Hide and Go Seek with Writer Content

By using Writer's hide functions, you no longer need to worry about multiple versions of a document remaining in sync.

Why would you want to hide content in an OpenOffice.org Writer document? The most common reason is to maintain two similar versions of a document within the same file. For instance, if you are a teacher preparing an exam, you might want to use the same file to print a version of the exam to distribute to students, and another one, complete with answers, to give to markers. If necessary, you can view the complete document on the screen, but when printing or sharing files, you can hide or reveal content depending on what you want each audience to see. By using Writer's hide functions, you no longer need to worry about multiple versions of a document remaining in sync.

Another reason to hide content is if you are commenting heavily on a document, either as a collaborator or an editor. As many people have found, a note is inconvenient to use in Writer, because you have to click on a small, often hard-to-see field to read it. Rather than using a note, you might prefer to use hidden content instead.

Whatever your reason for using hidden content, you have three possible methods: using fields, sections or styles. The features of each of these methods overlap, but each has pros and cons that you'll need to know so you're not hopelessly frustrated as you hunt for the content you've hidden and set up the file for each audience.

Hiding Content with Fields

Figure 1. You may see fields used for hiding content, but consider them deprecated features because of their awkwardness.

Until version 2.0, fields were the most versatile way to hide content. From Insert→Fields→Other Functions, you can choose Hidden text to conceal less than a paragraph and Hidden Paragraph to hide a complete paragraph.

Setting up either type of field is relatively easy. In both cases, the content is revealed by setting the condition in the field's dialog box to 0, and the content is hidden by changing the field to 1. If you want to hide the field more deeply, you can set the condition using Boolean logic and the properties defined in Files→Properties→Description or the user listed in Tools→OpenOffice.org. For example, if the title listed in Files→Property is Introduction, you can set the condition for a field or section to TITLE EQ Introduction. By changing or removing the title before you distribute the document, you can be reasonably sure that nobody else will ever read your hidden text or paragraph.

However, in other ways, both fields are awkward to use. For one, despite the names, the two types of fields function differently. Using hidden text, you either highlight the text you want in the field or type it in the dialog box. By contrast, a hidden paragraph field is a marker you can place anywhere in a paragraph. In addition, as you use either one, you need to know that Writer can be set to display either type of field, regardless of the conditions set if you select Fields: hidden text or Fields: hidden paragraphs in Tools→Options→OpenOffice.org Writer→Formatting Aids. You'll want to remember the formatting aids option if the fields don't seem to be working, and possibly to turn them on and off while you are setting up the fields. But, unless you're using both types of fields regularly, all these quirks can be frustrating.

Each of these fields also has its own limitations. To use hidden text fields successfully, remember to put the spaces on one side of the hidden text so that the rest of the paragraph is set out correctly when the field is hidden. Moreover, as should be obvious from the name, hidden text does not work properly when the field extends over the end of a paragraph. Nor are hidden text fields the easiest to find and edit when fields are set to display in the default gray--although, once you find one, you can use the Previous and Next arrows in the dialog to move among them. Hidden paragraph fields are just as awkward to edit, requiring that you turn on the formatting aid option to view them.

But perhaps the worst feature of both is that managing a large number of them is almost impossible. Neither hidden text nor hidden paragraphs can be arranged in groups, such as text that you want to activate only in the teacher's copy of an exam. Instead, each must be managed separately. This limitation makes either type of field impractical for any wide-scale use.

My advice is to avoid using either type of field for hiding text. You should know that these options are available, because they might be used by others, or in older documents, but, if you are using version 2.0 or higher, consider them deprecated features. If you are using Writer in a business setting with sophisticated users, you also should discourage their use in the office style guide. With later versions of OpenOffice.org, you can get the same functionality in other features with fewer difficulties.


-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Helpful where help wasn't

John Beech's picture

Hey Bryce, thanks for the educational article.

I skipped through the article to the bit on the hidden text property usable in styles. After coming from a HTML/CSS publishing route styles are my bread-and-butter for organising content, and hiding paragraphs by style was exactly what I was looking for when removing framework comments from my report. Searching for 'hidden text' in OpenOffice writer help came up with the jargon about inserting hidden fields and using frames to hide printable content, really not what I was looking for.

Best regards,
- John

Good For Summary versus Detail

David Forsythe's picture

This will be great for us as we send mail out about our uv
options for our fly killers. Some customers need lots of detailed
specifications and others just need summaries. The specs are often changing, so having the summary & detailed information on one document is a good solution. We just need to hide the detail as & when necessary. Just wish that paragraph numbering could be automatically reformatted to take into account what is visible.

Actually LyX has this too...

Anonymous's picture

...it's called 'branches' and from what I read here, easier to use and more versatile. I use it all the time to produce multiple-language versions in one document.

Helpful article...period

KJK's picture

While you may be right that the two-document approach will be used by many people, I think that has more to do with being unaware of the options for hiding text or laziness in changing old habits. In many cases, I doubt this will be an intentional choice based on the merits of the possible options. The list number issue will certainly make a difference in some cases, but I have a feeling it is not going to be a factor in 99% of cases that could benefit from hidden text. Well, the number may be more like 90%, but you get the idea.

The other REALLY good reason that comes to my mind for maintaining two documents is when you will be distributing one of them in electronic format. Hidden text seems best suited to documents that will be printed. Having a separate document is the safest way to keep information from those who should not have it. I have seen my fair share of MS Word snafus that result in people finding information that was to be hidding (mostly from the change-tracking features).

In the end, I think Bruce clearly lays out the reasons for putting the information into a single document, so I am not sure how you missed that. Most importantly, he is not trying to convince anyone that this is the best approach for all cases. In addition, he does not only tell us about the one method that he thinks is best; he explains all three and lets us decide for our own needs. This is the definition of well-balanced writing.

Thanks for providing good insight, as usual, Bruce. Keep the articles coming!