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There's an old phrase you may have heard, "There are some things that money can't buy". A recent advertising campaign has appended, "For everything else...". Clichéd as it is, the phrase can be turned on its head to neatly sum up the differences between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.
There a some things that only money can buy. For everything else, there's OpenOffice. I would hazard a guess that the average computer user is unlikely to require anything form a word processor that OpenOffice Writer cannot provide.

However, switching from Word to OpenOffice Writer can be almost as difficult as switching from Windows to Linux. Word is almost ubiquitous in schools, universities and workplaces. Many people grow up using it from a very young age, plumbing its dark and mysterious depths by rote. Or else they merely skim the surface, shying away from the elusive secrets beneath.

This series of articles aims to take some common, and some not so common, tasks and compare how they would be performed in Word to how they are performed in Writer. In my own experience, I have found that Writer does not match Word feature for feature. But many of those 'missing' features would only be used by a few truly elite (or 'Enterprise') Office users. It is also well worth keeping in mind that Writer is not a straight out Word clone. It has a comparable feature set, but not an identical one. So if you are a home user, or even a small business user, the chances are that Writer can do everything you need it to. But you will have to invest some time learning how the program works, and how OO documents are organized, first.

As such, this article is written to target those who have recently switched to Linux, and are struggling to be as productive in Writer as they were in Word. But of course, OpenOffice runs under Windows as well, and everything I write here about OO applies to the Windows version, too. So if you have not switched to Linux, but think these tricks would be useful to you, you can try them out without needing to install Linux at all. While I do briefly cover how to perform these same tasks in Word, this description is intended merely as a point of reference for existing Word users. Thus, the majority of my attention, detail and screen grabs will be focused on how to perform the equivalent tasks in Writer.

And finally, before I begin, I would like to say that in every sufficiently complex program, there are usually short cuts, alternatives and workarounds. I do not intend to describe every method of achieving the same result in either program, or even necessarily the shortest method. Rather, I describe what I believe to be 'easiest to digest' methods. This article was written in consultation with several other OpenOffice and MS Office users, but please feel free to add any alternate methods you might know of in the comments section.

A word about file formats

Actually, there is just one more thing I want to say before we finally begin. Word saves documents as '.doc' files. This, I am sure, you know. But what's inside a doc file? If you've ever tried to open one up in a plain text editor, you won't see much you can understand. In contrast, an OpenOffice '.odt' file can be unzipped and examined to your heart's content. And though you might not understand what you are seeing, you're free to look it up and find out. The OpenDocument format is, quite fittingly, openly documented.

Unfortunately, due to its design, it often takes a few seconds longer to open an OpenDocument document that it would the corresponding Microsoft Office version. OpenOffice can save in both formats, so why would you deliberately pick the slower format? Well, I am not writing this article to preach, so I will not go into the politics and principles of the various document formats here. But I do suggest that it might be enlightening to pay a quick visit to this page. Take particular note of the external references at the bottom of the page. Wikipedia is a good for a quick hit of information, but despite its professed neutrality some pages do exhibit a bias, and I would never recommend anyone take up its opinion as their own without further reading.

I included this section only to say that there are good reasons to save your work as .odt files, which I encourage you to research if you are interested. If you are producing documents for a business that others will need to edit, you are probably tied to Word Documents, if not Word itself. But amongst your friends and family, please consider burning them a copy of OpenOffice, so they can read your .odt files, rather than pandering to the economic ego of a software monopoly.

The Multi-faceted Style:

This is completely a completely arbitrary boundary, but I propose that any Word/Writer document more complex that a page of jotted notes should be using styles for formatting. Mostly for the practice. If typesetting and consistent visual identity is of crucial importance to you, consider learning to use a typesetting system like Latex. But for your average document, with a few headers, maybe a contents page, some diagrams, headers and footnotes, you'll be wanting the styles.

And said styles, in both Word and Writer, are classified into the following groups -

Paragraph styles, when applied, will affect the entire paragraph. Typical Paragraph styles are 'Body Text', 'Heading 1', 'Heading 2', etc. It is considered good style to increase the 'after paragraph' spacing to about a line's width, rather than using an extra carriage return between each paragraph. Styles can be linked to other styles, so in Writer you can change the font of the 'Heading' style, and the change will affect Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, and so on...

