Navigating and Working in Scribus

Scribus has mixed reputation among free software users. On the one hand, users are vaguely aware of Scribus as a first-rate application that can hold its own against proprietary counterparts like InDesign. On the other other hand, Scribus has a reputation of being diabolically difficult to learn -- and it's this reputation that I'm hoping to help change in my next series of articles on, starting with this general introduction.

To some extent, this reputation is justified. Designed for desktop publishing, Scribus is a specialty application, and not intended for general use the way that or LibreOffice is. Unlike a word processor, it is not intended primarily as a way to input text -- although you can use it for that -- but as a layout program for manipulating groups of objects for the printed page. With this orientation, it is perhaps closer to The GIMP or Inkscape, which can be disorienting to the general user.

You might say that Scribus treats each page and document as a container in which you place and edit objects. It is not so much a creator of new content as a manipulator of existing content, and its editing window and tools are all designed to make that manipulation as easy as possible.

Scribus is very efficient about helping you achieve this goal, but it does mean that the editing window is not quite what most people are used to seeing. How its logic affects the editing window should become obvious as we look at Scribus' general design and workflow.

Starting Scribus

By default, Scribus opens in a dialog window with three tabs: New Document, Open Existing Document, and Open Recent. The last two tabs are self-explanatory, but New Document needs some explanation.


The Scribus New Document Window

In the left pane of the New Document tab, you can choose the template for the document. For most documents, you can use Single Page, which refers, not to the number of pages in the document, but the unit of page design. For books, you probably want Double Sided, and for pamphlets and brochures 3-Fold or 4-Fold. For all of these choices except Single Page, you also need to specify whether the first page of the document is a Left, Middle, or Right Page; usually, it will be a right page (look at the first page of a book, and this observation becomes obvious.

In the middle of the window are panes for paper size and margins with which you are probably familiar from word processors. However, because Scribus is designed for print, you also have the option of clicking the Printer Margins button and automatically setting the margins to the minimum margins that a particular printer supports. You might want to use the Printer Margins feature first, then adjust the margins, just to ensure that you do not create margins that are too narrow for the printer.

The right hand panes list options for the number of pages and the document's basic unit of measurement. The default points is usually the most useful, especially if you are going to adjust the spacing between lines, since fonts are measured in points. Admittedly, though, working in points can be annoying, since one point is one-seventy-second of an inch.

The other option on the right is Automatic Text Frames. Selecting this option automatically adds a text frame to all of the page within the margins. In other words, it make Scribus act more like a word processor. You can also create multiple columns on this page. If you do not use these options, then you will have to add text frames manually as needed.

Should you want to change these options, you will find them -- along with others -- under File -> Document Setup. For now, though, you can click the OK button to enter Scribus.

Navigating the Editing Window

Superficially, Scribus' editing window resembles that of the average word processor, with menus and taskbars on the top, a status bar on the bottom, and horizontal and vertical rulers bracketing the document. Click an object, and you will generally find a context menu with a list of options for what you can do.

The Scribus Editing Window

As soon as you start looking, though, the differences become obvious. For one thing, the status bar takes the place of a View menu. From left to right, the status bar includes tools for the units of measurement, the zoom, the page number, and the layer.

For another thing, the menu contains some unusual top level headings, such as Style (text formatting) and Item (object manipulation), and Extras and Scripts (additional tools).

Looking at the document itself, and you will also see a number of color-coded guides. By default, the dimensions of the page are outlined in red. Margins are indicated in blue. If you opted for Automatic Text Frames, you will also see a dotted black line overlaying the margin indicators. Any text frames, tables, or image frames you add will also be outlined by a dotted black line. A selected object is red, and a grid (see next paragraph) will be green by default.

Before you start to work, you may also want to make some changes. For precision placement of objects, you will probably want to add a grid from File -> Document Setup if you want to change only the current document, and File -> if you want the changes in all Scribus documents.

Take a look, too, at the contents of the Windows menu. The Windows menu not only contains options for how multiple Scribus windows are stacked on the desktop, and the toolbars that are visible, but also ones for opening floating windows to help you work. These floating windows surround the main editing windows like pilot fish surround a shark.

Probably, you will not want all of the floating windows open at once, because your desktop will be too cluttered. Moreover, as you learn Scribus, you will come to have your favorites. However, most users will want the Properties window open, at least while they are editing objects. Similarly, when you are doing complex layouts, you will probably want the Layers window open, and use a separate layer for each type of object.

You might also want other windows open at different times. The Outline window is useful for finding your way through documents, while the Scrapbook window is useful if you have objects that you might want to share between documents, or to store while you decide where they belong.

The Scribus editing window can be an unsettling mixture of the familiar and the strange, but, fortunately, you do not need to understand all objects at once. Learn the basics, and you can learn the rest a bit at a time as you need it.

The basic workflow

Scribus is not about content so much as the placement of content. For that reason, you begin by adding and positioning text and image frames from the Insert menu, then adding the actual text and images later.

For example, once a text frame is creating, you right-click to add text. Your options are to copy content from an existing file on your hard drive, or to select Edit Text from the context menu to open the Story Teller window, a small built-in word processor. If the entire content is too long for the text frame, you either have to re-size the text frame or reduce the size of the content.

In much the same way, you add an image frame, then right-click on the frame to place an image in. Once the image is added, you can choose from the context frame whether to add one of Scribus' filters, or to edit the image in The GIMP.

Drawn objects and tables are manipulated no differently. All objects can be positioned by selecting them with the mouse, then dragging them into place.

