OOo Off the Wall: It's Numbering, but Not as We Know It

by Bruce Byfield

Like any word processor,'s Writer automatically adds numbers and bullets to paragraphs for you. Unlike typical word processors, however, Writer does not make lists a part of paragraph styles. Instead, lists have styles of their own. These styles are called numbering styles. It's a rather misleading term, though, because it refers to both numbered and bulleted lists, but never mind.

By splitting lists and paragraphs, Writer gains several advantages. First, the split removes many users' confusion regarding whether they are configuring lists or paragraphs. Second, it is more economical, because one list style can be applied to multiple paragraph styles instead of defining the same format separately for each paragraph. Third, and most important of all, separating list styles from paragraph styles gives list options more room for custom settings without burying them deep in the menus.

In addition, Writer's numbering styles are more dependable. Unlike other word processors, Writer places bullets and numbers in fields, which is why they display in a gray backgrounds in your document (select File -> Page Preview to see how they'll look when you print). One of the uses of fields is for variable information. So, by using fields for lists, Writer makes its lists more or less immune to corruption. For example, if you want to:

  • interrupt list items with unnumbered lines or styles

  • place one type of list between two items in another list (for example, bullets between numbered items)

  • move a numbered item to another place in the list

you usually can do so without problems. In fact, Writer encourages you to do so by offering a custom tool bar for lists.

Accessible in several ways, Writer's numbering styles are both highly convenient and highly customizable. Not only do they give you the tools to create several types of lists, but you also can use the same tools for a time-saving trick or two.

Using Automatics Lists

You can use automatic lists in several ways:

  • Manual application: Select Format -> Numbering/Bullets from the menu or the Numbering On/Off button in the Object tool bar. This method is suitable mainly for short documents and default settings. If you use an elaborate setup, you'll either have to recreate it or copy and paste each time you use it.

  • Autocorrection: Type the first number or bullet and add contents. When you press the Enter key for the next paragraph, Writer recognizes that you are making a list. The number or bullet in the first paragraph is placed in a field, and one is added to the next paragraph automatically. If this feature does not work, check that Tools -> AutoCorrect/AutoFormat -> Options -> Apply numbering - symbol: * is turned on.

  • Semi-automatic application: Create a numbering style and then apply it to paragraphs as you choose.

  • Automatic application: Associate the numbering style with a paragraph style on the paragraph style's Numbering tab. Whenever the paragraph is used, it is numbered unless you turn off numbering with the numbering tool bar. Give both the numbering and paragraph style the same name, so that you can see at a glance that they're associated.

For your own convenience, automatic application is recommended.

Types of Lists

Numbering styles support three different types of lists:

  • Numbered Lists: lists in which the order matters, such as a recipe, or the steps in a technical manual.

  • Bulleted Lists: lists in which the order is unimportant. For example, in the list you're reading now, the order in which you read the list items doesn't matter. You won't lose data or suffer grievous bodily harm if you don't read them in order.

  • -Outline Numbering: an outlining method that uses a single paragraph style. I call this method single-style outlining to differentiate it from the type of outline numbering available in Tools -> Outline numbering, which is something quite different.

In addition, you can use numbering lists for a couple of tricks that do not directly involve lists.

Bulleted and numbered lists each have five numbering styles pre-defined. For bullets, they're called List, while for ordered lists they're called Numbering. These styles are useful as examples and have corresponding paragraph styles pre-defined to which they can be assigned. However, descriptive names, such as lower case letters in blue, are much more convenient.

Each of the three types of lists has at least one tab in the numbering styles window from which you can choose a pre-defined design. In addition, bullets have the Graphics tab. If you want to customize styles, however, your main concerns are the Position and the Options tabs. The Position tab includes similar settings for all types of lists.

However, if you want to customize your lists, the Options tab is the one that matters. Its available options change with the type of list you're making.

Positioning Options for Lists

The Position tab contains options for how list items are positioned on a line of text. The tab's options especially are important for single-style outline numbering. However, all list types can use the options on the Position tab:

  • Indent: sets the space between the numbering field and the start of the line. If the style uses outline numbering, select the Relative box to set the indent in relation to the start of the line in the previous level of the hierarchy. Based on HTML, many users automatically indent a list from the text body paragraphs. However, habit seems to be the only reason for this practice. There often is no reason why a top-level list should have an indent. Sub-lists can be indented to show their relation to the top level list, but even that is not always necessary. Often, the change in numbering format is enough.

  • Spacing to text: the distance between the numbering field and the start of the text. If this option is not used, then the starting position of the text shifts when the number of digits in a numbered list changes (for example, when changing to two digit numbers at 10). This setting takes some fiddling to get right. Too little spacing looks cramped but too much disassociates the bullets or numbers from the list items.

  • Position -> Minimum space numbering -> text: set a minimum distance between the number and the start of the text in the first line. The other lines in the paragraph either are aligned with the text or use the setting in the Spacing to text field. If the option is used, the starting position of the text shifts when the number of digits changes in the list.

  • Numbering alignment: how the number or bullet is positioned in its field. Although this option has some use in complex layouts, especially when dealing with large numbers, for the most part you can leave it at the default setting of Left and ignore it.

Making a Custom Numbered List

If you want to create a numbered list quickly, you can select the style from the Numbering style tab. The pre-defined choices for numbered lists often are all that you need. For anything out of the ordinary, go directly to the Options tab and use these settings:

  • Numbering: set the numbering format. Arabic numbers, upper and lower case Roman numerals and letters are all available.

  • Before / After: sets the characters before and after the number. For example, before the number you might want Chapter, while after the number a simple period or parentheses might do.

  • Character style: the character style used for formatting numbers. In a simple document, you can use the default Numbering symbol. However, if you are using differently formatted numbered lists, you should create a different character style for each format.

