OpenOffice.org Off-the-Wall: Style Is Everything, Right?
Styles are the chief feature that make office suites more than electronic typewriters. In OpenOffice.org, however, they are even more important than usual. Most word processors offer character and paragraph styles, but OpenOffice.org also includes frame, page and numbering styles. Even more importantly, OpenOffice.org extends the concept of styles to other applications. Impress, for example, has a system of styles, whereas PowerPoint, its MS Office equivalent, has none. The same is true of OOo's Calc and MS Excel. Once you understand why you should use styles and when, you'll find OpenOffice.org's tools for managing and applying styles second to none. You'll also start to unleash the full power of OpenOffice.org.
Styles are the preferred way to format documents in an office suite. The alternative is manual overrides. To use manual overrides whenever you want to change the default formatting, you select part of the document--for example, a page or a group of characters--and then apply the formatting using the toolbars or menu. Each time you want to format something, you do it individually. This style of formatting is popular mainly because it requires no special knowledge. In effect, it involves using a word processor as though it were a typewriter.
The trouble is, as Robin Williams points out in the title of her best-known book, The PC Is Not a Typewriter. As Williams' title hints, you can do far more with a word processor such as Writer than you can with a typewriter. If you use manual formatting, you either cannot use many functions a word processor's offers or you can use them only partially. Therefore, for all their popularity, manual overrides are the least efficient way to work.
The chief feature that typewriters and manual formating lack is styles. Styles are a list of format settings. Their advantage is you set them up in one place and then tag the parts of your document that you want to use them in. If you want to change the format of all the tagged areas, you don't have to visit each area individually the way you do when using overrides. Instead, you change the style settings. Instantly, all the areas tagged with that style also are changed--at a speed with which manual formatting simply can't compete. If you are a developer, you can think of designing a style as the equivalent of declaring a sub-routine; tagging part of the document to use it is calling the sub-routine.
Several times, die-hards who refuse to use styles have posted to the OpenOffice.org user list. They have a right to work any way they want, they insist. OpenOffice.org should be redesigned so that users of manual overrides have the same access to features as those who use styles. At first, this request sounds reasonable. Yet, on closer look, it makes no more sense than insisting that all roads should be engineered so that pedestrians can go as fast as drivers. Although OpenOffice.org accommodates manual overriders in some ways, including several shortcuts found in Tools -< AutoCorrect/Autoformat, the advantages of styles require a regularity of input that manual formatting never could provide.
Basically, using styles offers four main advantages:
At the cost of extra preliminary work, you save time in the long run. Spend a couple of hours setting up styles, save the results in a template and you don't have to think about design for months at a time.
When you want to reformat, you have to change only the styles to reformat the entire document. Because styles are hierarchical, often you don't even need to change every style, only the ones at the top of the hierarchy.
Some tools in OpenOffice.org are either crippled or don't work at all without styles. In the Navigator, styles are right at the top of the window, acting as the basic milestones for moving about in the document. Want a field to pick up a chapter number or to have different styles of headers and footers? For both these tasks, you need to use styles. You want to build a table of contents or change page designs? You can do both without using styles, but this two-minute task will take you twenty minutes.
You use styles anyway. Indexes and tables and object frames all use paragraph styles automatically. By default, anything resembling a URL is formatted with the Internet Link character style. Add a footer, and you're using the Footer paragraph style. Unless you're deeply into masochism or are content to use an office suite at only the most superficial level, sooner or later you need to use styles. And because you can't escape them, you may as well learn how to use them instead of jumping through hoops to avoid them.
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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