January 5, 2005

Book review: <EM>OpenOffice.org Writer</EM>

Author: Daniel Carrera

O'Reilly's OpenOffice.org Writer, by Australian technical writer and active OpenOffice.org community contributer Jean H. Weber, is an enhanced and updated version of her earlier book, Taming OpenOffice.org Writer,
which was the first book ever published about OOo. This book skips basic OpenOffice.org functionality and focuses on one OOo component: Writer. It includes a copy of OpenOffice.org, and has many useful tips for technical writers and advanced OOo users.

OpenOffice.org Writer is set apart from other OOo books by its focused approach. This book has a clear target audience:

  • People familiar with OOo who want to go beyond the basics
  • Technical writers migrating to OOo

If you are convinced that all office suites are the same and you know how to use them, this book will surprise you with what OOo can do. However, if you are trying to introduce your grandmother to the world of computers, this is not the book for her.

A "task family" approach

Most of OpenOffice.org Writer is task-oriented, rather than a "cookbook." Each chapter focuses on a particular family of problems.

For example, chapter 3 deals with page layout. It covers tables, columns, page styles, frames, and sections. But these features are described exclusively for achieving interesting layout results. Hence, the same features might appear in other chapters, and be used for other purposes. For example, sections are visited again in chapter 7, but there they are used to insert parts of one document into another.

The author doesn't just show you how a feature works, she explains why you should care about it, where it is useful, and how to get the most out of it. The value in this approach lies in the ability to solve problems that the author did not specifically address. For instance, consider this example: You are writing a math textbook, and you want to be able to change an equation in one place and have it updated in the entire book. With a feature reference, you'd likely waste your time looking up math features. With a cookbook, you depend on the author thinking of that particular problem. From a task family perspective, you'd ask yourself "what kind of problem is this?" This takes you to the Complex Documents chapter. There you find a solution: put the equations in a separate file and link to them using sections.

To give you a better feel for the book, I thought I'd highlight several interesting chapters.

Chapter 2, Writing, Editing and Reviewing Documents, covers editing features that most people are not very familiar with, like adding notes and tracking changes. The chapter discusses in detail advanced use of the find and replace feature (like wildcards and searching for styles). The author then suggests a clever use of a multiple-pass find and replace to perform complex replacements. The last section of the chapter is in the form of a "tips and tricks" section. Here's one example from the book: you can move entire paragraph by placing the cursor on the paragraph and pressing Ctrl-Alt-arrow keys.

Chapter 3, Controlling Page Layout, covers layout-related tasks from the simple (like making right pages and left pages look different) to the complex (layout-intensive newsletters). The author starts with page styles, and includes practical examples. She then moves on to tables, sections, columns, and frames. More importantly, she shows you how to combine these features to produce interesting results. For example, you can have a newsletter with a page-wide header followed by three columns of content. You might want to have text jump from one box to another, or start an article on the front page and then continue it on page 5. If you are writing a textbook, you may want to have side heads (e.g. "study tips").

OpenOffice.org Writer is the best and most thorough explanation of styles available for OOo. Chapter 4, Using Templates and Styles Effectively, assumes that the reader is familiar with the fundamentals, and focuses on advanced topics like frame styles and numbering styles (page styles are covered in chapter 3). If you're new to styles, it's probably best to read the OOo User Guide before tackling this chapter.

A useful component of this chapter is the discussion of templates, which are the next logical step beyond styles. Weber shows the reader how to organize templates, and how to transfer styles from one template to another. She also describes how to have the styles in your document always match the latest version of your template.

Chapter 7, Working with Large or Complex Documents, covers the main strategy for large and complex documents, which is to use multiple files. The chapter starts with details about inserting and linking to other files, but most of the chapter is dedicated to master documents. If you're familiar with Microsoft Office, you have probably learned to stay as far away from master documents as possible, but in OOo, master documents actually work as intended. This isn't to say that they are easy to use, however. Fortunately, Weber takes readers by the hand, step by step, through the treacherous ground of master documents, and provides warnings to help them avoid the common pitfalls.

Should you buy this book?

If you've already read the author's earlier book, you'll find this volume to be almost the same, but this edition has been updated for accuracy and clarity. The most obvious difference between the two books is visual design. Taming OpenOffice.org Writer was meant for online distribution, whereas OpenOffice.org Writer is meant for professional print. For example, in Taming OpenOffice.org Writer, all of the screenshots are black and white, while in OpenOffice.org Writer, they are grayscale, and therefore much nicer. That, along with O'Reilly's style for fonts and presentation, makes the new book easier to read.

OpenOffice.org Writer is worthwhile for anyone already familiar with OpenOffice.org and who wants to graduate to a more advanced level, and people looking to use OOo Writer in a professional setting.

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