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Technical Writing Using Writer
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A style is a set of formats that you can apply to selected pages, paragraphs, characters, frames, and other elements in your document to change their appearance quickly. When you apply a style, you apply a whole group of formats at the same time. Thus you can easily ensure consistency in page layout and the appearance of headings, captions, lists, graphics, and other elements. More importantly, you can quickly and easily change that appearance by changing the style in one place; all the elements tagged with that style will change immediately.

Writer supports styles for pages, paragraphs, characters, frames, and numbering. It comes with several predefined styles in each category. You can modify these styles, and you can also define custom styles. You can use any combination of styles to suit your document, and you can also override styles for specific paragraphs if you need to (such as tagging specific paragraphs to be kept with the subsequent paragraph).

Page styles define the basic layout (paper size, margin widths, placement of headers and footers, number of columns, and so on) of all pages in a Writer document. You can have one or many page styles in a single document; for example, you can define styles for the first page of each chapter, left and right pages, index pages, contents pages, landscape pages, and any other pages you might need. If you don't define your own page styles or choose one of the built-in styles, Writer uses the default page style supplied with the program. Although not as powerful as FrameMaker's master pages, Writer's page layout handling is more versatile than Word's.

Paragraph styles control all aspects of a paragraph's appearance, such as text alignment, tab stops, line spacing, spaces before and after the paragraph, first line indent, borders and shading, and a character style for the paragraph. If you plan to use Writer's table of contents feature, you'll need to be sure to tag all headings with appropriate paragraph styles (either the built-in ones or those you create yourself) so Writer can identify which paragraphs are headings. Tagging other paragraphs with specific styles, instead of using manual overrides, can also help you maintain consistent presentation--especially if you need to change any aspect of that presentation, such as the font size or the space before or after the paragraph.

Character styles affect selected text within a paragraph, such as font, size, boldface, italics, superscript, and other characteristics. These styles are particularly helpful for tagging items such as the names of controls on a user interface or perhaps a product name, but this usage is often overlooked. I learned the value of character styles the hard way while writing my book. I didn't use styles for these items; instead, I manually made bold the name of each menu bar item and toolbar button. When my O'Reilly editor asked me to remove the bold, I had to use search and replace to make the changes; then I had to look through the entire document to make sure I hadn't missed anything. If I had used a character style for those items, I could have changed them all instantly by simply changing the style.

Frame styles are used to format graphic and text frames, including wrapping type, borders, backgrounds, and columns.

Numbering styles apply alignment, fonts, and number or bullet characters to numbered or bulleted lists, and they outline numbered paragraphs such as headings. They are useful for a variety of purposes, including complex numbering schemes and dramatic layouts that involve large, bold numbers or graphics for bullet points.

Page Layout

You cannot change the underlying page style for an individual page, but you can control page layouts by using combinations of page styles, paragraph styles, tables, columns, and frames. Well-planned combinations can provide consistency throughout a document while allowing differences when needed; if you're creating a complex layout (for example, for a newsletter), Writer provides the flexibility you need.

After you have set up your basic page styles, you can look at the finer details of page layout. In many cases, you can control page layout by using paragraph styles alone. For example, you can define heading paragraphs to be flush with the left margin and paragraphs for text or graphics to be offset from the left margin.

In some cases, you might need to use other methods to place text or graphics where you want them. One of those methods is to use tables to position various page elements or to line up graphics or side heads in the margin with specific paragraphs.

You can also use columns for page layout, and you can switch between single- and multiple-column layouts on the same page. Columns can be of equal or unequal widths.

For complex layout purposes, you may find that frames are a better choice, because you have more control over the placement of text. Frames can be very useful if you are producing a newsletter or another layout-intensive document. Frames can contain text, tables, multiple columns, pictures, and other objects. You can link the content of one frame to another so that the contents flow back and forth between them as you edit the text.

A Change-Tracking Feature

Writer's change-tracking feature records who made which changes to a document. It is valuable when you are collaborating with other contributors to a document or when a document is edited or reviewed.

Writer's change-tracking feature is similar to Word's and thus is better than FrameMaker's. Although it has some minor irritating features, change tracking works well in Writer.

Master Documents

When working with large or complex documents (such as a book, a thesis, or a long report), you have two choices: keeping the entire document in one large file or breaking it up into a series of smaller ones. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Smaller files are most useful when graphics, spreadsheets, or other included material causes the file size to become quite large, or when different people are writing different chapters or other parts of the document.

If you choose to use smaller files, you can often combine them into one large file at the end of the project before generating the table of contents and index. Another approach is to use a master document.

Yes, master documents do work in Writer--quite well, in fact. However, their use is full of traps for inexperienced users. Until you become familiar with the traps and how to avoid (or work around) them, you may think that master documents are unreliable or difficult to use.

You can use several methods to create master documents. Each method has its pluses and minuses. The method you choose depends on what you are trying to accomplish. In my book, I describe each of these methods and their good and bad points, and I give an extended example of how to set up a master document for a book with complex page-numbering requirements.

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