Off the Wall: Shooting the Sun

by Bruce Byfield

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.

Spacing Between Lines

Spacing between lines is set using the Above paragraph and Below paragraph options on the Indents and Spacing tab. These options are important for different reasons in body and heading styles. In body styles, line spacing improves readability. The smaller the font size or the more compressed the font, the more line spacing is needed. Extra line spacing also can be used to mark the start of a new paragraph, although this choice should be avoided if new paragraphs already are marked by extra indentation of the first line. By contrast, in heading styles, the spacing between lines creates a visual clue as to which body of text a heading is related. This is a basic cue for readers, but one that amateurs often ignore.

Line spacing can be set in a number of ways. You can use single, double or 1.5 lines if you want line spacing to be set for you. Other options, such as proportional or fixed, are useful if you have text of different sizes in the same line.

However, if you want to fine-tune the professional way, then set the line spacing to leading and the default measurement in text documents to points. Font sizes usually are set in point, and leading usually is set in relation to font size, so this customization allows you to control line space with greater precision. If the spacing between lines is the same as the font size, professional designers describe a paragraph as "set solid". If both the font and the leading are 12 points, it is notated as 12/12. Very few fonts, though, are at their best when set solid. Most fonts require leading that is greater than the font size. For the average body text of 10 to 12 points, usually 1-3 extra points of leading are ideal.

You also can use a default measurement of points to give a document extra polish by setting all paragraphs to a horizontal grid. To create a horizontal grid, set the Size on the Font tab, Line spacing, Above paragraph and Below paragraph settings for each paragraph to be a multiple of the same number. For example, if the chosen number is 6, then the size of a heading paragraph style might be 18 points, the Above paragraph setting 12 points, the Below paragraph setting 6 points and the leading 24 points. Do the same for each paragraph, and the result is a more uniform look to your document. You can improve the grid even more by selecting the Register True option on the Indents and Spacing tab, so that lines on separate pages are aligned.

Positioning Between Pages

One of the major compromises in a word processor is how breaks between pages or columns are handled. On the one hand, related material should be kept together. On the other hand, a regular page design means ending the lines on the page in as close to the same position as possible. The settings on the Text Flow tab of a Writer paragraph are designed to balance these two demands automatically, so that users have to intervene as little as possible with manual page breaks.

The Options section on the Text Flow contains the basic tools for balancing the two demands. The Do Not Split option is especially important for heading styles, because dividing a heading over a page means it is less useful as a guide for readers. Because headings are related closely to the text beneath them, most heading styles also should have the Keep with next paragraph option selected.

Similarly, Orphan control and Widow generally should be used by each body style. These are old printing terms. They refer, respectively, to lines abandoned by the rest of the paragraph to sit at the top of a new page by themselves, and lines left behind while the rest of the paragraph goes on to another page. Ignoring single-line paragraphs, such as most headers, the convention is that no orphan or widow should be less than two lines long. However, some designers prefer three, and a larger setting might be desirable if the average paragraph length is long. The only time when you might want to ignore orphans and widows is in a document designed to be read on-line, where standards are looser. Even on-line, though, controlling orphans and widows are one of the small touches that improve the overall design.

A slightly different category is the break settings. Break settings can be used to start a new page or column each time a style is used. This ability can be useful whenever you want a style to start a new page automatically. For example, if you were typing recipes and wanted each recipe to start on a new page, you could create an automatic page break for the heading that introduced each recipe. One especially useful feature is the ability to set up a break that not only is associated with a paragraph style but automatically chooses the page style that follows the break.


As with font selection, setting the positioning options is partly a matter of aesthetics. A still larger part is the constraints you are working under, such as the page width or the total number of pages. Yet the largest part of all is knowledge of what you are doing--knowledge not only of the traditions of design but also of the tools now available. By learning the options for positioning paragraphs, you not only can improve the look of your documents but automate them to such an extent that entire areas of formatting, including tabs, hyphenation and page breaks, largely can be ignored as you work.

Bruce Byfield was a manager at Stormix Technologies and Progeny Linux Systems and a Contributing Editor at Maximum Linux. Away from his desktop, he listens to punk-folk music, raises parrots and runs long, painful distances of his own free will. He currently is writing a book on

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