Character styles should be used to override bits and pieces of text without changing the entire paragraph's formatting. A good example would be a 'hyperlink' style, or you might have one for in-line quotes, or example code. The advantage here is that you could, if required, change the colour of every link in your document, or the font of every quote, by just modifying the style. Again, character styles can inherit from other styles. The bottom level character style in Writer is named 'Default', but we'll cover changing 'default' fonts a little later.

List Styles are used by both programs to control the look and feel of numbered and bullet lists. We'll talk about list styles when we look at numbered headings in the next instalment.

In addition to these three common categories, Word has Table styles, which affect table layout and borders. Writer does not have table styles, but it does have Frame Styles, which affect how labels, graphics, frames, embedded objects and so forth are presented.

Lastly, Writer has Page Styles, which replace some of Word's 'Page Layout' options. Page styles will be covered a little later in this article.

Paragraph Styles

It is quite common for a book, or a chapter of a text book or thesis, to begin with an epigraph. They usually look something like this:

This is an epigraph, a rather long epigraph, that is full of useless words and ridiculous advice like, “Don’t pad out epigraphs with self referential statements full of bad punctuation, just so it will spread over more than one line."
Simon Gerber, Switching from Word to Writer

To replicate the effect you might mess with tabs, or manually change the margins on that section of text, or create a text box that you position by hand. Let's do it with styles. In Word you would open the style pane click the 'New Style' button. Give it a name like 'epigraph', pick the font you want, make it italic, then click Format--> Paragraph' and set the indent to around 3cm.

After the epigraph comes the attribution, we can create a style for that too. We'll call it 'Attribution', just tell it to align the font right and give it an extra bit of 'after' spacing. Go back and modify the 'Epigraph' style, and change 'Style for the following paragraph' to 'Attribution'. Now we can set the style to Epigraph and start typing. Your text should be italicised and correctly intended, and when you hit enter, you should get a right aligned paragraph. Hit enter once more and you'll go back to body text. Great! Now this is how we do it with Writer:

Paragraph Styles in OO Writer

Paragraph and character styles in Writer work in a very similar manner to those in Word. Open the Styles and Formatting box by hitting 'F11' or clicking the Styles icon. Click on ¶ to list Paragraph styles, then right click on 'Text body' and select 'new'.

The 'organizer' tab lets you name and link the style. Just like in the example above, we are going to create two styles called 'Epigraph' and 'Attribution'. Both will be linked to 'Text Body'. The 'Next Style' of Epigraph will be 'Attribute', and the 'Next Style' of 'Attribute' will be 'Text Body'.

Unlike Word, where each screen has options to change several aspects of the style, Writer segments the options to a much higher degree. When creating the 'Epigraph' style, set the font to Italic under the 'Font' tab. Set the left intent to 3cm using the 'Indents and Spacing' tab. And when creating the Attribution style, change the text to 'right aligned' under the 'Alignment' tab.

To apply the new styles you will need to either put your cursor in the paragraph and double click on 'epigraph' in the Styles box. Or highlight Epigraph in the styles box, click on the paint bucket, then click on the paragraph you want to format. As in Word, the style should automatically change to 'Attribution' after you press enter, and then back to 'Text body'. Once you have used the new style in your document, it will then show up in the drop down list of styles.

Character Styles

Once you understand Paragraph styles, little else needs to be said about character styles. But it is worth pointing out exactly that fact. In both Word and Writer, you create character styles in the same manner as you create Paragraph styles. In Word you need to select the style type as 'Character'. In Writer you just create a new style from the 'Character Styles' tab. Once created, they can be applied as normal, but will only affect the characters you highlight, rather than the entire paragraph.Character Styles, like Paragraph styles, can be chained together, 'inheriting' characteristics from their parents.

I have personally found little use for Character styles in Word/Writer documents. However, in circumstances where you are marking up parts of paragaphs with different styles or colours, and expect to change your mind about what style you wish to use, use a character style. As ever, changing a single style is much less time-consuming that changing the font of a dozen scattered sentences.

Mixing Landscape and Portrait pages

In Word, you can change the layout of a page by selecting 'File --> Page Setup' and changing the margins, settings and orientation. Below that you have the option to specify which parts of document you wish to apply the style to. Word users who are used to mixing portrait and landscape pages in the same document would probably do so by creating section breaks, and then changing the page layout for that section only.

Writer also lets you create sections, but their use differs subtly from Word. In Writer, sections are used to organise content, change the number of columns on a page, and allow you to quickly create new documents and Master Documents by stitching together parts of smaller documents. But they are not used for page layout. So if you try to create a new section, then change the page orientation to landscape (or portrait), the entire document will change orientation. This is because in Writer, changing page layout is done, logically enough, using 'page styles'.

To change an entire document from Landscape to A4, or vice versa, you can right click somewhere in the document, select 'page' from the right-click menu, then click on the 'page' tab (if it is not automatically displayed), and change the orientation. Mixing A4 and Landscape pages in the same document requires a little more work to set up initially, but will feel more sensible and intuitive once we are set up.

Open up the 'Styles and Formatting' box, then click on the 'Page Styles' button. Right click on 'Default' and select 'New'. Give the style a name like 'Default Landscape', then change the 'Next Style' to 'Default Landscape', too. Click on the 'Page' tab and set the orientation to Landscape. Then click 'Okay'.

Now repeat these steps to create another Landscape style, except that this time we'll call it something like “Landscape Single”, and set the 'Next Page' style to 'Default'.

With these page styles you can easily mix portrait and landscape pages in OO Writer by clicking 'Insert --> Manual Break --> Page Break' and setting the 'Page Style' to 'Single Landscape', to make only the next page Landscape. Or 'Landscape Default', to make all the following pages Landscape. Then you can just insert a new manual page break, with the style set to 'default', or 'single portrait' to add in portrait pages again.

Saving your styles - Create a template

Once you've created some custom styles, you'll probably want to reuse them without having to create them each time you start a new document. The best way to do this is to create a template. Word has a global template that you can modify, 'normal.dot', but I would suggest leaving this well alone. It is better to create a new template and, if you so desire, set it as the default for new documents.

Templates are used for a whole lot more than just saving your styles, as a quick browse through Word's style gallery would show. But for now, let's just look at creating a new style for our up and coming Thesis. (Word comes with a 'Thesis' template - but creating our own, step by step, is a good example. And besides, you won't be able to use any template effectively unless you understand how it works).

Changing the Default Template in Word

Because templates can contain more than just styles, first step is to take all the text out of the document. Clicking on the '¶' button can help make sure you clear out all the document text. Now we have a blank document with our custom styles, click File--->Save As and then select 'Document Template' from the 'file type' list. Word will automatically change your 'save' location to a templates folder. Leave it there, just give the document a name like “Thesis” and save it.

Now this template will appear in several places, such as the 'New Documents' task pane in Word 2003, the 'create new document' wizard, the style gallery, and so forth. But what if we like some styles so much we want to make that the default for all our documents? In Word, we have to do this by adding the style to the global template, 'normal.dot'.

Click on Tools--->Templates and Add-ins--->Organizer.

You will now see a list of styles in your document compared against a list of styles in the document's current template (which will probably be 'normal.dot'). In the 'Document' list, find the styles you want to copy over, highlight them, and press 'Copy-->' to add them to normal.dot. If you want to change a built-in style like 'Heading 1', you will need to copy that too, and agree when it asks if you want to overwrite the existing style.

Create a default Template in Writer

In Writer you can make changes to the default font and font sizes under Tools-->Options--> Writer--->Default Fonts. To change the default styles beyond just font and size, or to include your own custom styles like the one we created earlier, we need to create a new default template.

As a first step, create a new, blank, document then click File--->Templates--->Save and give it a name like 'MyStyles'. Now close it. Go back to the document we created our new styles in and click 'File-->Templates-->Organise'. You will see the list of template folders on the left, and the list of open documents on the right. Double click on 'My Templates', then double click on 'MyStyles', then double click on the 'Styles' icon. This should be empty, except for 'default'. Now perform the same set of double clicks on your open file on the right hand side. You should see a list of all the styles you have modified.

While holding down the 'Ctrl' button, drag and the styles you have created or modified to the list of template styles. You can move the styles by dragging them without using the 'Ctrl' button. If you try to copy a built in style like 'Heading 3', it will ask if you're sure. Say yes, 'okay', and the deed will be done, even if you then cannot see the style listed under the Template. To set 'MyStyles' as the new default template simply right click on it in the Organiser and say 'Set as default template'.

