Touted as a compelling and arguably superior alternative to Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org begs the question: is it as good as it's cracked up to be? I've headed canary-like to mine the depths of this free suite alternative, testing its limits by using it to complete common and advanced business tasks. If I report back to you in short, desperate breaths that the suite is impossibly difficult to use, you will know better than to send in more miners. But if I come out of this experiment alive and well, you may just have to ask yourself, as I asked myself, "Why not give it a try?" (See Trouble Me.)
If you have not been following this series and have not yet seen OpenOffice.org, you might want to back up for a moment to establish your context here. Download and take a look at this open source office suite (OpenOffice.org) or in the interest of time, read previous articles in this series for background basics. (For information on the topics of these articles, see Background Basics.)
If you have time to read only one of this series' previous articles, read the December 2006 article titled, I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat, which sets the stage for this discussion. In that article, I share the results of my attempts to format, export as .pdf, and create a template for my community newsletter, The ABC View, using OpenOffice.org Writer (OO Writer).
This article adds to the template discussion by explaining how I used OO Writer to incorporate Styles into and thereby improve the usefulness of The ABC View template. With the template and associated styles, creating new editions of The ABC View is now easier than ever. The template spares me from having to repeatedly create the newsletter's static elements, and Styles enable me to reproduce, with the click of a button, the newsletter's varied text, list and frame formats.
Keep those e-mails and letters coming! What areas of OpenOffice.org do you want me to explore? Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
> What I Started With
I like to keep things simple, so I created the color, two-page ABC View in Figure 1 using four tables: one for the newsletter header, a second for its description, a third for newsletter text on page one and a fourth for newsletter text on page 2. (See Figure 1.) Creating tables in OO Writer is as familiar and easy as creating tables in MS Word (OO Writer's proprietary nemesis, which I have been using for 12 years).
For an added touch of professionalism, I dotted the tables with a few different fonts, occasional splashes of background color, and borders around all of the graphics, some of the text, and several of the article titles. I then converted The ABC View into a .pdf file (a simple oneclick process), awaited Board approval and, once I had it, printed and distributed the newsletter.
To simplify the creation of the next newsletter edition (due mid Winter), I created a template. Creating the template was a no-brainer: I opened the newsletter, clicked Save from the Template option in the File pull-down menu, and, when prompted, entered "Newsletter" to name the new template. (For more information on this and aforementioned OO Writer features, see my previous articles for Novell Connection online at novell.com/connectionmagazine.)
> What Was Missing
The template I created using the above process was identical in appearance to the first newsletter—right down to the text and graphics. Naturally, the text and graphics change from edition to edition, so I had to clean the template to make it more user friendly: I deleted all of the text and, because articles in subsequent newsletters would not be of equal length, I removed article titles and borders. I also wiped out all graphics and frames (except the blue one that holds the title to the newsletter's first article).
Without these specific elements, the template was a mere shadow of its former self. (See Figure 2.) As I mentioned, I am lazy, and the work that the skeletal remains of my newsletter implied was disheartening. I did not want the hassle of re-creating with each new edition the newsletter's specifics—its font types, sizes and colors; frame styles; background splashes; and bullet list styles. I needed a way to easily re-create these details.
OO Writer's Styles and Formatting feature was the secret to solving this particular problem. Fortunately, this feature was easy to use, even for someone like me, who has only used but never created Styles in any word processor. I have since checked out the Styles and Formatting feature in MS Office and found that it functions similarly to its OO Writer counterpart.
> You've Got Styles
To create styles for my newsletter template, I opened my original newsletter file (abc edition 5.3.odt), and selected Styles and Formatting from the Format pull-down menu. (See Figure 3.) The F11 key is also a toggle switch to turn this dialog on and off. By default, the Styles and Formatting dialog box opens displaying Paragraph Styles. If you dock the dialog on either side of the screen, the dialog title disappears.
Paragraph Styles are one of five categories of Styles. Styles enable you to create and automatically apply consistent formatting to certain elements of your documents. (See Table 1.)
> Create Your Own Styles
From within my newsletter, I created custom styles following these few steps:
- From within the Styles and Formatting dialog, highlight a sample of the text for which you want to create a style. For example, I
highlighted "IN THIS ISSUE," which is in yellow, 10-point TrebuchetMS, as all of the titles in the newsletter's first column should be.
- Next, select New Styles from Selection from the icon of the same name. (See Figure 3.)
- When prompted, enter a name for the new style (in my case, Article Title Yellow).
- Then click OK.
You can use the above steps to create Paragraph, Character and List styles, but not for Frame and Page Styles. (For information on Frame and Page Styles, see Frames with Style and An Alternate Approach.) I repeated these steps for all of the different fonts I used throughout the newsletter and also for the newsletter's bullet list formats.
Applying Paragraph, Character and List Styles is easy: place your cursor where you want to insert text formatted in a particular style, click the Fill Format Mode icon (the tipped paint can) in the Styles and Formatting dialog box and type the text. If you've already typed your text, just click the Fill Format Mode icon, and select the text using the paint-can cursor to apply that particular style. You can also apply them by selecting the text and double clicking the desired style in the Styles and Formatting dialog. Double-clicking applies Page Styles too.
