by Scott Rhoades
In recent years, many people--including business, governments, and other organizations--have chosen OpenOffice.org (OOo) over Microsoft Office. The reasons most often cited are cost (OOo is free as in "free beer," while Office definitely isn't) and open standards (OOo is also free as in "free speech").
(Note: In this post "OOo" also includes LibreOffice, the promising new spin-off from OpenOffice.org. Everything I write here about OOo applies to both versions.)
The cost thing is certainly attractive to writers, who typically don't earn enough from our writing to pay the big price tag charged by Microsoft. But many of us buy Office anyway. It is, after all, by far the market share leader and the industry standard. As they say, you get what you pay for, so that high price tag must mean Word is way better than Writer, the word processing component of OOo.
But is it? In some ways, yes, especially the new collaboration features in Word 2010. However, in other ways that are important in the daily work of a writer, Word falls far short.
In this post, I list some of the features that lead me to use OOo far more than I use Word, even though I have free access to Microsoft Office through my job and was able to take advantage of a special offer through work to purchase Office 2010 for about $10. For me, it's not about the price. It's about how OOo helps me work.
Styles and Templates
Both Word and Writer help you create consistent-looking manuscripts with styles and templates. However, that's where the similarity stops. Word has a problem with the way it manages templates. A Word document is tied to the template it uses. If you change a style in the document, it changes the template. Changing the template affects other documents that were created using that template.
In OOo, templates and documents are protected from each other. You assign a template to a document, as you do in Word, but you can change a style to meet the needs of a particular document without affecting the template.
When styles and templates work properly, there is no reason to ever touch the one-off formatting features of your word processor, such as the italics button or the font chooser. When you use a style, it's easy to make changes. If your old manuscript used underlines instead of italics, and you want to use the current preference for italics, you have to go through and look for every underlined word and change it. If you used a style, you only need to change the style and all of those old-timey underlines change to italics at once.
So you want your styles and templates to work in a sane, manageable way. Many writers who have always used Word give up on styles because Word's styles don't work correctly. Writer's do.
Master documents allow you to group a collection of separate files into a single document without losing the flexibility of the separate files. For example, you can keep each chapter or scene in a separate file, and use a master document to assemble your book. The master document is, simply put, a document containing links to the individual files. You still work in the chapter files, but let the master document pull it all together.
The need for this feature is obvious for book writers. So obvious, in fact, that Word used to have it. The problem is, Word's master document feature was notorious for corrupting files. For years, Word users were warned not to use master documents. Some used it with success, but the risk was high and many more learned the hard way that the warnings should have been heeded. Beginning with Office 2007, Microsoft hid the master document feature, claiming that an outline was essentially the same thing. I wasn't even able to find reference to master documents in the Word 2010 help. If it's there, it's buried, and for good reason.
In OOo, however, master documents work beautifully. They even work in an expected way with templates. If you assign a template to a master document, the master document template takes precedence over the templates in the individual files. That means you can create a collection of all those short stories you wrote over the years, and have them look the same across the whole collection, without breaking the styles in the original file. If you want to print the story by itself, it keeps the styles assigned to the file. If you want to include it in a collection of other stories, it takes the styles from the master document to give the collection a consistent look.
And all without file corruption.
This is another feature Word used to have but caused file corruption. It works in OOo. Basically, you can save different versions of the same document in the same file, so you can easily compare versions or go back to a previous version. If used properly and consistently, this can be a great help in keeping your files organized. The downside is, of course, that ten versions of a document in a single file make the file size grow accordingly, but chances are you're already taking up that much space with several copies of the same document, saved in multiple versions. Unless you have an older computer that's short on memory, the larger file sizes are unlikely to cause you any problems.
From talking to other writers, I've learned that customizing my tools is more important to me than it is to many people, but for me, this is an important way of making my tools easier to use, and of making me feel like they really are mine.
You can customize so much of the OOo interface that you can quite literally create your own version of the word processor, designed to work the way you do. For example, because I use styles and templates exclusively and almost never use the other formatting features for formatting changes, I have removed the formatting buttons and menus from my OOo toolbars so they are not in my way, taking up space that can be used for macros and other personalizations. If an icon doesn't make sense to you, you can most likely change it. If you have trouble remembering the keyboard shortcut for a frequent action, you can usually change it to something you'll remember. If you think an option is in the wrong menu, move it, or even create your own menus.
Customization doesn't stop there. You can add extensions to OOo to add more features. One that is particularly useful is called Writer Tools, a collection of 18 (last time I counted) tools, some of which are sure to make your writing life easier. For example, you can back up a file in several formats with a single click, quickly get the definition of a word, track the lengths of your writing sessions, and more.
Word has made some advances in customization. For example, there were enough complaints about people not being able to find their way around the Office 2007 ribbon that Office 2010 allows some customization of the ribbon to make your life easier. But this is a far cry from making the program your own. Microsoft is notorious for trying to figure out what you want to do and then doing it for you, whether it's really what you want or not. OOo does some of that too, as do most modern computer programs, but you can almost always change it to do what you really want. Microsoft very rarely gives you that flexibility.
When you can make your tools your own, you don't have to fight against them or try to figure out how the programmers want you to do what you want to do. You feel ownership of the tool, rather than feeling like it was lent to you. This goes back to the open source versus commercial thang: OOo is yours, literally. When you download it and install it, it belongs to you. If you know how, you're even free to change the source code and compile your own version. With Word, you're paying Microsoft a huge fee for a license that allows you to use their program. When you own it, when it's yours, when you can make it work for you the way you like, working with it becomes more enjoyable. You set up your work space so you're comfortable and creative there. Why not your word processor?
You might be thinking this all sounds great, but the fact remains that Word is the industry standard, and if you want to play in the industry game, you have to use their ball. That's true, and I don't have an argument against it.
Fortunately, I don't need to have one. OOo reads and writes Word files. Unless you do some especially complicated formatting, chances are good nobody else will ever be able to tell that you didn't use Word. Auto-numbering can sometimes get messed up, but that happens between versions of Microsoft Word as well, and, in fact, can even be messed up worse between versions of Word than between Word and OOo.
Heck, the LibreOffice spin-off from OOo can even read those dusty old Microsoft Works files that are rotting away on disks you don't want to throw away, but that can't be easily imported into your newer word processor.
It's Your Choice
In the end, the tools each writer chooses depend on several factors, including comfort and familiarity, how well they facilitate writing without getting in the way, and several other professional and personal factors. But you can't make a choice without knowing the options. I hope this post helps you find the word processor that helps you the most. If you're used to Word, you might want to keep using it, even if it frustrates you, because you know it and you're used to its idiosyncrasies. Fair enough. Any change to a new program means you have to learn a new set of weirdnesses, and OOo certainly has its share of those. When you know something well, you don't want to change. But if any of the features I mentioned look interesting to you, check it out. It won't cost you a cent.
Use the following links to get OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice, or just to read more about them.
And, just for kicks and fairness, although I didn't talk about it here, here's a link to AbiWord, another free word processor that is used by a growing number of writers and gets a share of the love: