book in which he guides the reader through the style, template, typography, and design tools available in LibreOffice to create precise and visually comprehensible documents. He says, "By taking advantage of styles and templates, you can concentrate on self-expression, rather than format" [3].

LibreOffice [4] is a popular free office suite that includes word processing, spreadsheet, multimedia, drawing, database, and math editing applications. This set of programs is so feature rich, that most users take advantage of a very small subset of its capabilities.

Writing a book that helps writers grasp the software's vast functionality is not a venture many would be willing to attempt. Bruce describes how he came to the project:

"I was at OSCON in 2000 at which Sun Microsystems released the code that would become OpenOffice.org, and later LibreOffice. I knew right then that I would like to write about the code, but I didn't know how to manage or structure such a large project. I made four tries with one editor and finally admitted that I didn't know what I was doing. I was left with 1,400 unpublishable pages, which I cannibalized for short articles for years.

"But I always wanted to write that book. Finally, talking about styles and designs gave me the unifying topic that would allow me to shape the book and contain it to a decent length, so it's a very heady feeling to see it in print after three years of work."

To find out more about his book, I asked Bruce a few questions.

LPM: Designing with LibreOffice came out in March 2016. Were you commissioned to write this book, or was it an independent project?

Bruce Byfield: A bit of both. Jean Hollis Weber, who until March 2016 was managing the LibreOffice documentation volunteers, asked me to write a book about styles and templates. I went a little crazy and went far beyond that original topic. Luckily for me, she thought what I was doing was worth encouraging.

LPM: As a professional writer, how challenging was this project? Did you run into any problems, or was it smooth sailing?

BB: I soon learned that writing a 90,000-word book was vastly different than writing the 1,200-word articles I usually write. I had to do much more planning, and finding a suitable structure for talking about both LibreOffice and typography took an unexpected amount of revision.

However, the biggest problem is eliminating typos and other errors. I copyedited it, and so did Jean. We even got Lee Schlesinger, my former editor at Linux.com, to read the final manuscript so we could get a fresh perspective. Yet all three of us still missed a lot. I swear the typos breed in the night after a file is saved.

LPM: You released your book under a Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike License [5], sometimes also known as "copyleft." Share with us what this means and why you decided to publish your work in this way.

BB: The license means that anyone can copy, share, and revise the contents as they please, so long as they give me credit and release any work that changes or borrows the content under the same license.

I have been writing about free software and free licenses for almost 15 years, so I would be a hypocrite if I published any other way.

Moreover, free software has shaped a good part of my life. I have sometimes criticized its shortcomings, especially the lack of diversity, but the truth is that free software gave me a sense of direction when I badly needed one and has allowed me over the years to hobnob with brilliant and talented people. I thought I was overdue to give something back, and, having criticized for so long as a writer, to make myself a target for once.

Also, I was curious. Would having free downloads affect sales of the hard copy book? What would the ratio of download to sales be? Since Jean gave me an advance, I am able to explore such questions.

Mostly, however, offering a free book is its own reward. Like volunteer coders, much of my immediate pay for the book is in credit, and since the book was released, I've received an embarrassing amount of that. The enthusiasm from others for what I wrote is unexpected, but very welcome.

LPM: The title alerts the reader that this is not a how-to book for LibreOffice. Rather, you address design or, more specifically, typography. What clues did you see that indicated a need for this kind of book?

BB: Thanks mainly to Jean, LibreOffice has some of the best documentation in free software. However, the limitation of any manual is that, while it explains everything you can do, it doesn't explain when or why you should choose different types of formatting. In a large application like LibreOffice, that means that people have a hard time taking full advantage of the features.

Also, people often talk about LibreOffice as if it were just another office suite. However, Writer is not just a word processor, but an intermediate desktop publisher as well. Users can do far more in Writer than they ever could imagine in Microsoft Word. When I was a technical writer, I did several manuals of well over 500 pages in OpenOffice.org, its predecessor. I'm not sure that would be even possible in Word, but if it is, the experience would be nightmarish. I wanted more people to know what the capabilities were.

