Configuring Writer

by Bruce Byfield

Like other applications, Writer has dozens of options available from Tools > Options > Writer. These options allow you to adjust both the general settings of Writer and specific options for different kinds of formatting. Many are ideal for desktop publishing, and a similar set of options is available for web documents under Tools > Options > Writer/Web.

However, there are several small problems when adjusting Writer options. First, unlike in earlier versions of, in recent versions you can only review options when you have a text document open. Second, like the general settings for's behavior, options are not always in the most logical place. In some cases you may have to jump around from tab to tab to make the adjustments you want. Finally, because the options have been slightly rearranged from earlier versions, you may find that the online help does not always explain your choices in enough detail, or refer to options that have been removed from the program.

Yet, despite these problems (or maybe because of them), a tour of Writer options may help you to customize the application to fit your preferred methods of work.

General setup

The first tab you'll probably want to visit is Basic Fonts. Since this tab sets the fonts for text (or Default), headings, and several other basic situations. I think of it as a quick and dirty alternative to using paragraph styles. If you do use the tab as a style substitute, you can check the Current document only box; otherwise, your settings apply to all new Writer documents.

Your next stops should be the General tab. On the General tab, you can set fields and charts to update automatically each time you open a document, which is generally a good idea unless you are working on a very low end-machine. For measurement units, you can take your choice of imperial, metrical, or typographical measurements; personally, I always use points so that I can use Fixed line spacing in paragraph styles; since line spacing is related to font size, which is always in measured in points, for me it just doesn't make any sense to use any other measurement -- especially since I can set ruler measurements separately on the View tab.

Tab stop intervals are also adjustable on the General tab, although usually I don't bother. For ordinary writing, the first line indent in paragraph styles replaces tabs. If I want to do any more advanced layout, I find that tables with invisible borders more reliable than tabs, since I am often sharing documents with MS Office users and have to endure the import/export process. However, if you do use tabs, the default of half an inch is far too much by typographical standards. A quarter or a third of an inch will usually do.

Some users may also change the non-printing characters that display in a document from the Formatting Aids tab, although View > Nonprinting characters is more convenient. In much the same way, rather than using the Print tab, you will probably find choosing them from File > Print more convenient. The only exception is if you prefer to always have these options on. For instance, If your printer needs a new cartridge and you can't get to the store for a week, you might need to select Print black from the Printer tab so that your printed pages are dark enough.

Formatting options

What other basic settings you adjust depends on what you are doing. In the Tables tab, you can adjust the defaults so the table does not split over pages, which is easier for readers but can cause some typographically-challenged page breaks. You can also choose to have a Heading row automatically in each table, or whether to have visible borders in your tables, or to have table cells number aware, so that all numbers are aligned to the lower right corner of their cells.

The Tables tab has other options, but most users are unlikely to have much use for them. In my experience, few users need to adjust the default sizes for rows and columns created from the keyboard. Nor can many remember the differences in how tables behave when you add or delete rows.

If you are collaborating on a document, you may also want to make adjustments on the Changes tab, or setup and test the options for e-mail merges from the Mail Merge E-mail tab. And if you are sharing documents with people using MS Office or a 1.1 version of, you can adjust the settings on the Compatibility tab. The wording of the compatibility options doesn't make it clear, but, basically, any option that doesn't specifically mention 1.1 is for MS Word compatibility.

Layout options

For those wishing to take advantage of Writer's desktop publishing capabilities, a number of options are scattered throughout the tabs.

For precise placement of objects and text frames, I recommend enabling the Vertical ruler on the View tab. As you move objects, their position on each ruler is highlighted, allowing you to place them exactly.

Equally useful is setting the grid options. For precision work, you'll likely want to change the default resolutions. You'll also want to select a visible grid. The Snap to grid option, which automatically moves an object to the nearest coordinate on the grid from the place you drag it can also be useful sometimes, although it can interferes with precision unless you've taken the trouble to find exactly the right resolution for your needs. Otherwise, it should be turned off. Should the default gray for the grid points be too faint for your eyes, you can go to Tools > Options > > Appearance and change their colors.

If you are manipulating a lot of objects, you might click the View tab and select to display large handles for them, or to have guides visible while you move them. If the objects have captions, you can save time and effort by having the captions automatically inserted by using the settings on the Autocaptions tab -- although, if you don't want the category of object displayed as a prefix in the caption (for instance, "Illustration 1"), you'll need to set the category for the class of each object to None.

If you are doing layout, most of the time, you'll probably want to drag objects and text frames to build your design. However, Writer also has another quick and dirty option called Direct Cursor on the Formatting Aids tab. When Direct Cursor is enabled, you can position the mouse anywhere on a page, instead of being limited only to the area where you have already added content, the way you usually are in a word processor. Be warned, though: the Direct Cursor truly is a dirty option that ignores paragraph styles and adds manual line breaks as needed to reposition the cursor. Still, if you are doing intensive layout, that may not matter to you.

Another option that may be useful in design work is the Brochure option on the Print tab. This is an option for printing two portrait pages on a landscape-oriented page, which can then be folded into a brochure. Needless to say, it works best with a printer that allows double-sided printing. However, you can also use Brochure with a printer that only does one-sided printing by first printing only the right pages, then reinserting the printout into the paper tray and printing only the left pages. In addition to printing a brochure, the option may also be useful for printing thumbnails.

Web Options

The Options window has separate entries for Writer and Writer/Web. As you might guess, Writer/Web contains options for HTML pages opened in writer. HTML being simpler than word processor, many of the options are stripped out of Writer/Web, including those for captions and changes -- oddly, developers seem never to have considered that users might want to collaborate on an online document. The only additional tab for web documents is Background, which is in keeping with HTML's single page format, although options for images are not included.


If the available options are more than you care to handle, in most cases you can safely ignore them. In almost every case, the default options for Writer are likely to be acceptable to most users, even if they are not ideal. Some, like the viewing of nonprinting characters are available from the menu, while others can be set elsewhere in Writer, such as the default fonts. However, when you want more control of your word processing or desktop publishing, spent some time familiarizing yourself with the options. Unless you're very unusual, you're sure to find a tweak or two that will make your computing easier.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist whose work appears regularly on the Linux Journal, NewsForge and websites.