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Technical Writing Using Writer

by Jean Hollis Weber, author of Writer: The Free Alternative to Microsoft Word

Technical writers produce a wide range of documents, such as data sheets, specifications, user guides, online help, marketing materials, proposals, tenders, reports, and more. Although the final layout of many of these documents is often done using FrameMaker, PageMaker, or QuarkXPress, far more documents are produced using Microsoft Word.

If you're in the business of writing technical documents and you've been using Word in particular, you could benefit by switching to Writer. Writer is a strong competitor to Word for both drafts and final layout (desktop publishing) of many technical documents because it combines some of the best features of Word and FrameMaker. Indeed, Writer does several things better or easier than each of them, as I'll discuss in this article. I cover this information in more detail in my book, Writer: The Free Alternative to Microsoft Word (O'Reilly Community Press, July 2004). I created the book using and output it to PDF for printing.

A Tech Writer's Toolbox of Features (OOo) is an open source application that runs on Windows, Macintosh, Linux, and Solaris. The application includes several components: a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet utility (Calc), a presentations program (Impress), and a drawing function (Draw). It is available for download from the site. OOo documents are zipped files containing XML files and graphics files.

In addition to all the usual features you'd expect to find in a word processor (such as a spell checker, wildcard search and replace, embedding and linking of spreadsheets and graphics, the use of headers and footers, automatic tables of contents and indexes, and many others), Writer has many features of particular interest to technical writers. Here are a few of them:

  • A customizable interface
  • Document templates
  • Styles (for pages, paragraphs, characters, frames, and numbering)
  • Advanced page layout capabilities
  • A change-tracking feature
  • Master documents that work
  • Fields
  • Conditional content
  • A bibliography database
  • An equation (formula) editor
  • A macro language
  • PDF exporting
  • Microsoft Office compatibility

Let's look at the good (and a few bad) points of each of these in a bit more detail.

Related Reading Writer
The Free Alternative to Microsoft Word
By Jean Hollis Weber

A Customizable Interface

If you plan to use Writer a lot, you'll want to take the time to set up the interface to suit your work and your personal preferences. Writer's default options at installation include some automatic features that you'll probably want to turn off. Many of these are found in Tools -> Options; others are in Tools -> AutoCorrect/AutoFormat. You can also change the menus and toolbars using Tools -> Customize.

Document Templates

Templates can store styles, text, graphics, and user-specific setup information such as measurement units, language, the default printer, and toolbar and menu customization.

You can create as many templates as you want--at least one for each type of document you produce. When you start a new document from one of these templates, much of the setup work is already done for you. If you wish, you can modify individual documents so that they are different from the template on which they are based. For example, you can include logos and standard text such as an address or a legal notice in the template, but you might not want them in every document based on the template.

All Writer documents are based on templates. If you don't specify a template when you start a new document, the document will be based on the default template for text documents. If you haven't specified a default, Writer uses the blank template that is installed with the program.

You can specify any template as the default template for text documents, and you can quickly and easily change the default template at any time. Changing a default template has no effect on existing documents.

Template handling has some features that I hope will be improved in a future release. For example, Writer provides two ways to save templates, but the consequences differ. If you use File -> Templates -> Save, any document subsequently based on that template will retain an association with the template. (I call these "sticky" templates.) If you use File -> Save As -> Template, documents based on the template will not retain an association with the template.

So what? you may ask. When you change a sticky template, the next time you open any document based on that template, you can choose to update the document's styles from the template. This feature is important if you want your documents to always reflect the latest changes to a template. Large projects, including master documents, and projects with more than one writer typically make extensive use of templates in this way.

Another problem is that Writer does not provide ways to attach a template to a document after the document is created, or to change the template attached to a document. In both cases, you'll need to create a new, blank document from the required template and copy the old document into it, or you'll need to use Format -> Styles -> Load to import styles from the new template into the document. Both methods work, but they are cumbersome.

My book covers some of the other template limitations. Despite these issues, templates work well, and most problems are a matter of learning some slightly different techniques than you've been used to in Word or another program.

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