Nine Improvements Overdue in LibreOffice Writer

Tuesday Jan 29th 2013 by Bruce Byfield

The latest version adds some welcome new features, but LibreOffice Writer has some legacy issues that should have been addressed years ago.

LibreOffice 4.0 is still a few days from release. However, after playing around with the Writer app in latest release candidate, I can see already that some longstanding problems remain uncorrected.

Don't get me wrong—I have nothing but respect for the work that LibreOffice has done in the last twenty-eight months. Although at first I doubted that it could ever be more than a minor fork, LibreOffice has done more during its brief existence to improve the code it inherited from than managed in a decade.

The upcoming release continues that tradition, with many welcome features. In Writer, the improvements include comments attached a text range, easier setup of different headers and footers on the first page of a document, and improved import of ink annotations and mathematical expressions, as well as updated interfaces for some (but not all) dialogs.

What I am talking about are more basic improvements—some of which LibreOffice not only inherited from, but which OpenOffice inherited from StarOffice, the proprietary office suite it was based on. In other words, some of these improvements have been waiting to be made for almost fourteen years.

other priorities and a lack of coders probably explain some of these delays. Still, many of these improvements are starting to seem long overdue.

1. Constant Objects in Page Styles

More than any other feature, page styles help to make Writer not only a word processor, but an intermediate desktop publisher. In fact, as I have argued at length, Writer can be a free replacement for FrameMaker, an industry standard for text layout.

However, one major restriction remains: objects cannot be placed in the main body of a page style, which would allow them to appear each time that the style is used. That means, for instance, that you can't start each page that uses the style with a logo, or place a watermark on a page unless you do it manually for each page. The closest you can come is to place the object in a header or footer, which severely limits positioning. Correcting this limitation would go a long way toward improving Writer's layout capabilities.

2. Table Styles

Right now, Writer includes paragraph, character, page, frame and list styles. By contrast, the closest that tables have to styles is the Autoformat tool, which is so awkward to use that most users tend to ignore it. Instead, they adjust each table separately, using the Table Properties dialog. Most are surprised to learn that they can add their own layouts to Autoformat.

Just as the manual paragraphs and character formatting windows are the basis for styles, so Table Properties and several of the other items in the Tables top level menu could be the basis for table styles. Placed with the other five types of styles in the Styles and Formatting floating window, they would make tables easier to manage and make the underlying logic of Writer more consistent.

3. Graphical Resources

By default, Writer comes with a number of graphical resources. From Tools -> Galleries, you can find a number of backgrounds, buttons and bullets. Some of the bullets are also available from Format -> Bullets and Numbering -> Graphics.

All these resources are—how shall I put it? Soooo 1995. I doubt that anyone would use them unless deliberately creating a document with a retro look. Most people probably wouldn't care if they were deleted altogether. Or maybe they could be replaced with designs that someone today might actually use?

4. Enhanced Find Options

Experienced users of Writer know that the Navigator is the most efficient tool for finding their way around a document. However, users familiar with other word processors are more likely to turn to the Find tool. Then—after discovering that that Find has been reduced to a single field at the bottom of the editing window—to the Find and Replace tool, which still retains the advanced search tools that originally had.

Press the More button, and you can see that one option is Search for Styles. However, this option is limited to searching for paragraph styles. But you might want to search for the other types of styles as well, not just Attributes and Formats, especially when you are designing a document. Also, some searches might be quicker if you could search for the name that LibreOffice uses internally for an object—for instance, 2002 Table—rather than the Table Contents paragraph style.

Or, possibly, they could replace Find and Replace with the Navigator, which already has this capacity. At the very least, a link to open the Navigator could be added to the Find and Replace dialog. After all, the Navigator and the dialog both serve the same purpose.

5. Color Support

It's 2013, but LibreOffice still comes with only a hundred pre-defined colors. You can add colors if you want them—say, to match the colors on a company's logo—but the restriction seems a remnant of the mid-1990s, when memory was more restricted than today and every byte counted.

The restriction doesn't limit the display of imported images, but it does mean that, in practice, users tend to use only the pre-defined colors when adding a background color to a frame or a table. Worst of all, when they try to use any of the drawing tools, it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration, thanks to the limit on easily available colors.

6. Building Blocks for Cross References

Currently, cross references are implemented as fields. You set a phrase or heading as a source, then you use Insert Reference in the appropriate passage.

