Writer Styles

Is it just me, or do the default Writer styles suck?

Given that most people don’t even use all six heading sizes in HTML, what made them think that it was vital to have ten styles, adjacent pairs of which are only distinguished by the presence of or lack of italics? Quick: is the italicised one more or less important? Heading 1 is not at all suitable for the top of a document, where I, at least, would expect something centred and perhaps underlined. And the spacing OOo leaves between the smaller headings and the previous paragraph is far too large, giving documents a “gappy” appearance.

In the default list, what’s the difference between “Default” and “Text Body” anyway? And where are the styles for common things like like “Quotation”, “List”, “Emphasis” and so on?

There’s a “Styles and Formatting” window which you can invoke when you want anything more than the default simple five which are in the toolbar dropdown (thereby making you pay a window management penalty). There are about five different ways of configuring the exact list of styles it displays, but it does not have a “New” button. The closest you have is “New Style From Selection”, which is one option on a combination pseudo button/menu in one corner with a totally unintuitive “Paragraph” icon on it. (After five minutes of searching, it turns out that you can create a new style from the context menu.)

Lastly, whenever I try and read a Word document, it always sets the margins too far in so some of the content is squeezed onto the next page. Do Word files not contain margin information? Grr.

There’s a big opportunity for the free software world to make a word processor which is actually usable – because it’s one area Word has failed miserably in recent years, hence their multi-million dollar new UI. The retraining this UI requires is an opportunity to persuade people to switch; but it’s going to be a hard sell if the alternative is even more complex than the original.

14 thoughts on “ Writer Styles

  1. My least favourite feature is that you can’t open a word document without it bugging you to save it when you close it, even when you never made any edits!

    Also, every time you try to save a file in word format it bugs you that your ‘losing some formatting’… why don’t they just give it up and make .doc the default format?? (Okay maybe thats taking it a bit too far)

  2. True: the OOo styles are not suitable for HTML =/.

    The logic behind them is: Heading 1 means a chapter.

    You can use the automatic numbering (chapter, sub-chapter…) on the file and in a index or summary (automatically updated, with page numbers and anchor links).

    The Heading 1 also converts to a new slide page when exporting the content to a presentation (you can have a document full of text and to create a presentation with the outline structure (only the things with Heading styles).

    The UI sucks a lot…

  3. What annoys me is that you can view all the default styles in the Hierarchical view, but every time you visit the Print Preview, the view of the styles resets to limited subset it shows you by default. What a pain.

    And you’re right, the adjacent Headings really are ambiguous in terms of visual importance. To your issue of Heading 1, you’ll probably want to use the Title style instead as the document title; Title is centered but you may need to underline it yourself. has a number of UI issues, not the least of which are the style-related issues you’ve brought up.

  4. I am a long-time MS Word user, more or less since Word 5 for the PC. I have tried switching to OpenOffice a number of times but I’ve never managed. It just feels too different.

    Interestingly enough, I am on the other hand really excited about Word 2007 and its new UI. I couldn’t tell why that is, and I would much rather use the open source alternative, but for some of the reasons you mentioned and a bunch more I just can’t. And I would think I’m not the only one, so don’t hope too much on people being scared off by Office 2007’s new interface design…

  5. Does AbiWord have the same or better Microsoft Word compatibility? Does it support OpenDocument as well as

  6. I must admit that my knowledge is out of date by an milestone (2.0), but…

    “Does AbiWord have the same or better Microsoft Word compatibility?”

    It was a bit better, at least prior to OOo 2. However, OpenOffice seems to have been progressing faster, so I’m not sure.

    “Does it support OpenDocument as well as”

    Not from what I’ve heard. Which I guess is understandable, because OpenDocument was based on the OpenOffice format.

    “There’s a big opportunity for the free software world”

    Is that “there is” or “there was”? People are already moving to the new MS Word – we’ve already had several Office Open XML documents emailed to us where I work. Unless someone started working on this stuff a year or two ago and hasn’t told anyone, it’s a bit late. (Not that it wouldn’t still be good to do it, but an overhauled UI in OpenOffice is about as likely to appear in the next couple of months as an Outlook-beating Lightning 2.0)

  7. I am not in a position to say how AbiWord MSWord import compares to OO as I do not use the latter, but it is pretty decent (I cannot remember the last time I came across a word document I could not use); as far as the RTF import/export is concerned, that is second to none. There is support for the OO OpenDocument format, both import and export. AbiWord is far more usable than OO Writer, it starts in no time, and it does not consume half of your system resources when running.

