intro to OpenOffice

I just saw the "writing in Linux" summary post on Becoming a Writer Seriously from 5 August, and thought, "Right, I was going to write about OpenOffice next". Then I saw the date on my last blog post and thought, "GAH!"

You see, while the on-line eyrea has been staying in the same place, the physical eyrea (ie: where I live) has been moving to a smaller, but much, much nicer apartment that I actually own instead of renting. I'm about 1.75 km west of where I used to live, so I'm still in the Beach. Nevertheless, it's Day 11 of moving and I'm just starting to feel settled now. As you can see, blogging has been taking a rather distant back seat.

Right then: here's a quick overview of OpenOffice, and what I use each application for (your mileage may vary, of course). Before I start, I need to say again that this suite, like most home-user Linux distros themselves, is absolutely free. OpenOffice is also included in the base install of Ubuntu, so if you choose that distro, you don't even need to install it separately — it's installed the same time as the operating system.

OpenOffice is basically the front-runner freeware competition for Microsoft Office, and is available for Windows and Macintosh as well as Linux (that means you can check it out without installing a new operating system on your computer). The full installation for OpenOffice includes:
  • a word processor

  • a spreadsheet

  • a database application (like MS-Access)

  • a presentation application (like MS-PowerPoint)

  • a drawing application (like Adobe Illustrator)

The word processor

Not surprisingly, the word processor is what I use the most for writing with: short stories, novels, query letters, and whatever else comes up. I also use a desktop publishing application and sometimes roll some HTML pages by hand, but almost always I'm using the OpenOffice word processor.

Pros: The file converter is excellent — I've even used it to convert from one MS-Word format to another because it did a cleaner job than Word itself. This means you never need to break into a sweat just because you're submitting something electronically and a certain software format is specified. OpenOffice is quick (ie: non-sluggish), supports styles very well, and has very friendly, easy-to-use help so that you can learn as you go along.

Cons: This is not just a Linux version of Word. You will have to keep an open mind, especially when you're trying to figure out how to do things like having a different footer on the first page of your document. It can be done, but it is not done the same way as Word does it.

By the way: the Styles dialogue box has a shortcut key of F11. I use F11 more than any other shortcut key in OpenOffice. If you learn one new shortcut key, learn that one.

The spreadsheet

I don't know if this is typical usage or not, but I do use the spreadsheet at least once per writing session. I use it to track my word count/editing sessions, because I have a "cookie jar" account set up and give myself a dollar every time I make quota. It's a stupid mind trick, but it works for me.

Pros: the spreadsheet does everything that I would ever want to do in a spreadsheet — fills, multiple tabs, formatting. I even like the cell formatting better than Excel. I have a spreadsheet I use to track my income and taxes for my contract work, and my accountant thought it was well-organised and easy to use when I gave it to him in Excel format. That's a ringing endorsement as far as I'm concerned.

Cons: Haven't come across any yet.

The database application

I built a little two-table form to use to make notes at my day job with the OpenOffice database application, because I prefer to type my notes and I was tired of trying to remember where all the different word processor notes were. I'm also in the midst of building a query letter database, but that was more complicated (I want it to include a contacts list plus track acceptance/rejections and from where), so it's not done yet. If you understand form drawing and SQL it's very, very easy.

Pros: Very easy to use if you understand forms and databases first (the tool's only as good as the hand that guides it, after all).

Cons: It might just be my own bad habits getting in my way, but sometimes setting up an auto-incrementing field in a table that is also the key seems to take more steps than it ought to. It always works in the end, but I resent having to confirm some of the steps.

The presentation application

I haven't actually used this as a writing tool yet, but I have used it to document an event (dying knitting wool with Kool-Aid — an experience that would scare one off artificial food colouring forever, believe me). It has all the pretty transitions and slide layouts that PowerPoint supports, and some of the animations.

Pros: If you know PowerPoint, you'll barely notice you're using a different application. As with the rest of OpenOffice, the file conversion support is excellent.

Cons: The default templates are... underwhelming, shall we say. Fortunately, there are plenty to download for free on the web. You can also use any PowerPoint templates you have or download.

The drawing application

I've only used this in my writing for sketching out ideas, relationships, and timelines. It was good for two reasons: first, I was able to read what I had sketched when I was done (not feasible with my regular handwriting!) and second, it meant I could keep all the information for my project in one place.

Pros: Again, if you've ever used any drawing application before, you'll be at home in no time. All the usual tools are there.

Cons: I haven't used this application enough to find any real drawbacks to it. If someone knows of one, please comment!

Summary

You need to accept that OpenOffice is an alternative to MS-Office or whatever it is you are used to using. If you want to try something new, and are willing to keep an open mind, you'll be surprised with how much you can get for free.

PS: The "cookie jar" trick comes from Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. I had a long, horrible writing drought in my twenties (too much work, no time to sleep, never mind write), and this book plus some other similar ones helped me make writing a normal part of life again. Which, of course, is how things should be.