June 6, 2007

Desktop publishing with OpenOffice.org

Author: Bruce Byfield

"Do you offer a program like Microsoft Publisher?" Some version of this question appears regularly on the OpenOffice.org mailing lists. Many people automatic answer "no," and say that Scribus is more suitable for desktop publishing. But, in fact, OpenOffice.org boasts two mid-level layout programs -- Draw and Writer -- each of which is far more versatile than its name suggests.

Draw and Writer have similar tools for positioning text, but Draw is better suited for text mixed with graphics or for highly variable pages, while Writer is designed for text-heavy documents with minimal variation in the pages. Both lack some of the fine controls of a high-end layout program, but their features are complete enough that either can be used to produce professional-looking work.

DTP with Draw

Draw is primarily a vector graphics drawing program. However, because it shares much of its back end with Impress, OpenOffice.org's slide program, Draw is easy to use for layout. Because an Impress document usually consists of multiple slides, unlike many drawing programs, Draw makes working with multi-page documents easy (even if it does confuse things by calling pages "slides"). The default view contains a Page pane that you can use for jumping between pages, and, by selecting View -> Master, you can create a master page that includes design elements common to all the pages. Alternatively, you can right-click anywhere on a page and select Page -> Slide Design to load page templates into the document and select them.

On individual Draw pages, you can add frames for graphics and text using the Insert menu, and drag them around as needed. For precision placement, you will probably want to close the Page pane temporarily so that you can see the markings on the rulers. You may also want to select View -> Grid -> Display Grid, and define the size of the grid if necessary from Tools -> Options -> OpenOffice.org Draw -> Grid. For ease of positioning, you can select View -> Grid -> Snap to Grid to have frames positioned automatically, although this feature can be annoying if you define too coarse a grid.

All objects in frames can be edited by right-clicking on them and selecting items from the menu. If you are repeatedly using the same elements in your design, you may also choose to define a style via Format -> Styles and Formatting. To take advantage of styles, the elements don't have to be identical -- just similar. You could, for instance, design a text frame style for border and background color, then manually adjust the dimensions of individual frames as needed.

Like the rest of OpenOffice.org, Draw makes a distinction between regular text and graphical text. Regular text is entered in a text frame, and, within that frame, is editable much as it would be in a word processor. By contrast, in graphics text, the frame and the text become a single object, making it easier to manipulate as a whole.

Most of the time when you use Draw for layout, you will be working with regular text. From the right-click or the Format menu you can select Character to alter individual letters or spaces, or Paragraph to alter an entire block of text between two returns. For fine-tuning, you can use the Character -> Position tab to change the spacing between letters, either by a percentage of the default for the current font, or expand or condense the default by a set number of points; both are ideal for tidying up a fully justified line, especially if you use it on the spaces between words. Similarly, you can use Paragraph -> Indent & Spacing -> Line Spacing to adjust the distance between lines of text, either proportionately or by a fixed number of points.

When you are not positioning large blocks of text, or want a special effect, you can use the Fontwork Gallery on the Drawing toolbar at the bottom of the editing window. From the Fontwork Gallery, you can select a basic style, then click on it to replace the sample text with your own. Clicking on a piece of graphical text also opens a floating palette that you can use to adjust the baseline so that, for instance, the text arches over a point. You can also change the letter height, alignment, or character spacing of the text. For convenience, you can also select Convert from the right-click menu of a text frame to convert ordinary text to graphical text as a polygon or 3-D object.

Draw does have some limitations as a layout program. For example, although it supports multiple layouts, you have to know to right-click on the page to find the selection. Draw lacks any automatic settings for the flow of text around objects, requiring you to position frames manually instead. Draw also lacks table support, although you can stack individual text frames then group them into a single object instead. Nor does Draw allow you to connect frames so that text flows automatically from one to another. And, if you use full justification, you may find that you need to do serious tweaking to make the spacing in a short final line look acceptable. Still, Draw is precise enough that you can use it for single page or brochure designs, so long as you are willing to do some of the work manually. And when you are finished, you can easily export your work to PDF to send to your local print shop.