When you are finished, you can save Scribus in its native format. However, because Scribus is intended for professional printing, when you are ready to submit a document, you probably want to export it to PDF or postscript, the two formats that professional print shops generally use. However, before you do, you might want to select Window -> Preflight Verifier to check for any problems, then double-check visually with File -> Print Preview. As you print, you will also notice that you have the option to print color transparencies, too.

Only the beginning

There is more -- much more -- to Scribus then I have indicated here. However, this basic outline should at least begin to help demystify Scribus. The logic may be different from that of office suites, but should be easy enough to learn. Once you have grasped the basic logic, the rest is details.

I'll take up some of those details in the coming months.



Bruce Byfield (nanday)


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Looking forward.

Goran M.'s picture

Lack of good documentation is a problem for most open source programs especially for less commonly used such as Scribus.
Some time ago when I started working on the translation of Blenderart magazine that were done in Scribus, I needed help and search for some kind of guide .I found this
on Showmedo with 40 + excellent video tutorials, by Dai, which was very helpful.

Scribus in-built help/documentation

Lewis Smith's picture

I have done serious DTP with Impression Publisher, one of whose strengths was a superb real paper manual (OK, passe). I have followed Scribus from early days, and always stall immediately on *the lack of inbuilt help*. How to do anything. The so-called 'help' provided is interesting in itself, but tells you nothing about how to *do* things. The site is little better, the best link - if you can find it - being "Get Started With Scribus - A Beginner's Tutorial on Publication Design" The assumption that you need fast Internet access to work with any program is derisory. Cogniscenti can download this tutorial to view off-line; but not the innocent.
I understand the *selling* of "The Official Scribus 1.3 Manual", and feel that anyone seriously wanting to use Scribus would buy it. Look at the number of other software books sold to Joe Public, despite their routine comprehensive inbuilt aid.
Sorry, but Scribus - not alone - shoots itself in the foot by making 'how to use it' so obscure. Any self-respecting software must always include (or make easily available, like a downloadable PDF) good user documentation. The Gimp does. Commercial books are *not* excluded by such a policy. I am convinced that Scribus seriously limits its uptake by hiding its virtues.
Lewis Smith

I make sure that all the

blink web media 's picture

I make sure that all the editors use scribus at work, its juts better.

Pretty much there

Calum Tait's picture

I mainly use Quark Xpress at work as this is what I am required to use and occasionally have used Indesign also. At home, I use Scribus and have found it to be pretty much there in terms of all the facilities required for good page layout. I agree that the interface needs tidying a little to aid productivity but I actually prefer the Scribus interface to that of Indesign (I haven't met anyone who has used Quark and thinks the Adobe interface is particularly good). There really is nothing missing from Scribus to prevent good results being achieved and the developers are pretty good at sorting any bugs which creep in. What Scribus really needs to progress now is to be heavily promoted to professional designers as a viable alternative. The main advantage that Adobe has is that they can provide a complete suite of applications. If GIMP could provide native CMYK export (I belive this is in the pipeline along with a more sensible single window interface), then the combination of (the superb) Inkscape vector graphics application, GIMP and Scribus would be a fantastic alternative to Adobe Creative Suite. All that would be needed then is to market this to the design community. How about the developers getting together and promoting the three applications as a suite on a single website with a single click download?

Scribus isn't close to InDesign

Tim F.'s picture

To compare Scribus to InDesign is to set up wildly wrong expectations for new users. Beyond their likeness as page layout (desktop publishing) tools, there is no comparison. I'm a big advocate of OSS, but saying Scribus is like InDesign is like comparing an early airplane to a modern jet. Having used both for several years, the capability, flexibility, stability and overall polish of InDesign far surpasses Scribus. This isn't a knock against Scribus so much as a reality check for anyone searching for an InDesign alternative, only to become sorely disappointed with OSS after trying Scribus. Yes, InDesign is expensive, its file format is proprietary, and it doesn't run on Linux, but if you need world class layout, especially for commercial output, it's in a class by itself.

Collaboration and helping

Anonymouses's picture

There are some people helping each other, some of them have made libre/free software. Instead of trying to get it without paying money and later complain, if we helped them, Scribus would be better.

For example, the author of

Anonymouses's picture

For example, the author of this article helps... writing good tutorials. Others help with graphical design, others programming, others helping the programers, other reporting bugs, etc.

And so Scribus has been able to improve and serve basic (and not so basic) uses, but there are things left to do, of course.

Colour handling

Razide's picture

CMYK is a pain in the ass in Gimp, Inkscape and Scribus, so I stick with the InDesign and other Adobe stuff.

Both Inkscape (since 0.47)

Finalzone's picture

Both Inkscape (since 0.47) and Scribus (edit-> colors) support CMYK output. The catch is to properly set the right Color Management in CMYK.
For Gimp, Separator extension is available. Alternatively, Krita can convert RGB Gimp file into CMYK.

Good Start

Anonymous's picture

I find Scribus an invaluable tool. While learning, if you really want to dive into it, the dev's have created a book that is available on Barnes & Nobel and Amazon. Part of the proceeds support the dev's in their work. If you've read the online docs and googled, more help can be found on #scribus. Often the dev's hang out there. Catch them when you can. They have a very deep understanding about many things graphical.


hendro's picture

Finally, I can start my learning of scribus. Thanks.


David Lane's picture

Thanks Bruce. I agree. I found it the other day and started using it like I would Publisher or Pagemaker and blam...I found it easier to go use Writer for the page I was comping up.

So I am looking forward to hearing more about it and learning to use it more!

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack