Text flow in OpenOffice.org Writer

Most people are content to let their word processor determine hyphenation and text breaks for them. And, most of the time, the result is acceptable if they do. However, just as the default justification can be improved if you want to take the time, so can the text flow. OpenOffice.org has the tools you need, but improving the text flow is as much about knowing the conventions of text flow (what you might think of as the typographical grammar) as the settings themselves.


Unknown to most people, hyphenation follows strict rules. Or, to be exact, it does so in professional typography; digital layout is much looser. These rules are neatly summarized in Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographical Style, which is widely considered the Bible of modern typography, and is certainly the most concise guide to type layout ever written.

How do Writer's defaults compare to the conventions? Let's see:

The most basic rule for hyphenation is that it should occur between syllables. Moreover, hyphenation should be according to the pronunciation of the word in the language that you are using. As Bringhurst points out, that means that the same word may be hyphenated differently in different languages. For example, in English, "cabriolet" is pronounced "ca-bri-o-let," but, in French, the same word is "ca-brio-let." Like any word processor, Writer may need manual intervention when it occasionally fails to divide a word on a syllable, but its use of hyphenation dictionaries means that it usually distinguishes between pronunciations in different languages. These dictionaries can be downloaded from File -> Wizards -> Install new dictionaries.

Writer's greatest flaw in implementing basic hyphenation is that individual hyphenation dictionaries do not always exist for variations of a language. For instance, if you select to install a Canadian hyphenation dictionary, what you get is the one for Great Britain. However, given the mixed influences in Canada, a purist would need a hyphenation dictionary that also included some American usages. Still, on the whole, Writer's hyphenation dictionaries -- at least the English ones with which I am familiar -- are generally adequate.

The next basic rule is that a hyphenated word should leave a minimum of two characters at the end of a line, and its stub on the new line should have a minimum of three characters. That means that fool-ish is acceptable, but not foolish-ly. You can adjust the number of characters from the Indents and Spacing tab of a paragraph style, but the default for Characters at line begin is two. So, you'll want to change that to three in your default template.

Other basic rules of hyphenation are not accommodated by Writer. Instead, you just have to remember them:

  • Never use more three hyphenated lines in a row on a page or column. Instead, adjust the hyphenation manually. If you continually have three hyphenated lines popping up, then take that as an indicator of a design problem and change your fonts or margins.
  • The last line of a paragraph should not consist of only a stub. It looks truncated, and to the casual eye may seem to be a spelling mistake.
  • In most cases, do not hyphenate a person's name, especially the first time it is used. If you do, the name may be misread, and it may look like a sign of disrespect, especially if one or both of the stubs spells out another word. If the name has appeared frequently in the text before the hyphenation, you might choose to make an exception.

As mentioned in my "Confessions of an unjustified sinner" article (which should have included an apology to James Hogg -- start up Google if you don't know why), you can correct places where Writer commits these errors by running Tools -> Language -> Hyphenation, or fine-tweaking individual lines using Format -> Character -> Position -> Spacing to adjust the spacing between letters.

At other times, you may want to improve readability by pressing Ctrl+Spacebar to keep the words on either side of the space together.

Text breaks

The other main consideration in text flow is where one page or column ends and another starts. The most common rule for text breaks is that you should never allow an orphan, a single line at the bottom of a page or column, or a widow, a single line at the top of a new page or column. However, Bringhurst suggests the looser rule of allowing orphans, but not widows -- you can take your pick of which rule to follow.

(Bringhurst also gives the best suggestion I've seen about how to remember the difference between these two time-honoured terms:Orphans, he says, "have no past, but have a future," while widows "have a past, but not a future.")

The Text flow tab of a paragraph style has options for avoiding both orphans and widows, with defaults of keeping two lines together in cases where you would otherwise have one of either. This default is reasonably standard, but it may leave a short page if a line is taken to support a widow on the next page. However, you can correct that by increasing some of the line spacing on the short page by a few careful increments. Spread out over thirty or so lines, the increase will probably not be noticeable.

Needless to say, the rule about orphans should not apply to a single line paragraph.Strangely enough, Tools -> Autocorrect includes an option to automatically combine a single line paragraph if its length is more than 50% of the line, but selecting this option can interfere with dialog in fiction, or short paragraphs used for effect. Sometimes, you simply want to use short paragraphs for effect, and, in these cases, adhering too firmly to a rule makes no sense.

You know what I mean?


Some of Writer's defaults run counter to typographical convention, but you can easily create a template that matches many of the norms, then make it as your default template by selecting File -> Template - > Save, then going to File -> Template -> Organize, and selecting Set as default template from the right-click menu.

For other text flow conventions, Writer has the tools to implement them, but you need to memorize them. To some users, that may sound too punctilious to be worthwhile. However, these conventions are not arbitrary, but general rules developed over several centuries to produce attractive documents. That makes them well-worth following when you want to give your documents a little extra appeal. Although most readers won't consciously notice such conventions, they will notice whether a document is easily readable -- and, the less they have to focus on presentation, the more they can focus on what you're saying and the more kindly disposed they may be towards you and your argument.

In programs like Writer, we have the tools at hand to implement these conventions. So why not learn them, the same way we learn spelling and other means of presenting ourselves? Really, they're an advanced form of literacy.

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