OpenOffice.org Extensions: Writer's Tools
One of the perqs of being a journalist is that I often hear about software and events before most people. A case in point is Writer's Tools, an extension for OpenOffice.org Writer being developed by my fellow journalist Dimitri Popov, whose articles about macros have taught me most of what I know on the subject. As the name suggests, Writer's Tools is a collection of various utilities that might be useful for writers. It's a little rough in places, being only at version 0.9.27, and possibly a little idiosyncratic, but like Emacs, Writer's Tools is so varied that it undoubtedly has something for everyone, regardless of their writing habits.
Writer's Tools consists of three parts: The basic extension, a couple of templates, and a Java database for some of the included tools. You can install the extension and templates using Tools -> Extension Manager, accessing the tools from a new top-level menu and the extensions from File -> New -> Templates and Documents -> Templates. To install the database, you need to open Tools -> Options -> OpenOffice.org Base -> Databases -> New. After installation, the database is largely transparent to the user, except for the dialogs that open to display the information stored in it.
Optionally, you can edit some Writer's Tools features -- for instance, adding new links to the Lookup Tools. The extensive help that accompanies Writer's Tools gives you detailed instructions about how to modify the macros so that you can customize.
Opening the grab bag
Opening the Writer's Tools menu after the extension is installed, you find more a list of 20 items, organized into natural divisions.
A few of these items -- the Word Hunt Game, the Q and A Game, the Letter Hunt Game, and Word of the Day feature -- are simple diversions for when you want to take a quick break from the work. The games, however, are probably too simple for most people to return to them a second time. In the Word Hunt Game, for instance, you simply guess which of five words the extension has flagged. Similarly, Word of the Day is the OpenOffice.org equivalent of one of those desktop calendars with a new word definition or quote for each day -- although Popov does suggest on the Writer's Tools web page that you might use it to store words you found interesting. But, for the most part, these are the least useful or interesting of the Writer's Tool.
The rest of the tools are far more promising. At the top of the menu is a collection of reference tools. You can use the Lookup to find the definition of a highlighted word, or the Google Translate link to translate a phrase. Highlight an address, and you can link to a Google Map for it.
Another grouping gives you various backup functions. You can use the Email or Remote Backup tools to store your work off-site, although Email Backup is functionally equivalent to File -> Send -> Document As E-mail. You can also use
Multi-format Backup to create a zip file with copies of your current document in Word, RTF, and TXT formats (although, strangely, not in ODF or OpenOffice.org 1.x format).
Still another set of tools is designed to help you in the actual moment of writing. You can add text and graphics to the Basket to store it the database as a kind of clipboard, organizing material by both category and tag. If you click the F4 key to start OpenOffice.org's native Database Tool, you can then drag and drop an entry -- or "snippet," as Writer's Tool calls it -- into another document.
In addition, Writer's Tools also includes a Notes feature, which functions similarly. OpenOffice.org already has a note tool, of course, but, in its current incarnation, it is difficult to read (that will change in September, though, when OpenOffice.org 3.0 is due for release). By contrast, Writer's Tools' notes are stored in a database, with fields for Expression and Usage, as well as Source and Category. Overall, the Notes feature compares favorably with Tomboy, although, unlike that panel app, it can only be used within OpenOffice.org. The same is also true of the Task tool, which provides an OpenOffice.org-only alternative to Evolution and KTask.
For writers working by the hour, Writer's Tools includes a timer, whose results you can save for future reference. Still another tool is the obscurely named Wikify Word, which creates a file named for the currently highlighted word and adds a link to it. You can also use the App Launcher to start a program from inside OpenOffice.org, or Convert To to save in another format, or, if you run into trouble not covered by OpenOffice.org's online help, click the link to the Lulu page for Popov's book
Not included in the present version, but apparently soon to be integrated (judging from the web page) is Popov's miniInvoice extension, which is currently available as a separate download. A second generation extension, miniInvoice is built on the Sun Report Builder extension, and well-worth a closer look if you are a professional writer who needs to bill.
Finally, Writer's Tools includes two templates, a generic article template with relatively few customizations, and a book template set up with a title page, front matter, table of contents, preface, chapters, and indexes, all with dummy text so you can see how the parts inter-relate.
A wish list
Writer's Tools is very much a work in progress. I can think of at least two tools -- a selection of readability indexes, or at least links to them, and a thesaurus organized by concept rather than words -- that might enhance it, and no doubt others can think of more. After all, I have yet to meet a working writer whose habits were identical to another's.
And that, perhaps, is the main challenge that Writer's Tools faces as it moves towards completion. Satisfying every writer's habits and needs is probably impossible, yet some attempt to address a greater variety would be useful -- if only a way to turn off the features that you don't want and make the menu more navigable. That would be particularly useful for those who do not care to have every writing tool in a single window or menu, and are content to open another window or use a panel app instead of a Writer's Tool feature.
Meanwhile, Writer's Tools is such a varied collection that it will be a rare writer who can't find some features in it that they want to use. Judging from the web page, it is already collecting favorable blurbs, and should receive even more when it is finished.