Nine myths about styles in LibreOffice Writer

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 10, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

As Robin Williams (the designer, not the comedian) once explained in her book title, The PC Is Not A Typewriter. Office and layout programs are not just a keyboard with a screen, but an entirely different way of working. Central to that difference is the idea of styles -- a defined set of formatting options comparable to a variable declared in code. Yet  many writers refuse to use styles, preferring to format everything manually, even at the cost of making their work slower and more laborious.

Every so often, the debate over using styles breaks out on the LibreOffice mailing lists. It soon becomes obvious that those who prefer manual formatting have little idea what using styles really means, because they are constantly rationalizing with misinformation that a half hours' experience would disprove.

However, the manual formatters rarely take that half hour to learn what they are talking about, so their ideas need to be debunked:

Myth: Styles deny users' right to work the way they choose.
Truth: Nothing forces you to use styles.  You can format manually if you want, but be aware that you are making editing harder for yourself, as well as tasks such as creating a table of contents.

Myth: Styles are hard to learn.
Truth: Styles use exactly the same features as manual formatting. If you can format manually, you can learn to use styles. Styles can be summarized as a method for formatting once and applying many times," and is no more complicated than that.

Myth: Styles are for programmers, not ordinary users.
Truth: Only if using functions in Excel are not for ordinary users. In fact, I have heard as many programmers reject styles as ordinary users.

Myth: Styles take too much preparation time.
Truth: Yes, styles require that you take more time before you start writing -- unless, of course, you have a suitable template waiting to be used. But the time you spend defining styles is made up once you start to format and edit. Save the file as a template, and it can go on saving you time for years.

Myth: Styles require you to memorize their names.
Truth: The Styles and Formatting window lists all the available styles, and offers different views to making finding them easier. If you want to be absolutely sure that styles are easy to tell apart, give them descriptive names such as Heading-green-16-points.
Also, if several different styles are used together -- for instance, when a list style is attached to a paragraph style, and its numbering uses a specific character style -- give the list, paragraph, and character style the same name to help you when you edit.

Myth: Styles are limiting. You can't change what's built into them.
Truth: Every formatting choice in a style can be changed.

Myth: What you set in styles applies to the entire document. That makes styles more limited than manual formatting.
Truth: Styles apply only to the parts of the document you select to have them. If you want to edit every instance in which a style is applied, you only need to make the changes once. When you format manually, you have to find and change each instanced separately. So which is more limiting?

Myth: Styles can conflict with each other.
Truth: That used to be true in MS Word (and may still be; I haven't looked recently). However,, LibreOffice's ancestor, was designed to avoid any conflicts. If you import styles from one file to another, existing styles are either replaced or ignored. Moreover, only one style of a particular type can apply to the same selection; you can have a character and a page style applying to the same selection, but not two different character or two different page styles.

Myth: Manually formatting is preferable because you can make changes on the fly.
Truth: You can make changes to styles on the fly, too. In fact, you can do so much more quickly than with manual formatting, because finding and editing a style is faster than finding and editing each instance in which a format is used.

None of this is to say that everyone should use styles in all circumstances. If, for example, you are writing a couple of quick paragraphs that will be read once then thrown away, using styles is not worth your time. But if you write the same kind of document over and over, or regularly write documents of more than a couple of pages, then refusing to learn how to write with styles may be your right -- but it's also a perversity that wastes your own time.

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