The case for styles

Formatting with LibreOffice


Learning how to use styles in LibreOffice can save you hours of formatting and let you focus on your writing.

Why does LibreOffice Writer need a how-to? Aren’t millions familiar with it through daily use? Not exactly – many use LibreOffice inefficiently, ignoring the tools designed to make work easier, and do everything the hard way. It's like dragging your feet instead of using the brakes.

When using LibreOffice, or any word processor, most people type some text, pause to format the text before typing more, and then repeat the process, which is slow and likely to interrupt one's train of thought. To change the format, a user must go through the document individually updating every instance of the old format. This method of working is known as direct or manual formatting.

Word processors in general, and LibreOffice Writer in particular, are not primarily designed for direct formatting. They can be used that way and even have tools to help users who insist on direct formatting. Instead, LibreOffice is most efficient when using styles, its equivalent of programming variables.

Styles are a collection of formatting, where one paragraph style might be Times Roman 12 point bold italic and another Helvetica Regular 18 point. Styles can be set up to be applied automatically. When styles are used, a format only needs to be changed once, instead of individually. Although styles can take time to set up, they can be saved as a template and reused. By using styles, users can focus on developing their thoughts, as well as saving themselves time formatting their documents.

These benefits apply especially to LibreOffice Writer. Most word processors have paragraph and character styles, but Writer also has page, list, frame, and table styles. The story goes that when StarDivision, LibreOffice’s original ancestor, was developed, the programmers were told they would have to use it to document their efforts. As a result, they added every useful tool they could think of, especially for styles. The developers were so thorough that many publishers today set their books using Writer. In fact, thanks to styles, Writer is not so much a word processor as a desktop publisher.

The Structure of Styles

Styles can be edited through Writer’s Style window by pressing F11 (Figure 1). The Style window is also the most convenient way to apply styles, although you can also use the Style menu and a toolbar item to display the most commonly used styles. The Style window is particularly useful because it can be repositioned and offers different views of the available styles, including a view of the styles used in the document.

Figure 1: Writer's Style window is the most convenient place to apply styles.

At first, setting a Writer style may seem a daunting task that requires dozens of choices. However, Writer includes dozens of defaults that can be customized with only minimal changes. For instance, if you do not want a particular feature, such as a background color, you can simply ignore it. Moreover, a style can be used for years, so the effort upfront can save time and effort each time you use the style in the future. In fact, a well-customized style can save you hours over the years. I still use a template with styles that I created 20 years ago that probably has saved me days of work.

When you are writing, the features of a style are applied automatically. If, for instance, a paragraph style indents the first line, there is no need for a tab. Similarly, if there are spaces following a paragraph rather than an initial indent, the spaces are applied when you press the Enter key. In addition, on the Organizer tab of any style (Figure 2), you can use the Inherited from field to base a style on an existing one, a feature that is useful when creating related styles. In fact, several groups of files are hierarchal, such as the Heading, Table of Contents, Index, and Text Body styles. Edit the Heading style, for example, and your changes are automatically applied to Heading 1 through Heading 10 (Figure 3). You only need to edit Heading 1 through 10 for their unique features. Since such hierarchal styles usually have many features in common, this arrangement saves considerable time.

Figure 2: The Organizer tab helps to automate the use of styles.
Figure 3: Since styles can be hierarchal, changes to the top style are inherited by styles lower in the hierarchy.

Another useful field on the Organizer tab is the Next style field, which assigns the style that follows the current one. For example, if the First Page style is followed by the Left Page style, and the Left Page style followed by the Right Page, a document is formatted in the background as you write (Figure 4). Once you apply the First Page style, the rest is taken care of for you. In the same way, you can set a Title style to be followed by a Subtitle style and then Text Body.

Figure 4: One style can be set to succeed another automatically.

Because setting all the styles in a document can take several hours, you won't want to do this each time you start a document. Instead, when the styles are perfected, you can save your effort in a template via File | Templates | Save As Template. To reuse the template, select it from Files | New | Templates (Figure 5). You might also use File | Templates | Edit Templates to add other automatic features like Fields to complement the styles.

Figure 5: Templates store styles (and therefore layout) for reuse.

When to Use Styles?

Ideally, the answer would be always. However, unless you develop a template for each kind of document you frequently write, that may not be practical. I suggest the following guidelines for manual formatting:

  • The document is short (one-two pages).
  • The document will be used once and never reused.
  • The document will be edited by only one person.
  • The document will only be edited soon after it is written.
  • The document will be edited by people who have no idea how to use styles and refuse to learn.
  • A consistent format doesn’t matter for some other reason.
  • You are experimenting with styles while building a template. Until you finalize the styles, you will make so many changes that creating styles is mostly wasted effort.
  • The document’s formatting is extremely simple, like an essay.

On the other hand, I recommend using styles for the following cases:

  • A document is long (over three pages).
  • A document will be used over and over.
  • A document will be edited by more than one person.
  • A document will be edited weeks, months, or even years after the first version.
  • A document belongs to a standard class of documents, such as a letter or memo.
  • A document must match that of other documents from you or your company or organization.
  • A document will be used in a number of different ways, each of which requires some minor changes (e.g., printing it on both a white and a red background).
  • A document is highly formatted, like a brochure

The more circumstances that apply, the clearer your decision will be.

A Different Way to Write

You may need time to get used to the idea of styles. Instead of jumping right into writing, using styles involves more preplanning than manual formatting. However, using styles allows you to concentrate on developing your thoughts rather than focusing on formatting. Once you are used to the change, you should start to see that word processing is more than an electric typewriter. Moreover, you’ll be working with LibreOffice, rather than against it.

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