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.


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