Designing Pages in Writer

I'm sure that most people hardly think about page options in Writer. The average person may change the paper orientation from portrait to landscape, or narrow the margins to squeeze more words into a page, but not much else. Nothing is really wrong about such an attitude, but if you want to make to make your documents easier to read and more professional-looking, there are a lot more typographical tricks that you can do.

You can find page design features in Format -> Page, or Format -> Styles and Formatting -> Page Styles. However, the first choice limits you to two page designs, one right and one left. By contrast, page styles allow unlimited designs, and, by using the Next Style feature in the Organizer tab, you can have them applied automatically; for instance, you can have a first page style followed by a right page, a right page by a left page, and a left page by a right page.

But, whatever tool you use for page designs, the first step is to check the Register-true box on the Page tab. This feature assures that each line on every page is the same distance from the top as the same line on other pages. This feature improves the look of a two page spread, and, on thinner paper, assures that lines on the back of the paper are not visible and obscuring the current page.

Once you have set the page you are designing to Register-true, you then have to set the size of the text block, or main frame, then determine the margins, and, finally, the footers and headers.

These steps are the same, regardless of the page size with which you are working. Generally, you will want to start with the Default page style, or perhaps the Right page style, and modify others from it, taking advantage of the fact that styles are hierarchial.

Determining the text block

The size of the text block depends on the font that you choose and the adjustments you make to give the page a uniform color -- that is, a dark shade of gray throughout.

Color is determined by kerning -- the spacing between letters -- leading -- the spaces between lines -- and the spacing between words. In Writer, kerning controls are adjusted in Spacing on the Position tab for Paragraph settings, and leading from Line Spacing -> Fixed on the Indents and Spacing tab. You have less control over the spacing between words, but, on the whole, a left alignment is easier to work with than a justified line, since justification partly works by adding additional spacing between words. However, running hyphenation can improve full justification immensely.

To set color, you have to adjust these controls until you get a result that is neither too light nor too dark. While you may get lucky, probably you will have to play with small adjustments for some time.

When you have the basic coloring determined, you also have to consider breaks in the main text flow, such as styles for headings, block quotes, footnotes and captions. Such paragraphs often have extra spacing before or after them set in Spacing on the Indents and Spacing tab. To keep the color consistent, and to continue to take advantage of the Register-true setting, this extra spacing plus the size of the font itself should be a multiple of the leading you have set.

For instance, if you have a 12 point font that uses 14 point leading, you might choose to set the Heading 1 paragraph style to a font height of 24 points, with 12 points above it and 6 points below, for a total of 42 points (3x14). You need to make similar characteristics with each break in the main text flow.

With the color determined, you can calculate the size of your text block. The number of lines per page generally does not matter much, but readability is determined by the length of the line. The general rule in typography is to set the line length to just under three alphabets -- somewhere between 64 and 72 characters in a single column text block. If you are using multiple columns, then each column should be about one and a half alphabets, or 40-50 characters long.

By physically typing out three alphabets, you can quickly determine the size of the text block. Adjust the side margins until the text block is just slightly larger than the length of three alphabets. Don't worry about the precise side margins yet -- you will be adjusting them in the next step.

Setting margins to classical proportions

As everyone can see, a page has four margins. But what fewer people know (or have stopped to think about) are the purposes of these margins.

The top and the bottom may contain information to help readers navigate through the book, such as page numbers, or additional or digressive thoughts such as footnote. By contrast, the inner and outer margins may include headers or annotations, but, mainly, the outer margins provide a place to hold a printed document, while the inner margin may require an additional centimeter or more so that the document can be bound without obscuring the ends of lines.

For online documents, most of these traditional considerations do not matter. However, that does not change the concern for margins. Cramped margins are uninviting, so that readers have to force themselves to read, and, at least for people over fifty, may be reminiscent of newspapers, and, therefore, of material not to be read carefully. For these reasons, margins matter even online, where you have the advantage of not worrying about the cost of printing extra pages that generous margins can add.

In The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst analyzes several classical page layouts with some precision. For example, here is his summary of the so-called golden section, the proportions that many typographers think are ideal:

  • Page Proportion (height to width) = 1.414
  • Text Block (main text frame) = 1.62
  • Inner Margin= Top Margin= width of page/9
  • Outer Margin = Bottom margin = 2(Inner Margin)

(I have changed some of his terms for ease of reading and to coincide with what you see in Writer's controls).

Other of Bringhurst's summaries give different classical proportions. However, what matters, I think, is not the precise proportions -- although you can copy them exactly, if you like -- so much as the general rules that you can deduce from them about what makes a page that is easy to read.

From Bringhurst's examples, the top margin varies, but is generally a proportion of the page width. The bottom margin of a well-designed page is 25-100% larger than the top margin, while the inner margin is the same size as the top margin, and the outer margin either the same size or wider than the inner margin.

Having set the text block, you now know how much space you have to work with for the side margins. Working with what space you have, you can quickly set the inner and outer margins by dividing what is left over from the text block, then from there determine the top and bottom margins.

Headings and footers

Writer offers numerous controls for headers and footers in the page settings. The trick is not to be overwhelmed by them, and to add only the minimum that you need. The odds are overwhelming that you do not need a header with a drop shadow, or a box completely around the footer. If your top and bottom margins are tall enough, you may not need anything at all to separate them from the text block. At the most, a single thin line is all you need in most cases.

The same is true of the information you put in headers and footers. Almost all documents require a page number on each page, but many require nothing more. For instance, if the pages are loose or you have multiple authors with different essays in one document, you might want to add the writer's name and the title. Similarly, technical documentation might benefit from a footer with the chapter title or even running heads that change as the header in the text block changes. In all cases, though, the point is not to distract readers with unnecessary information.

In fact, you should ask yourself if you need both a header and a footer. Often, just one or the other can carry all the information you need.

The defaults aren't good enough

Naturally, you do not have to follow these steps. They may seem fussy, too much a marketing-like concern with externals, when all you really want to do is convey information. Fair enough -- but don't be surprised if readers complain about having difficulty reading what you have to say. Typography is not about applying an arbitrary gloss to what you have to say, but about improving the chances that your words will be read and understood.

At any rate, the trouble with the defaults in most Writer packages is that they are not set to present your words in the best light. For instance, on the Debian machine I am writing on, the default 12 point Liberation Serif font produces a line of over three and a half alphabets with the default margins -- enough so that reading becomes harder. Similarly, all the default margins are .79 inches, making for a symmetrical but bland page.

Some settings have to be chosen for the defaults, of course. But why not improve them, especially when you can adjust them so easily? Besides, once you have set up your pages, you can create a default template to preserve the settings and to keep you from thinking about these matters for a long time.

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