  • Start at: The number at which numbered lists should start. This is also the number that a paragraph reverts to when you select the Restart Numbering button on the List Mode tool bar.

Making a Bullet Style

You can select a pre-defined bullet from the Bullet tab. If you want something more elaborate, you can select a bullet from the Graphics tab. These bullets are the same ones found in Tools -> Gallery -> Bullets. The bullets on the Graphics tab are most suitable for on-line work, but I suggest you avoid using them. As a friend remarked, the available choices are "so mid-Nineties" that they seem quaint. Fortunately, more interesting tools are available on the Options tab.

If you select Bullets in the Numbering field, you then can select the character style to use and the particular character for the bullet. In an ordinary font, you can select various characters for a bullet. However, if you set the character style to a dingbat set--a font in which characters are replaced by pictures--you can be even more creative. Just remember that if you open the document on another machine, it needs to have the same dingbat font to depict the bullets properly.

Incidentally, if your document might be opened in MS Word, change the character style to one that MS Word can access. The default Bullets character style uses StarSymbol to create bullets and generally is not available to MS Word. Alternatively, you might want to use the Adobe Type Manager in Windows to load StarSymbol.

You also can create a bullet style by selecting Graphics or Linked Graphics in the Numbering field. Selecting Graphics embeds the graphic you select in the document, while Linked Graphics references the separate graphics file. Which one to select depends on circumstances, but basically, you should select Graphics to keep the document self-contained or Linked Graphics to control file size.

In both cases, the choice of graphic for a bullet deserves some thought. In most cases, the graphic is going to display at a relatively small size, so too complex a picture is out. Similarly, if the document is printed in black and white, the contrasts of a colored graphic probably are going to be lost. Usually, you'll want a simple graphic with strong contrasts in colors.

In both cases, too, the options are the same. Once you select the graphic, you can adjust its display width and height, selecting the Keep Ratio box to keep the proportions the same. You also can use Alignment to change how the graphic sits on the baseline. Be prepared for some experimentation before you find the best way to display the graphic as a bullet. Too large a graphic can distort the lines in the list item, while too small a graphic may be invisible and therefore not worth using at all.

Making an Outline Numbering Style

To create an outline numbering style, select one of the pre-defined formats on the Outline tab. If you only need three to five outline levels, one of the pre-defined formats may be all you need. However, if you need more, move directly to the Options tab. There, your choices are the same as for a numbering style. The difference is that you can make the choices for each outline level, selecting the one to work on from the list on the left of the window. If you want, you also can set the options in the Positioning tab separately for each outline level.

By default, each outline level starts at the number set in the Start at field. However, if you want numbering to continue from level to level, you can select All levels -> Consecutive numbering instead.

As an alternative to defining each outline level separately, select 1-10 as the level and define the style once. Then, associate it with a new paragraph style, and use the Condition tab of the paragraph style to format each outline level with an existing paragraph style, such as the Headings 1-10. This alternative usually is much faster to do than formatting each outline level separately.

Applying Lists

No matter how you apply numbering styles, as soon as you start a list, Writer switches to list mode. List mode is marked by its own tool bar that slides out from the blue arrow on the right of the Object tool bar. This tool can get lost if you are placing a list in a table, which has its own tool bar, but keep clicking on the blue arrow, and you'll get to it.

List mode's tool bar contains the functions you need for managing lists. Many of the buttons on the tool bar are for single-style outline numbering. These tools are similar to those for headings on the Navigator, allowing you to change the level of the current paragraph and reposition it. Frankly, though, they're not as well organized on the tool bar. Moreover, outline numbering usually is easier to manage using the Tab key to descend an outline level and Shift+Tab to ascend a level.

Interspersed with the outline numbering buttons are three basic buttons:

  • Numbering On/Off (first button from left): turns numbering off entirely. If you're using numbering styles attached to paragraph styles, you don't need this button. Instead, change paragraph styles to one that doesn't use numbering.

  • Insert Unnumbered Entry (fifth button from left): turns numbering off for the current paragraph only. The start of the current paragraph is aligned with the text of other list items. This tool removes the necessity of creating a paragraph style subordinate to a numbered paragraph style, but without the numbering.

  • Restart numbering (second button from right): resets the current paragraph to the start of the numbering sequence. Usually, the start is one, but you can set the numbering style to start at any point on the Options tab.

Armed with these buttons, you can wrangle any list that you care to create.

Tricks with Numbering Lists

Outline numbering can be used for more than lists. A bullet style with a graphic can be used as any sort of recurring graphic, such as a Warning in technical documentation. The graphic can be placed beside text or in a separate paragraph above it. However, if it's placed in a separate paragraph, leave a space after it. Otherwise, Writer detects the paragraph as blank and, unhelpfully, deletes the graphic. Numbering styles also can be used as an alternative to autotext. Set the Numbering on the Options tab to None, and enter up to fifty characters of text in each of the Before and After fields. As with a recurring graphic, you need to add a space each time you use the paragraph style to which the autotext is assigned.


Occasionally, you may notice a momentary stumble in's handling of lists. An especially common one seems to occur when changing from one list style to another. However, these stumbles always correct themselves after two or three presses of the return key. In the worst cases, applying another style then reapplying the numbering style corrects any problem. Far more frequently, the lists are trouble-free.

This robustness is one of Writer's main advantages over MS Word, whose lists inevitably become hopelessly jumbled if you do any of these tasks. In fact, the way to overcome these problems in MS Word is to forget about automatic lists and manually place bullets and numbers in fields. With Writer, however, you have the convenience of automatic lists and the stability of fields automatically. If you're a compulsive list-maker, like me, you'll be surprised at the time you save because of this single difference.

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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