Open Source

Performing common Word tasks in OpenOffice.org 2.0's Writer

Switching from one word processor can mean learning a whole new set of commands and ways of doing things. The creators of OpenOffice tried hard to make Writer work and act just like Microsoft Word. Greg Shultz shows how it works.

Many folks may be a bit apprehensive about making the switch from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.org because of the learning curve. Sure the cost difference, several hundred bucks vs. free, is very, very attractive! But is that savings going to be eaten away by training costs and lost productivity? Fortunately, the answer is no! OpenOffice.org 2.0's cadre of open source developers has spent a great deal of time in an attempt to make the two office suites as alike as possible in both the feature set and more importantly in the user interface. And, they've succeeded!

Realistically speaking, it will take some time to make the transition as many features and settings are named differently and are in different locations, but the names and locations aren't too far of a stretch of the imagination and it's easy to make the connections. As such, it won't take nearly as much time as you might think for seasoned Microsoft Office users to train themselves how to use OpenOffice.org 2.0.

One of the most commonly used applications in an office suite is the word processor and while Microsoft Word has all but tied up the top spot in this application category, OpenOffice.org 2.0's Writer could very easily unseat Word and take over the throne. In the arena of word processing tasks, feature by feature, Writer can match or better Word in every way really matters. With this challenge in mind, let's take a look at performing some common Word tasks in OpenOffice.org 2.0's Writer.

Creating custom templates and styles

In most business environments, all documents are based on templates, which can contain font settings, formatting, or boilerplate text, so that they all have a similar look and feel. For example, you might use a letterhead template for your company correspondence to make sure all letters from your company have a standard look. Similarly, you might use templates for memos, faxes, legal documents, or marketing materials. To ensure that the formatting in the document based on your templates remains consistent you can create styles and save them in your templates.

As such, creating templates and styles is a pretty common task that you'll want to perform in Writer. Fortunately, this operation is quite straight-forward in Writer.

To begin, just open a new document using the default template. Once you have a blank document open, create a complete mockup of the type information that a document based on this template should contain. For example, you should include titles, headings, sample body text, as well as any boilerplate text. As you do, go ahead apply all the formatting you'll want to each element such as font settings and spacing.

Now, pull down the File menu, select the Templates | Save command. When you see the Templates dialog box, as shown in Figure A, type a name for your custom template in the New Template text box and click OK.

Figure A:

When you see the Templates dialog box, you'll type a name for your custom template.

To create the styles based on the formatting that you've applied to the elements in your template, pull down the Format menu and select the Styles and Formatting command. When you see the Styles And Formatting dialog box appear, you'll see that the default display is showing the Automatic And Paragraph Styles category, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B:

The Styles and Formatting dialog box allows you to create new styles as well as see and edit existing styles.

To create a style, select the element in your mockup from which you want to create a style. Then, click the New Style From Section button (see the pointer in Figure B) and select the like named command to bring up the Create Style dialog box, as shown in Figure C. Then, type an appropriate name in the Style Name text box and click OK. Repeat these steps for each element and close the Styles and Formatting dialog box. Then, save the template again—overwriting the previous version in the process.

Figure C:

Since you've already formatted the element, all you really have to do to create the style is give it a name.

To complete the template, you may want to remove the mockup text while leaving any boilerplate text in place. To do so, position the cursor at the beginning of a line of mockup text that you want to remove and carefully press the delete key to delete each character one-by-one, but do not delete the line. (If you delete the line you'll remove the style from the template.)

To complete the operation, save the template again by pulling down the File menu, and selecting the Templates | Save command —you'll again overwrite the previous version in the process. Then, close and discard the document.

To use your new template and styles, go to File | New | Templates And Documents. Select the Template icon, double-click the My Templates category, and then select your template, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D:

Once you've created your template, you can access it easily from the My templates category in the Templates and Documents dialog box.

Creating tables with the Table toolbar

Tables provide you with a way to create spreadsheet-like items in word processing documents. Tables can also be used to improve the layout of a page. Regardless of how you plan to use tables, you'll discover that Writer provides you with everything that you need on the Table toolbar.

Of course, you can create tables by using the Insert | Table command on the Table menu or by clicking the Table button on the toolbar and using the miniature grid; however, you can make the entire operation a breeze by enabling the Table toolbar. To do so, go to View | Toolbars | Table.

Once the Table toolbar is visible, use its Table button to create your table. You can then use the buttons on the Table toolbar, as shown in Figure E, to easily perform many of the common table operations, such as inserting and deleting rows and columns, sorting, formatting, merging and splitting cells, as well as adding borders and color. You'll still find the same commands as well as additional commands on the Table menu.

Figure E:

The Table Toolbar provides you with one-click access to most of the tools you'll need to create and format your tables.

Performing a Mail Merge operation

Sending a form letters to a large number of clients either via a paper copy or e-mail is another common task that you'll want to perform in Writer. To help you manage this type of operation, you'll want to take advantage of Writer's Mail Merge Wizard, which you access from the Tools menu.

The data source, which contains the list of names and addresses the letter is to be sent to, can be a database, a text file, or even a spreadsheet. Let's assume that you'll be working from a spreadsheet and see how the Mail Merge Wizard works.

Once the Mail Merge Wizard appears on the screen, as shown in Figure F, you'll be prompted to select the starting document, or form letter, which in most cases will be the current document. You'll then select the document type, Letter or E-mail message.

Figure F:

You can use the Mail Merge Wizard to automate bulk mailings.

When you get to the third screen in the wizard, as shown in Figure G, you'll perform three operations: First you'll pick the data source by choosing the Select Address List button. If you've already selected a data source, this button will be titled Select Different Address List.

Figure G:

You'll perform three individual steps in the Insert Address Block page of the Mail Merge Wizard.

While it's listed as number 3 on this page, you'll next want to click the Match Fields button in order to make sure the address data in the data source correctly matches the address elements that the Wizard has selected. As you can see in Figure H, the Match Fields dialog box provides you with drop-down text boxes and a preview window, to make this task easy as possible.

Figure H:

The Match Fields dialog box makes it easy to make sure the address data in the data source correctly matches the wizard's address elements.

You can then specify how you want the address block to be formatted by clicking the More button and then clicking the Edit button to bring up the Edit Address Block dialog box, as shown in Figure I.

Figure I:

You can insert address elements and then use the arrow buttons to set placement.

That's pretty much all there is to the setup of the mail merge and if you've created a well thought out form letter to begin with, you can click Next several times to move down to Step 8, as shown in Figure J. At this point you can save or print the mail merge document.

Figure J:

In the last step, you can save or print the merged document.

Exporting to PDF format

If you want to electronically share the document that you've created in Writer with anyone in your business or on the Internet and don't want to allow then to alter the layout or text, You can take advantage of Writer's ability to export the document as a standard Portable Document Format (PDF) file. Just click the Export Directly As PDF button on the standard toolbar, type a filename in the Export dialog box, and click the Save button. You can then copy the PDF file to any location you want.

If you'll be e-mailing the PDF, save yourself a step and select the Send | Document as PDF command from the File menu. You'll then see the PDF Options dialog box, as shown in Figure K, and can optimize the PDF file for sending via email. Writer will then launch your email application, create new message, and then attach the PDF.

Figure K:

Writer makes it easy to save your text document as a PDF file and attach it to an e-mail message all in one step.

A good Word replacement

When it comes to creating documents, you'll discover that Writer provides you with everything that you've come to know and love in Word. In this article, we've taken a look at performing some other common Word tasks in OpenOffice.org 2.0's Writer.

About Greg Shultz

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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