Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 13, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I'm constantly bemused that the same people who spend hours getting a small code feature right frequently can't be bothered to learn how to use a word processor correctly. This attitude is so widespread that a disturbing number of new features in free office suites seemed designed to cater to this attitude, giving people what they want while condemning them to much greater effort than a little education in styles and formatting would.

Why should this matter? Consider the way that most people use a word processor like LibreOffice's Writer. Whenever they want to change the default formatting, they select part of the document – for example, a paragraph or a page -- and then apply the formatting using the toolbars or one of the menus.

Then they do the same thing all over again in the next place that they want a particular type of formatting. If they decide to change the formatting, then they have to go through the entire document, changing the design every place where they have changed the format.

This kind of manual formatting  is popular because it requires little knowledge of the software. In effect, it uses the office application as though it were a typewriter. But although this approach gets the job done, it does so slowly. Not only that, but many features many features are awkward to use – assuming they can use them at all.

By contrast, a style is a description of a set of formats. It might put characters into italics if they form the title of the book. A more complicated style might list everything about how a page is designed, from the width of its margins to its orientation and the background color. By analogy, they are the word-processing equivalent of declaring a variable in a piece of code.

The advantage of a style is that you design it once. Then, instead of adding all the characteristics every place where you the format, you apply the style description, which is much quicker than you could manually format.

If you decide you want a different format, you edit the description once, and within seconds, every place where you applied the style has the new format as well. You don't have to remember the details of the formatting – just the name of the style.

Basic and advanced advantages
To fully appreciate the difference between formatting manually and formatting with styles, imagine that you are preparing a twenty page essay for a university class. You have decided to use the Deja Vu Serif typeface with a size of 10 points. Twenty minutes before you leave for class, you re-read the professor's instructions, and find that she ony accepts in 12 point Times New Roman.

If you have manually formatted, you will be lucky to print out the essay properly before you leave. But if you have used styles, you can change the font and its size in less than a minute, and print out a new copy of the essay with time to spare.

Then you can save the document as a template. The next essay you write for that professor, you can concentrate on content and not have to worry about formatting.

Other advantages of styles? That depends on the word processor. However, in LibreOffice, you can almost eliminate the need for tabs, especially at the start of a new paragraph, because you can create a style that automtically indents for you. Similarly, instead of creating a separate frame for a section formatted differently from the rest of the document, you can simply include the different format in a set of styles and keep typing.

Another major advantage in LibreOffice is that if you use heading styles, you can use them as bookmarks in Navigator to move around in a document. But unlike normal bookmarks, you don't have to define them in a separate task. Instead, headings are available for use as soon as you set the styles.

In the same way, using styles in LibreOffice lets you generate a Table of Contents with bookmarking entries first. Separate headings and footers for different pages are easier to maintain.  You can give a uniform look to the frames around photos you add, set up a drop capital to mark the start of a new chapter, and automatically change page layouts. You can do all these and more, and still have time to focus on the details of layout.

However, the real saving comes when you save your design as a template. Once you have created your basic templates, the next time you start a document, you won't have to think about formatting at all – you can just start writing. Inevitably,, you'll find that the more you use styles, the more time you save.

Yet, despite all these advanges, some users view styles as an intrusion on their rights to work the way that they please. They insist on their right to format manually, and of course they are free to do as they like. They are like people who insist on slow a car by dragging their feet -- their preference more or less works, but is far more strenuous than putting pressure on the brake with one foot.

When to be stylish
So when should you use styles? The short answer is, “Almost always.” Using styles may be a new way of thinking for you, and requires some initial setup, but, in almost every case, helps you to accomplish your tasks faster and easier. You may spend more time planning than if you simply started writing, but you will work more efficiently and take less time than if you dive into the work unprepared.

Still, in practice, even experts sometimes use manual formatting in certain circumstances. On the one hand, manual formatting may make sense if:

  • The document is short (1-2 pages)
  • The document will be printed once and never reused.
  • The document will only be edited by a single person.
  • Any editing will only take place within a few days of finishing the document.
  • Some people who will edit the document have no idea how to use styles, and refuse to learn.
  • You are experimenting with fonts while building a template, and are not yet ready to create styles.
  • A consistent format doesn't matter for some other reason. The document is informal, and nobody will be judged by its polish.

On the other hand, styles make more sense if:

  • The document is long (over 3 pages)
  • The document is going to be revised
  • The document will be edited by more than one person.
  • The document will be edited weeks, months, or even years after the first version.
  • The document belongs to a standard class of documents, such as a letter, a fax, or memo.
  • The document design should match that of other documents from you or your company or organization.
  • You want to use the document in a number of different ways, each of which requires some minor changes: for example, printing it on both a white and red background.
  • The document is highly formatted, like a brochure– that is, more than just pages and pages of text.

The more circumstances that apply, the clearer your decision will be. Sometimes, too, when you might format manually, you might change your mind because you have a template ready, which means that you don't need to think about format at all. Styles take more preparation than manually formatting, but, in almost every circumstance, the time they ultimately save makes learning how to use them a sensible choice.

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