    As for the MSWord xml formats, those are not supported (currently, and probably in any foreseeable future), but there is nothing wrong with asking people not to send you documents using them (note that these are not supported even by MS Word on the Mac, and the lead MS developer working on the Mac Word is on record stating that the complexity of the specification is such that it will take them 8.5 man/years to do).

    As for the ‘why don’t they just give it up and make .doc the default format??’ in one of the earlier comments; there is quite a simple answer to that. The MS doc format is binary dump of the MS Word internal data structures; the principal problem with it is that it was not designed, it just evolved as for the past umpteen years various people have been slapping plaster over the cracks and gluing their new features onto what their predecessors bequested them. As a format it is not particularly good for representing documents, it is a nightmare to convert from and to other document formats, it is undocumented at key parts (which is the primary reason why other applications are not ‘as good’ at handling it as Word is), and it really only makes any kind of sense using if your application internals match those of MS Word — no sane developer would want to go down that road. I hope that explains it ;)

  8. Just ran across this article from August 2005 on FOSS word processors. Old, but interesting all the same. YMMV.

  9. I consider the default styles irrelevant, because I have my own ideas about what I want my document to look like. (For the same reason, I’ve never cared for document-creation wizards or templates.)

    The problem I have with styles in OO.o Writer is that the UI is terrible beyond measure, both for creating them and also for using them. I’ve tried three times to make myself use styles in OO.o, because conceptually I would like to do things that way, but each time I have gotten fed up with the UI within fifteen minutes and given up on it. I end up doing copy-and-paste of existing text that’s formatted the way I want and then changing the text. It’s terrible that that’s easier to do than use the styles interface, but it is.

    The worst thing is that the Styles and Formatting window is just about pessimal. Not only is it a separate window, rather than being properly integrated into the UI, but it’s also too large, not resizeable, and shaped wrong. You’d want to place it above or below your document window in most instances (or, better, dock it on the toolbar), so that you can have the maximum available horizontal space, so that you can keep your document zoomed to a good level and still see the whole page width, but the S&F window is WAY too tall for that — more than a third of the screen, on my system (and I’ve got an 18″ viewable monitor, which is the *largest* size any ordinary user is likely to have; many have rather smaller screens). Plus the S&F window is wider than it needs to be, so even if you had any thoughts of sacrificing horizontal space for it, you’d have to give up so much that it would cut your total available zoom level by at least 20%, and that’s just totally unreasonable.

    So you end up with a floating window in front of part of your document, which you constantly have to move around to get it out of your way every three seconds until you scream in frustration and close it. After about the second time (depending on your level of patience) you leave it closed, permanently.

    On top of that, creating or modifying a style cannot, as near as I can tell, be done by styling some text and then grabbing the style info from it. You have to right-click in the S&F window and bring up an additional dialog to do that. Then when you have, it’s not obvious how to save the results independently of the document you’re currently working on, so if you want to change the defaults for all your subsequent documents, there is as near as I can tell no discoverable way to do this.

    There’s also no discoverable way to keep all of your styles that you’ve created for this document in a single easy list so you can grab them quickly. No, you have to flip around between paragraph styles, list styles, character styles… you only get to look at one category at a time. That’s a textbook case of designing the UI around technical issues, rather than around the way any user’s actually going to want to use the thing. Yes, I understand the distinctions between all those kinds of styles, but when I’m working with my document, I just want to be able to quickly and easily apply the style I want, with minimal fuss.

    Oh, and no keyboard shortcuts, near as I can tell. That right there by itself would just about be a deal-breaker for me.

    Given all those problems, I think the question of what the default styles look like is small potatoes. They could look better than anything I could come up with myself, and I still wouldn’t use them.

  10. Does anyone else find this really annoying:

    I’m a OOo newbie.

    So anyways, when I’m editing a file on writer, let’s say, at the very bottom of the document, and then I click on any part of it that isn’t a frame, pic, table, etc… in other words the empty spaces of the file, I get sent back to the top of the document. It’s driving me NUTS!!!! Anyone know how to fix this?

  11. Default Heading Templates are just a big joke. Size is not appropriate and italic heading is soo ugly. I have spend 2 hours on configuring the headings trying to make them look more LaTeX-like. But the worst thing is the numbering for headings – it’s just broken, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    I really hoped OO-Writer is a good alternative to Word, but sucks just like Word. I was considering writing with OO rather than LaTeX because of the more intuitive usage, but usage must be much better. And layout quality must be very much better to nearly come close to the quality of LaTeX.

  12. PS: sometimes I think OO is not polished enough, because Sun wants to sell StarOffice instead.