Off the Wall: Shooting the Sun

Positioning options for paragraph styles in OOo.

In school, you probably were taught that a paragraph is the development of a complete thought. That is a contents-based definition. In or any other word processor, a paragraph also has a format definition: the contents of the document from the mouse cursor's position when you begin to type to the place where you either press the Enter key or end the document. Even if you type only a title, when you press the Enter key, you have ended one paragraph and started another.

This definition may seem obvious to experienced computer users. It is worth mentioning, however, because it stresses the importance of paragraphs in document design. Because paragraphs are so common in word processor documents, and because they are so well-defined, paragraphs probably are the most important elements in document design. In other word processors, they even can compensate partly for the inability to design pages.

Paragraphs in Writer don't have to work so hard, because page styles do part of the work of formatting. Yet, if anything, Writer has even more settings for paragraph styles than do most other word processors. In fact, some posters to the user's list actually have complained about the number of choices available. Fortunately, most of these choices have reasonable defaults and can be ignored until needed.

Options for paragraph styles in Writer can be divided into three main categories: fonts, positioning and advanced tricks. Font selection already has been discussed in this column (see Fonts of Wisdom). Advanced tricks will be the subject of the next column. In this column, I discuss positioning: how the paragraph sites on a line, how lines in a paragraph are spaced and how the paragraph is positioned when a page break occurs.

Understanding Body and Heading Styles

How you position a paragraph usually depends on whether it is a body or a heading style. These two categories usually are designed in contrast to each other. For this reason, they usually have different formatting needs.

Body styles are the ones used for most of the text. Although you can use the Default style as the main body style, the Text Body style is a better choice, because you never know when having an unmodified default will be handy. You also may want to adjust the style hierarchy using the Linked with field on the Organizer tab for each style, so that table contents and list styles are subordinate to Text Body.

The main concern with body styles is readability. Although readability depends partly on font choice, it is determined even more by positioning. Careful positioning often can improve a poorly selected font or destroy the readability of a suitable font.

By contrast, heading styles are used for the titles of topics throughout the document. Often, they are in a different font from the body styles, as well as being larger or colored differently. Writer has ten levels of headings pre-defined, although in practice more than two or three is overkill. Because word processors have means of formatting other than indentation, each heading does not need to be indented further than the previous heading level. Numbered headings still are useful at times, though, especially in technical documents.

Heading styles are used by many other tools in Writer, including the Navigator, cross-references, tables of contents, outline numbering and document fields. But these are topics for other days. For now, what is worth noting is if you are using fields to set up headers or footers, you may find it easier to using Heading 1 instead of Title and Heading 2 instead of Sub-title.

The purpose of headings is to allow readers to find different sections of the document quickly. This goal explains why headings often are formatted more heavily than are body styles. Positioning options can help achieve this goal by assuring that headings are closer to the section to which they apply and planning page breaks around them.

Writer also includes many styles that are used automatically. These include the Content styles for tables of contents, the Index styles for indexes and the header and footer styles. However, while these styles can be designed separately, they generally are based on either the body or heading designs.

Positioning on a Line

Headings are usually relatively short. For this reason, line positioning mostly is the concern of body styles. The first consideration for line positioning is the font. What matters is not the aesthetics of the font, but how many characters fit on a line, given the choice of font and font size. Regardless of the choices, the average line should be no more than three alphabets long or about 72 characters long. The smaller and more compact the font, the fewer characters per line the paragraph should have.

Additionally, If you notice that your choices regularly result in several lines in a row that end in hyphens, you either should change the font size or adjust Text Flow -> Hyphenation. The hyphenation options include not only the number of characters at the end of a line or a start, but also the number of consecutive hyphens used. These options are useful especially for body styles designed for multiple column layouts.

Once the number of characters per line is settled, the next area of concern is alignment. Alignment is the way that a paragraph's lines fit between the margins of the page, column or frames. Ever since the invention of the personal computer, the feature has been the subject of fads.

When word processors started to be used, many formatting options impossible to achieve on the typewriter suddenly became widely available. The most popular of the new choices was justified text: paragraphs whose left and right margins were even. On the typewriter, only left-justified alignment was possible, that is, paragraphs with an even left margin and an uneven right margin. For almost a century, justified text was the most obvious difference between a professionally printed and a typewritten page. But with the word processor, suddenly everybody's printing could look professional. For this reason, justified text became the norm in the 1980s.

Gradually, a reaction set in The justified text in professional printing usually is the result of line-by-line tweaking. By contrast, the automatic justification of word processors often left distracting rivers of white space where too much space had been left between words or letters in body styles. As a result, in recent years, designers usually consider left alignment to be more suitable.

Admittedly, using justified alignment in Writer is less of a problem than it is in most word processors. Setting the Last Line option on the Alignment tab to Left eliminates a line fragment with huge gaps between letters. Running Tools -> Hyphenation when the document is finished eliminates many of the unsightly gaps left by the a justified alignment. Even so, left justification gives acceptable results with less effort. Often, left justification produces acceptable results without running the Hyphenation tool at all. If you are not willing to take the extra time to tweak, then you should avoid justified alignment altogether.

With alignment set, the next concern is the Indent options on the Indents and Spacing tab. These options set the left and right indentation for the lines. Somewhat confusingly, though, they are listed as Before text and After text. You also can set an additional indentation for the first line of a paragraph, eliminating the need to press the Tab key for each new paragraph.

In fact, for many documents, setting the first line indentation eliminates the need to set the Tabs tab at all. The most common use of tabs in Writer is setting up headers and footers, so that one piece of information is aligned with the left margin, one with the center of the line and one with the right margin. If you are doing a table of figures, you also might want to use the decimal tab to align numbers on each side of a decimal point. However, Tools -> Options -> Text Document > Table includes options for automatically recognizing numbers in tables and right-aligning them in table cells, so you may not need even decimal tabs.


-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)


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While I find what the author

R. de Vasconcellos's picture

While I find what the author writes interesting, I totally disagree with his point regarding justification.

In fact, unless one uses a very long line, that is, narrow margins, full justification is mandatory: if you do not use it, the irregularity of the right margin will distract reading. This is especially the case when paragraphs are not separated by a blank space.

This leads me to a major shortcoming of Writer (at least as far as I know): although it hyphenates well, it seems unable to compress a line in order to avoid either hyphenation or translineation.

I will give an example so as to make myself understood. Suppose that a line must have 6cm. Admit that a line of text (say: 'the humid wind is blown uphill and therefore precipitation') fits into this space but for 2mm.

In this case, we would have:

the humid wind is blown uphill and therefore precipitati||on

where || signifies the end of the allowed space. In WordPerfect, InDesign, FrameMaker, even, to a certain degree, in Word, the line would be squeezed (that is the spaces between the words would be diminished) so that "precipitation" would not need be written in the next line.

This is not possible, as far as I know, in OO Writer. One must use hyphenation instead, and if lines are short the result would be that there will be either a lot of white spaces, a lot of hyphens or a very irregular right margin. The solution would be to make the lines rather long (that is: the margins rather narrow), but this will definitely make the text hard to read.

This is not a small problem; I hope OpenOffice will address it.

Re: Off the Wall: Shooting the Sun

Anonymous's picture

Excellent Read - Excellent series. I love learning about Open Office and other MS-alternitives

Re: Off the Wall: Shooting the Sun

Anonymous's picture

I think this series of articles on openoffice is an excellent idea. Keep them coming. I think they would be easier to follow if some screenshots were provided.

Re: Off the Wall: Shooting the Sun

Anonymous's picture

An informative article, though I found it a little prolix. A few pictures would liven it up tremendously and make its points much clearer.


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