Another clue was that people often think of typography as design that calls attention to itself, with pages full of garish colors and decorative fonts formatted into illegibility. That was understandable when the personal computer first came in, and everyone wanted to experiment with all the new tools that were available, but almost forty years later, we need to get beyond that type of excess. I wanted to stress that typography is about design that works quietly in the background.

In addition, I wanted to explain that part of effective design is features that allow easy editing and revision over a long period of time. That's one reason why styles are so important. Similarly, the humble Hide feature in Paragraph and Character styles allows you to maintain two different versions of a document in one file, which makes keeping the versions in sync over several versions much easier.

LPM: In the Introduction you mention that, for the most part, typography should be "hidden." What do you mean?

BB: People sometimes ask why I used the Sun Yat-Sen Garden in Vancouver, Canada, as a motif. If I'm feeling flippant, I reply that if O'Reilly can use covers unassociated with the subject matter of its books, then so can I.

However, the real reason is the analogy between typography and the philosophy of feng shui on which Chinese Classical gardens are based. Everything in a Classical garden is meticulously planned – the positioning of rocks and tiles, the angle of corridors, the contrast between plants and trees, and absolutely everything else. In the Imperial Gardens that the English burned, even the exact position of ornaments on shelves was determined. Yet the end result is supposed to look absolutely natural, so that anyone strolling through the garden doesn't notice how carefully planned everything is. I thought that a good analogy for what typography is supposed to do, so much so that I personally paid for permission to use photos of the Garden.

LPM: You wrote an article in 2004 called "Replacing FrameMaker with OOo Writer," which implied that you could use LibreOffice's predecessor OpenOffice.org for desktop publishing (DTP). What elements did OpenOffice have then that made it suitable for DTP, and what additions have been made to LibreOffice since then that improve on this capability?

BB: Right from the days when the code was part of StarDivision, it has always had formatting features that are far ahead of other word processors. Writer allows control and precision that is more characteristic of DTP than of word processors.

The story I heard from a Sun Microsystems employee years ago is that the original programmers for StarDivision, the proprietary office suite that became OpenOffice.org then later LibreOffice, were told that they would have to use what they wrote for their own documentation. I'm not sure whether the story is true, but it would explain why Writer is so sophisticated compared to most word processors.

At any rate, very few changes have been needed. However, LibreOffice has cleaned up the code and made the features available for different types of styles more consistent. A major headache was removed by including an option to embed fonts, which means you can share documents without worrying whether the recipient has the fonts installed that you use.

I should also mention the Typography toolbar extension, which makes advanced features easier to apply. In effect, it changes Writer from an intermediate desktop publisher to an advanced one.

LPM: Creating esthetically pleasing documents is often considered an art practiced by specially trained graphic artists. With the help of your book, how challenging do you think it will be for the average reader to understand and apply the concepts you present?

BB: Design takes practice, of course. What I've tried to do is give the background so that users can practice on their own.

I suspect that many users will probably dip into the sections they want. However, if they read the book from the beginning, it shows how, by beginning by choosing fonts and their line spacing, you can have a framework for many of your other design choices. With this approach, users do not have to rely on vague impressions or random choices. Instead, design becomes more of a science, and less of an art. I hope that this approach will demystify design and give users more confidence in setting up their own designs.

LPM: Share any other thoughts you might have, and tell us where we can get your book.

BB: The book's reception has exceeded all expectations. I thought it might receive a few thousand downloads in the first year. Instead, in six weeks, it had over 13,500 downloads, with another 8,500 to be distributed on a DVD that comes with a magazine, and offers for French, German, Spanish, and Chinese translations. I feel like I've fallen down a rabbit hole, and any minute now I'm going to see Alice and a white rabbit hurrying by.

The next step is to release parts of the book in smaller volumes, for those who only want part of its information. This step is also a good way of revising the book, which I otherwise would feel too overwhelmed to attempt.

You can download the book at the book's website [3]. The Download/Buy tab also has a link to Lulu.com, where you can order a hard copy of the book. In whichever medium readers see the book, I hope that readers find it educational and useful.

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