DTP with Writer

Most people think of Writer as a word processor -- OpenOffice.org's equivalent of Microsoft Word. However, back when its code was proprietary and belonged to a German company called StarDivision, the program was written so that it could be used by its own documenters. As a result, Writer is not only more stable for long, large documents, but also has more tools that are suitable for large projects.

That's not to say that you can't use Writer for small pieces of layout. In fact, Writer not only has the same features as Draw, but frequently offers even more precision and ease of use in them. For instance, page styles are centralized in Writer with other styles in Format -> Styles and Formatting, and contain far more options than those in Draw, including detailed settings for footers and headers and multiple column designs. Similarly, frame styles offer six different styles of automatic text flow around objects and allow adjustments of the spacing between the text as well. Even more importantly, when adding a text frame, you can set the flow of text from one frame to the next on the options tag and automatically add a custom caption by selecting the type of object in Tools -> Options -> OpenOffice.org -> Autocaption. If a text frame doesn't require special positioning on a page, you can replace it with a section, a specially designated part of the main text frame that takes its own formatting.

As for tables, Writer inserts them effortlessly, with a range of options for borders and text positioning. Table styles as such do not exist in Writer, but you can define Autoformats instead, which are almost as useful, although somewhat less flexible when the number of rows or columns is changed.

Another useful feature of Writer is its list styles, which offer not only precision design and positioning, but, because they are independent styles, can be defined once and assigned to a variety of paragraph styles.

However, where Writer really comes into its own is with long documents consisting mostly of text. From Tools -> Footnotes, you can fine-tune the spacing and numbering of footnotes and endnotes. Insert -> Indexes and Tables offers the same degree of control for tables of contents, indexes, and bibliographies, as well as detailed options for tagging material in the text to populate them. Moreover, since each of these elements generates its own character and paragraph styles as needed, you can press F11 to open the Styles and Formatting floating window and customize the design even further.

For book-length manuscripts, Writer offers the option of using a master document composed of a series of separate files. By working on the separate files rather than the entire manuscript you can usually improve OpenOffice.org's performance when it opens and saves files or updates fields. Best of all, unlike Microsoft Word's notorious feature of the same name, Writer's master documents are stable and don't corrupt files. The only catch with Writer's master documents is that you have to be careful that they use the same template as the subdocuments -- otherwise, your life will be made painful by spontaneous reformatting as you open the master document for printing.

In many ways, Writer is not as much a word processor like Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect, but a document processor like FrameMaker. You can write memos or five-page documents in it, but you can only really appreciate its performance when you're using it to write a manual, book, or thesis. Like Draw, Writer has its limitations -- notably an inability to make text frames part of page styles and a clumsy system for cross-references -- but, when your printed manuscript is heavy, you'll be glad that Writer takes much of the weight off your mind.


Despite some limitations and omissions, both Draw and Writer are more than adequate for many desktop publishing tasks. Several publishing houses, including No Starch Press, have experimented with using Writer as their basic layout program -- a move that saves time, since writers can work in a standard template that designers do not have to reformat before sending books to the printer.

So why are the desktop publishing capabilities of OpenOffice.org not better known? I believe that it is mostly a matter of people seeing what they expect to see. When hearing of a program called Writer, most people naturally assume that it is just another word processor. In the same way, Draw is automatically assumed to be another graphics program. It takes time and experience to know just how far Writer and Draw can stretch, and apparently the six years or so in which OpenOffice.org has been available isn't enough for more than a handful of users to know their full potential.

But, once you do understand what these OpenOffice.org apps can do, you'll learn to appreciate them. Even the workarounds necessary to cover some of the gaps in functionality are easy enough and obvious enough not to cause major problems. Moreover, much of what you learn in one OpenOffice.org app can be transferred directly to another. Combining a reasonably complete tool set with a stable and mature application, Draw and Writer may be all the desktop publishing programs that you need.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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