October 27, 2008

Four layout extensions for OpenOffice.org Writer

Author: Bruce Byfield

OpenOffice.org Writer is as much a desktop publishing program as a word processor. That fact, however, has yet to have much influence on the extensions created for Writer -- perhaps because most users prefer manual formatting to organizing themselves with page styles, templates, and other elements of document design. Still, extensions for layout are starting to appear, as demonstrated by four extensions that help you automate layout: Alba, which manages page orientation; Pagination and Pager, which manage page numbering; and Template Changer, which allows you to change the template, and therefore the entire layout of documents, on the fly. And all but one of these extensions use styles and templates, the way that OpenOffice.org is built to work, which means that they are highly stable.

Extension series

You can install each of these extensions in the usual way: Download the file, then select Tools -> Extension Manager -> My Extensions, and use the Add button to navigate to the file. The newly added extension will be listed under My Extensions as Enabled, but you will have to restart OpenOffice.org to use it.


To change page orientation between landscape and portrait in Writer on a single page is a matter of either selecting Format -> Page or setting up at least one page style for each orientation and switching between them as needed. Neither is especially efficient, which is where Alba comes in handy.

Alba works in what it calls sections. Somewhat confusingly, these are not the Sections or separate page areas that you can add in Writer, but the pages between page breaks that mark where page styles changed, which are marked by a blue line on the bottom border of a page.

Alba adds a Landscape/Portrait item to the Insert menu. When you select the item, you are presented with four choices: To change the orientation of the current section or the next page, to create a single page in the document that is oriented differently from the others, or to modify the current page style based on the formatting of the page you are on. Where necessary, the dialog changes to fit the circumstance, so that if you are on a Portrait Page, it offers to change the next page to Landscape, and vice versa.

Alba works with Writer's existing page style system to achieve its effects. For instance, if you are manually formatting, if you apply one of Alba's options, you will create a modified version of the Default style called L_Alba or Default R_Alba. If you are using another page style, such as First Page, then Alba creates a modified version of it with a similar name.

With this arrangement, you can not only quickly change page orientations by selecting the Alba-created styles in the Styles and Formatting palette, but Alba can store the original page style for each page. Should you ever want to revert to the original page style, you can click the "Restore Changes to Original" button in the Landscape/Portrait dialog, and see what the original page style was. The button is a little misleading, however, because you have to change the style yourself.

Pagination and Pager

In Writer, numbering pages is a feature of page styles. As a result, manual formatters are often bewildered about how to add page numbers, and dissatisfied when they learn that they have to drill down to Insert -> Fields -> Page Number, then format the number as well.

Pagination makes page numbering much easier. If you click Insert -> Page Number after installing it, you open a dialog in which you can choose whether to place the page number in a header or a footer, either of which the extension adds for you. In addition, you can choose the alignment of the number on the page, the type of number -- Arabic or Roman -- and whether left and right pages mirror each other, or if the first page has a number. In short, you can choose all the basic options for page numbering from the dialog, rather than setting them up yourself.

Unfortunately, Pagination assumes that you are not using any page style besides Default. If you apply another style, the number, header, and footer added by Pagination disappear.

Although still in beta, Pager is designed to correct this problem. Borrowing Pagination's code, it presents a dialog with most of the same options as Pagination, plus additional features accessible through the More button at the bottom of the page. The additional features include the ability to add a block of text. The assumption in Pager's design is that you will use this ability for a legend like "Page 3 of 4," but you can just as easily use the fields for other purposes, such as adding a legend that contains your name and the title of your current essay after the page number.

By default, Pager is set up to number all pages. However, another advanced option allows you to choose which styles will exclude numbers. You can also enter a range or comma-separated list of pages that are not numbered.

Best of all, unlike Pagination, Pager works to automate page numbering within Writer's styles.

Template Changer

Until I learned better, I used to suffer frequent document corruption in Microsoft Word when I tried to change or combine templates. Although that was more than a decade ago, the memory made me approach the Template Changer extension with considerable nervousness. Never mind the fact that, as markup language, OpenDocument Format is theoretically less prone to corruption than Word's old binary format -- changing templates still seemed rash.

My worries were groundless. Template Changer operates smoothly, and with a proper degree of caution when you use it to convert batches of files.

To use Template Changer, go to File -> Templates -> Assign Template. From there, you have the option of changing the template of the current document, or of choosing a directory of files to which you want to apply the same template. If you choose to change templates in a batch, you can choose which document format to work with and -- just to avoid any possibility of problems -- a destination folder in which to place the converted files, so in case of trouble, you still have the original files. And, naturally enough, since one option is to include files in subdirectories in your batch, when you use the option, you cannot make the destination folder a subdirectory of the source folder.

The first time you open a file created in a batch with Template Changer, you will receive a notice that the style definitions don't match the template. However, all you have to do is decline the offer to convert styles back to the original and continue opening the document without any further interruptions.

In 1.x versions, Writer used to boast a similar feature as part of the default application. Template Changer is a welcome resurrection of the feature.


Writer has room for other extensions that operate beyond the paragraph level. For instance, it would be nice to be able to create true table styles, rather than use the clumsy Autoformat feature, or make a text frame a permanent part of a page style.

Still, extensions like the ones mentioned here are a good start toward enhancing Writer's desktop publishing capabilities. If you are a manual formatter, these extensions may alert you to the importance of using styles and templates. If you already use such advanced features, they will confirm you in your habits. For all classes of users, they offer enhanced ease of use and a little less drudgery.

Every Monday we highlight a different extension, plugin, or add-on. Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us about one that you use and how it makes your work easier, along with tips for getting the most out of it. If we publish it, we'll pay you $100. (Send us a query first to be sure we haven't already published a story on your chosen topic recently or have one in hand.)


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