Now to satisfy yourself that this worked, just hit the 'New Doc' button and see if your styles are there. If you can't see them listed, change the drop down box underneath 'styles' to show 'All Styles' or 'Custom Styles'.

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Comments about this article
OO Save my B*TT last week!
writen by: Julot on 2006-12-09 14:07:53
I do not know if microsoft office is cool, or is right, But last week, Office save my final document of the final course of my MBA studies crippled. So I can see the *.doc but not able to open it!. I was shocked! But I remember (Thank god), I had Installed OO 2.x. So I can open the document and save it again like work awful *.doc, and send it to my tutor. So, I agree, some things cannot be afforded even if you have the money, so, do yourself a favor and Install OO today, Is your buddy if you think your *.doc are valuables!. Sincerely. Jools.
RE: OO Save my B*TT last week! written by Julot:
A minor detail
writen by: Diego A. Acosta on 2006-12-09 19:28:09
Once you master OOo Writer I believe that you can safely forget about MS Word. There are some minor things to consider though. The bibliography as is in OOo Writer is a pain in the a$$ and learning how to use it is just too much. I use an alternative called bibus (google it) You have to tweak it a little to get it working but once you do, you can forget about more popular and expensive citations programs. In between sections the translation to a pdf file inserts blank pages but this can be solved (google it... I forgot where I found it)
RE: A minor detail written by Diego A. Acosta:
PDF making
writen by: David Sterry on 2006-12-10 00:07:23
Nice job highlighting the styles. One of the main features I try to pimp is the pdf making ability of Open Office. It's quite handy and saves most people a couple hundred bucks they would have otherwise spent on Acrobat. I also like to think about the cost of not switching now as each person is forced to pay every 5 or so years for a copy of Office adds up to $1,000s over a lifetime. I make another point or two here: http://www.davidsterry.com/2006/11/get-office-for-free-legally-too.html
RE: PDF making written by David Sterry:
Thank you
writen by: Gids on 2007-01-11 05:49:25
I just wanted to say thank you. My journey (details below!) towards living without MonSter is nearing it's end. Firefox was 1st - how did I ever work with IE? Google spreadsheet rather than Excel - it's good to share. The only thing stopping me using Writer was I couldn't change the default font - up til now. Onward towards Ubuntu...
RE: Thank you written by Gids:
Page style, yes, logical, but I needed t
writen by: Tibor on 2007-01-21 13:09:21
I've been using OpenOffice for quite some time now but I needed that short help with page styles. Earlier I had some web search to find a replacement for WordArt (Fontwork in OO) and I still have to work out if shadow editing (not just making it appear but setting its direction and distance too) with normal texts is possible. It's not easy to make the full transition from MS to OO if you are used to in-depth features, but it's worth it, especially when you get fed up with using illegal copies of Microsoft office (not being able to afford a commercial version) and after you have experienced that Word cannot recognise its own file that it saved just five minutes ago and you want to have the reassuring feeling: even if the word processor goes crazy, I can get back at least the text from the file as it is saved in text based xml format.
RE: Page style, yes, logical, but I needed t written by Tibor:
writen by: Anonymous on 2007-02-07 01:50:55
RE: written by Anonymous:
writen by: LuneKeltkar on 2007-07-07 15:19:25
For Mr. Gerber, This article is so helpful, so well written, and so *right.* I got here through a search for one specific process (using multiple page orientations in one document) and now I'm staying to study the entire article. Thanks for making this resource available. Lune
RE: Commendations written by LuneKeltkar:
writen by: biplab on 2007-08-01 06:13:18
RE: word written by biplab:
writen by: R on 2007-08-01 15:22:39
RE: R written by R:
writen by: Pradeep. L. N on 2007-09-27 23:41:14
The article is quiet good; it gives useful information, but the article has lot of difficult words. Use simple words so as not to make the learning more difficult.
RE: Comment written by Pradeep. L. N:
Open Standards
writen by: MarcosLuna on 2012-04-19 15:43:40
I use Writer almost daily, and I think the only reason I still need to edit .doc/x files is because all my customers use them. I dont know why people keep doing the same way letters and reports on new/expensive version of word, as the author says, the great majority of them don't use all the real functionality of the current word version. They could be fine on Writer, but I think its also a mental problem. Good article.
RE: Open Standards written by MarcosLuna:

Comment title: * please do not put your response text here