April 20, 2005

Making the leap: Microsoft Word to OpenOffice.org Writer

Author: Jem Matzan

Whether you're moving from Windows to GNU/Linux, or just from the proprietary Microsoft Office to the free software OpenOffice.org suite, one of the challenges you'll face is learning how to use OpenOffice.org Writer effectively if you're used to Microsoft Word. In this article I'll show you around OpenOffice.org Writer, where to find familiar Word tools, and how to customize the interface and preferences to make it a little more Word-friendly.

First, don't worry; you won't have much trouble adjusting to OpenOffice.org Writer. The interface isn't terribly different; the menu and toolbar layout are similar to Word's. If you prefer a custom display you'll be much happier with Writer, as it doesn't have a lot of the annoying Word features that people often disable. If the first thing you do when you install Word XP is disable personalized menus and eliminate the superfluous and space-hogging task pane, you'll find it easy and convenient to switch over to Writer.

If, on the other hand, you regularly use the task pane, you're going to have to make some adjustments to work efficiently in Writer. While the task pane does not offer any unique functionality, it does make it more convenient to reach certain tools and commands.

Standard functions and features

The OpenOffice.org Writer menu bar titles are nearly identical to Word's, with the one exception being Word's Table menu. The major functions of Word's Table menu are integrated into the Table dialogue in the Insert menu in Writer.

The button bars of the two products are also similar. One obvious difference is the Writer button bar field called Load URL, which lets you specify a file to open and shows the path and filename of the document you're working on. It's actually quite convenient if you have to load files remotely, but if you want your button bar to more closely resemble Microsoft Word, you'll have to move it over a little. Right-click on an empty space in the OpenOffice.org Writer button bar and then click on Customize from the popup dialogue. You can then modify the button bar by clicking and dragging icons; you can drag an icon out of the button bar to make it go away, or you can drag a new icon from the Customize Toolbars command selection window onto the button bar to add another function, or you can simply rearrange the currently placed buttons. In this case you'll probably want to click and drag the Load URL field over to the right side of the button bar. When you're done, press the OK button in the Customize Toolbars window.

The document view, which is the window in which you edit documents, is not centered on the screen by default in Writer. To change this, go to the View menu, then click on Zoom. In the dialogue that follows, click on Page Width and click OK -- your document is now zoomed in slightly and centered on the screen. You can experiment with different views and zoom levels until you find one that you prefer.

Word XP and 2000 have background spell-checking turned on by default. This function underlines misspelled words in red. OpenOffice.org Writer does not usually have this function turned on by default (default options may vary between versions and distributions). To turn it on, click on the ABC button -- the one with the squiggly red line underneath it -- on the button bar that runs vertically along the left side of the screen.

OpenOffice.org Writer does not have a grammar-checking module built in; that's one Word function that you'll have to live without for now.

Writer usually has the Autocomplete, Autocorrection, and Autoformat functions on by default. These functions complete words, correct various typos and replace special characters, and add indentation and other formatting while you type. If you don't like any or all of these tools, go to the Tools menu, click on Autocorrect/Autoformat, and set the options to your preference.

You may see a separate window already up in OpenOffice.org Writer, on the right side of the screen. This is the Stylist, and it allows you to quickly change formatting styles. If you don't know what those are or how to use them, you'll probably want to close the Stylist window for now to get it out of your way. If you need it later, you can make it reappear by pressing F11 or by clicking on Stylist in the Format menu.

You probably want OpenOffice.org Writer to open your Word documents by default. When you install OpenOffice.org, the installation utility asks you if you want OpenOffice.org Writer to be associated with Word documents -- choose yes for this option.

You can also force Writer to save all of its documents in Word format by default. There are advantages to saving in the OpenOffice.org file format, such as its basis in XML and its better interoperability with other open source word processors. However, if you're primarily going to be exchanging documents with Word users, you'll want to set the default file format to Microsoft's, as Word is unable to read the OpenOffice.org file format. To do so, click on the Tools menu, then on Options. This brings up a window with several categories of customizable choices. Click on the + sign next to the Load/Save category to expand its option tree. Click on the General subcategory. On the right side of the Options window you'll see a heading called Standard File Format. Click on the Always Save As field, then scroll up and select Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP, then click on the OK button.

The rest of the transition from Word to Writer is a matter of finding the same old options and tools in slightly different places in the menu.


Like Word, OpenOffice.org Writer is programmable through macros, but you can't bring over your old macros from Word to Writer -- they'll have to be reprogrammed.

The dictionary in Writer is slightly less competent than its Word counterpart; you'll have to customize it a little, but it doesn't take more than a few seconds to add an unrecognized word to the custom dictionary.

Writer does not have the extensive watermarking features that Word does. If you need a watermark, you can insert a graphic from the Insert menu, then slect Watermark from the drop-down box in the upper left. Alternatively you can create a partially transparent graphic with a graphics program like the GIMP, then insert it as either a background or as an anchored graphic. To set it as the background, right-click on the white space in your document and click on Page. Select the Background tab, then select As Graphic from the dropdown menu. Choose your preferred orientation and then click OK. If you'd like to simply insert a graphic file, do so from the Insert menu. When you've positioned the graphic where you want it, left-click on it to select it, then right-click on it and choose the Wrap submenu. Select both the In Background and Wrap Through options.

OpenOffice.org Writer has a thesaurus built in, but it's not as easy to get to as Word's is. In Word, you right-click on a word in the document and a popup dialogue comes up with an option to show you synonyms. In Writer, you have to select a word, then click on Thesaurus in the Tools menu. Optionally you can add a Thesaurus button to your button bar by using the procedure outlined above for customizing the button bar.


If you need a tool to look up words in the dictionary like the one found in Word 2003, you can add a lookup window to your desktop environment. If you're using GNOME, right-click on an empty space in either the top or the bottom panels, then click on Add to Panel. Select Dictionary Lookup from the proceeding dialogue, then click on the Add button. Position the new dictionary field to wherever you prefer it. If you're using KDE, the procedure is similar: right-click on on an empty space in the KDE panel at the bottom of the screen, then click on Add in the popup dialogue. Choose Applet, and select Dictionary. You now have a handy tool for looking up words using Princeton University's WordNet; ultimately you may find this far more convenient and useful than the dictionary feature built into Word.

Need to translate a word or phrase from one language to another? Word XP and 2003 have a very basic translation tool built in, but you can get to the excellent AltaVista Babel Fish translation tool on the Web just as easily, and it has support for many more languages.

Word and Writer have so many features that it's impossible to cover each one in an article. As with any transition from one application to another, you have to spend time finding where each new function is and how to make things look and feel as they did in the old program, but we hope this article gives you a better starting point for switching from Microsoft Word to OpenOffice.org Writer.

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