The weakness of this technique is that you have to add suitable words around the inserted reference, such as "For more information, see . . .," or "page" or "chapter." It's a clumsy implementation, and no better for the fact that other major word processors take a similar approach.

Instead of treating cross references as fields, LibreOffice would be better off treating them as simple versions of indexes and tables. The strength of Writer's indexes and tables is that they consist of building blocks that can be pre-arranged so that an entire entry can be created with a couple of keystrokes.

Cross-references treated as index and tables could include ready-made phrases to place around the reference and, perhaps, the ability for users to add their own. Users could arrange the phrases as part of the standard building blocks and even store multiple arrangements of building blocks for different purposes.

7. Automatic Ligatures

Some letter combinations, such as "ff" or "fl" make for awkward spacing that spoils the look of the page. For this reason, some typefaces include special characters called ligatures to use in place of these letter combinations.

When a typeface includes ligatures, you can add one as a special character. But it would be far easier if paragraph and character styles had the option to substitute ligatures automatically whenever possible. Perhaps all that would be needed is a table of substitutions, since the Unicode for the most common ligatures is usually consistent.

8. Outlining

Outline numbering in Writer is a mess. To start with, Writer has two tools for creating numbered outlines: Tools -> Outline Numbering, and the Outline Numbering tab in the Page styles dialog. The trouble is, neither has any connection with the other. Of the two, Tools -> Outline Numbering is probably the most useful, especially once you notice that you can substitute any paragraph style for the default Heading styles.

However, Writer lacks an outline view which is both readable and displays all paragraphs in a hierarchical tree whose levels can be expanded or collapsed at a click. The Navigator has some of these capabilities, but it is too small to be useful for anything except a short document—which probably doesn't need an outline view.

The best alternative is to do an outline in Impress, taking advantage of the naturally hierarchical structure of slide shows, then copy it over to Writer when you are finished structuring and ready to write. However, this is a clumsy workaround compared to a built-in outline view in Writer.

9. A Functional Bibliographical Database

In the Tools menu, Writer includes a Bibliographical Database. Unfortunately, it is rarely used because of several basic problems.

First, the database is used for all documents, not a single one. Once, this choice might have saved memory, but now it means that either the database quickly becomes unwieldy, or else users must spend time deleting references that are no longer needed. In fact, they might want to start by deleting the sample references.

Second, the database is poorly designed. Unless you take the time to experiment, you might not realize that the Identifier column corresponds to the Short Name field. Moreover, to edit a cell in the Identifier column, you have to use the Identifier field. Try editing the contents of the cell, and the next time you open the database, you'll find that your changes weren't saved. You might even conclude—like countless others before—that the database is broken.

But by far the most serious problem is that the examples of the Short Name or Identifier are misleading. If you have created a bibliographical entry using Insert -> Index and Tables -> Bibliographical Entry, you will know that the Short Name is the reference that appears in the document—under most systems of citation, the last name of the writer. But the included samples are abbreviations that have no function whatsoever. Simply including realistic Short Names in the samples would be an important step in making the database useful.

Ideally, the samples would also include sample entries for different citation styles—at the very least, the Chicago, APA and MLA styles. Or perhaps, when adding a bibliographical database to a file, users might be given a choice of which style it should be in.

Beyond the Word Processor

These are only the most overdue improvements for Writer. LibreOffice as a whole has a list of long-delayed improvements all of its own.

For instance, why does LibreOffice not ship with its own set of document and slide templates? Many distributors include their own, but far from all. Beginners would benefit from templates as they learn how LibreOffice does things.

Another question worth exploring is which apps are required in a modern office suite. Like Calligra Suite, LibreOffice could use a full flow chart tool, not just the rudimentary shapes among the drawing tools. Perhaps, too, the modern office suite could benefit from tools unthought of in the long-ago days when StarOffice owned the code, such as a mental mapping tool.

Most of all, though, LibreOffice needs to give its interface a higher priority. While some pieces of the interface have been improved, many remain formidably obscure and unfriendly by modern standards, including Autotext, Fields, and the Mail Merge Wizard. While LibreOffice's functionality is usually a match for rival proprietary office suites, its drab appearance remains stranded somewhere in the nineties.

The Document Foundation that oversees LibreOffice has done far more than anyone expected when it was founded. However, much remains to be done—no doubt with too few codes and too little funds. Writer, as LibreOffice's most widely used tool, remains a logical place to focus. Perhaps when LibreOffice moves beyond its next major release, they can at last address at least a few of the longstanding deficiencies.

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