OOo Off the Wall: Fielding Questions, Part 1 - The Basics

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Fields aren't supposed to mess up your documents and make you pull out your hair--learn when fields are useful and how to use them.

Many OpenOffice.org users have a love-hate relationship with fields. On the one hand, they hardly can avoid using them. Items such as page numbers and bullet lists use fields automatically to eliminate corruption while editing. On the other hand, fields can be difficult to grasp. More than one new user has been alarmed by the gray backgrounds used by default to display fields in Writer and needed to be reassured that the backgrounds don't print. More experienced users may be nervous because fields are associated with difficult concepts, such as conditions, data sources and mail merges. And this nervousness is not reduced by the help system, which often fails to explain these concepts at a beginner's level.

In fact, even the Fields window itself can be puzzling. For example, although you obviously can add the fields on the Database tab to a document, why and when would you want to do so? Furthermore, the arrangement of fields on the tabs of the Fields window is not as logical or as consistent as it could be.

This article is the first of a series that aims to demystify fields so that you use them to enhance your work. In this article, we start with the basics of fields, explaining how to use them and the simplest versions of them, user fields and document information.

What Are Fields?

Fields are containers for information that is updated automatically. To put it another way, fields hold variables. By placing information in fields, you isolate it from other text and protect it from basic editing, although not from deletion or copying.

The tasks you can do with fields vary. Basically, though, they fall into one of several categories:

  • Adding information from another source, such as document statistics, user data or cross-references. In Windows versions of Writer, this category also includes DDE links, which Linux doesn't support.

  • Keeping a running total of something, such as page or caption numbers.

  • Selecting which of two or more pieces of information is added, as in an input list or conditional text, or whether information should be revealed or concealed, as with hidden text and paragraphs.

  • Creating multiple copies of documents that differ in only a few places, such as in mail merges.

  • Performing a mathematical or statistical calculation and displaying the result. In this case, table cells can serve the same function as fields.

Adding Fields

Fields are used automatically for such things as page, list and caption numbers or for tables of contents, indexes and bibliographies. Other fields are added manually by selecting Insert > Fields. Some of the most commonly used fields, such as page numbers, are listed in the submenu so that you can add them quickly. Many more fields are available by selecting Other from the submenu and opening the Fields screen. In the Fields screen, you can configure fields before adding them to your document by selecting the Insert button. Fields are added at the current position of the mouse cursor.

Insert > Fields > Other displays fields in six tabs, as shown in the table below.

TabContents
DocumentFields from information in File > Properties or from the file itself. These fields are some of the most commonly used ones.
ReferencesFields for setting up and inserting cross-references and book marks. These fields are very specific in their functions. If you are doing academic or technical work, you will become familiar with them. You also can access them through Insert > References or Insert > Bookmarks.
FunctionFields for setting up multiple input entries or for a specific function, such as running a macro. These fields are intermediate to advanced in complexity.
DocInformationFiles from information in File > Properties, including four blank, user-defined fields. These fields are some of the most commonly used ones.
VariablesFields that contain variable information, such as page numbers and captions. Includes fields in which you can re-define an existing variable and define your own fields. Some of these fields are commonly used ones. About half are for advanced users.
Database Fields to use when setting up a source document for a mail merge. You need to have at least one data source set up before you can use them. Several have no visible effect, even when they are used the way they are supposed to be, because they are markers that indicate how other fields are used.

By default, fields are displayed with gray backgrounds. This background does not print. It can be changed in Tools > Options > OpenOffice.org > Appearance > Custom Colors > Field Shading. You also can turn off the shading by de-selecting View > Field Shadings. However, if all you need is a quick view of how a page is going to print, use File > Page Preview instead. The gray background makes fields easier to find if you need to edit them.

You also can display the type of content in each field instead of the actual contents by selecting View > Fields. When this option is selected, the page number field displays Page Numbers. That's also what will be printed. For some reason, new users seem prone to turning on this selection, possibly because it sounds vaguely desirable. Fortunately, it can be turned off as easily as it can be turned on.

Update options for fields are set in Tools > Options > Text Document > General. If you want to update a field immediately, select Tools > Update > Fields or Update All.

To edit a field, click on it twice to open the Fields screen. Blank fields or fields such as the Next Record field for mail merges that serve as markers are so small that they may be hard to select. If you do have trouble selecting a field, use View > Zoom to get a larger view. A few field types, such as hidden text or hidden paragraph, have arrow buttons that let you jump to the previous or next field of the same type.

______________________

-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)

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