> Frames with Styles
You cannot double click a Frame Style to apply it. In fact, Frame Styles require a slightly different creation process.
I used several frames throughout my newsletter: I used small blue frames for my white article titles; I used frames around all of the graphics; and I used frames around some of the articles. To create styles that would let me automatically format frames in subsequent newsletter editions, I followed these steps:
- With the Styles and Formatting dialog box open, click Frame from the Insert pull-down menu.
- Within the Frame dialog box, mark the fields needed to define each of the various frame styles. For example, for the blue frame, I selected a blue background and entered the frame size. (See Figure 4.)
- Click OK.
- With the new frame selected, click New Style from Selection.
- Next, enter a name for the new Frame Style, for example, Newsletter Article Title Frame Blue.
- Click OK.
You apply Frame Styles differently than you apply Paragraph, Character, List and even Page styles. To apply a Frame Style, follow these steps:
- With the Styles and Formatting dialog box open, click Frame from the Insert pull-down menu.
- Click OK in the Frame dialog box.
- With the new frame selected, click the Frame Style you want to apply to this frame.
- Click the Fill Format Mode icon.
- Click the paint-can cursor atop the still-selected frame, and OO Writer reformats the newly created frame to match the specifications of the Frame Style you selected.
> Modifying Styles
For my community newsletter, I created eight custom Paragraph Styles and two custom List Styles. Of course, creating custom styles was an option. Alternately, I could have modified existing styles.
For example, I could have modified the existing Heading 1 style so it would yield white 10-point Haettenschweiller text. To do so, I would simply highlight the white text, click to select Heading 1 from the list of Paragraph Styles, and then choose Update style from the New Style from Selection icon. Doing so changes the settings for the Heading 1 style from the default black 16.1 point Arial to white 10 point Haettenschweiller.
You also can update styles by right clicking them and choosing Modify. When you do, a tabbed styles dialog box appears with its fields prefilled according to specifications for the selected style. (See Figure 5.) Just change the prefilled fields to show the specs for your style.
After creating the custom styles for my newsletter, I took advantage of some of the conveniences given by the options in the styles dialog box. For example, I changed the Article Title White style to ensure that after I hit Enter, OO Writer automatically applies the Article Text Black style to the next lines of text.
To do this, I right clicked the Article Title White style and chose Modify. The tabbed dialog box opened showing the specs of that style. In this dialog box, I clicked the Organizer tab and simply chose Article Text Black in the Next Style drop-down field. Now, every time I use the Article Title White style, OO Writer automatically applies the Article Text Black style to the next lines of text I type, until I apply a new style.
> Limit Styles For Easier Viewing
When I created my custom styles, I gave them obnoxiously specific names, such as "Newsletter Article Title White." This level of specificity is easier for me to manage; it's easier for me to remember how the Article Title White heading looks than it is for me to remember how Heading 1 looks. Also, the specific names of my newsletter styles made them easier to spot in the rather extensive list of default Paragraph and List Styles.
Don't search for your custom styles from the default lists. Instead, limit the list to display only your styles by selecting Custom from the list of display options at the bottom of the dialog.
Of course, I don't actually have to search for my custom styles from the default lists. Instead, I can limit the list so it displays only my styles. To do so, I simply select Custom from the list of display options, which are listed in the bottom field of the Styles and Formatting dialog box. This field gives you several filter options such as only those applied to the current document, HTML styles, Hierarchical styles and Conditional styles among others. You can set the category the filter uses for your styles on the Organizer tab of the Styles and Formatting dialog.
> Using Your Styles in Different Documents
If you've been paying attention, you will recall that I created my styles from within the actual newsletter—not from within the Newsletter Template. Thankfully, you can copy styles from one OO Writer file to another.
A closed system, like a closed mind, costs too much. The price? Your freedom. So keep an open mind and consider open software.
For example, I copied the styles I created in my original newsletter file to my template using these steps:
- Open your template file and choose Load Styles from the New Style from Selection menu in the Styles and Formatting dialog box.
- Use the check boxes at the bottom of the dialog to select the style categories you want to import, that is, Text, Frame, Pages and Numbering. (Check Overwrite if you want to replace styles in your current document that have the same names as the ones you are importing.)
- Click the From File button and browse to select the file containing the styles you want to import.
- Click OK and there they are: in my case, my newsletter's custom styles.
If you want to import the styles from one of the templates displayed in the list, simply select it and click OK to have the styles in that document imported into your current document.
> What's Coming Up Next?
Creating and importing custom styles for my newsletter template will make writing and distributing the next edition significantly easier. This time, I just have to write the columns—the static format is ready and waiting in the template, and the various fonts and frames are available with the click of a button.
But enough about my newsletter. In the next issue of Novell Connection, I'll fill you in on a little-known feature with a lot of office power: Forms and Form Fields. Then in the May issue, I'll tell you what happens when I pay my first visit to OpenOffice.org Impress, the suite's presentation software.
Until then, remember this: a closed system, like a closed mind, costs too much. The price? Your freedom. So keep an open mind and consider open software.