Writing a book using OpenOffice.org

My first book, on attracting women, was created using the OpenOffice.org 3.1 Office Productivity Suite. I like OpenOffice because it's free, is community-supported, and has most of the features that I really need to get my job done. Here's my experience using it on seriously sized projects of over 200 pages.

I recently finished the 3rd draft of a 450 page book, so I know what it's like to use OpenOffice.org Writer to create and edit a significant work with over 30 chapters, a two-level table of contents, and several pictures. I also used OpenOffice.org Draw for the cover design, and PDF export to generate files to send to Lulu for printing. I was pleased to find that OpenOffice.org was up to the task, but there were a few quirks I had to navigate and some missing features which made the task more painful than I would have liked.

I partitioned my book as one sub-document per chapter with a master document containing the top-level table of contents and separating pages for the various sections. This approach worked really well because the text is huge; over 120,000 words. By avoiding applying formatting directly to paragraphs and using styles consistently, I could make global style changes just by editing the styles in the master document. I could also set the page size in the master document to what I needed for publishing, while leaving the page sizes in the sub-documents more appropriate for easy editing on-screen.

If you want to write a book using OpenOffice.org, here are my tips:

  • Put each chapter in a separate file and use a master document to tie them together.
  • Avoid applying formatting directly; always use styles.
  • Use the standard paragraph styles like Heading 1, Heading 2 etc. and Text Body.
  • Don't use Default as your text style, use Text Body.
  • Set the page styles in your master document to the printed page size, but leave each chapter with the default page size so it's easier to edit them on-screen.
  • Note that the styles in your master document override those in your chapters.
  • Worry about appearance later; it's easy to change if you've used styles consistently and this lets you focus on what you want to say.
  • Use Tools -> Outline Numbering to give your document structure; but beware it has limitations.
  • Ask for help when you get stuck, on the OpenOffice.org Community Forum.
  • Use a screen-reader or text-to-speech program to help you spot typos during editing.

I struggled somewhat to get OpenOffice.org to do everything I wanted; partly because I'd never written such a large document before and needed to use features I had never used before, and partly because I ran into a number of bugs and missing or brain-dead features. Some of these may be due to OpenOffice.org's compatibility with Microsoft Word, but in other areas OpenOffice.org appears to lag behind Word slightly. Most of these issues were already reported in the OpenOffice.org project issue tracking database. OpenOffice.org keeps improving, and some issues that used to get in my way, like that document outlining was half-baked in 2.4 have now been improved in 3.1.

The main issues that got in my way were:

I sometimes had paragraphs in sub-documents inadvertently acquire formatting information which the styles in my master document didn't override. I never quite worked out why, and it was often hard to detect this since the difference was not visually obvious and there is no way to identify when formatting has been applied manually vs coming from a style. Removing the manual formatting information from these paragraphs with Format -> Default Formatting fixed the problem; but this also removed formatting like italicisation unless I was paying close attention.

Time spent struggling with these sort of problems was time not spent on writing. Nevertheless, they say you get what you pay for, and in this case I got far more than that. OpenOffice.org is free, and I've used expensive old Microsoft Word in the past and had problems with it, too. The other cool thing is that, being an open source project, I could get information about these problems in the issue-tracking database, vote for getting them fixed, and even fix them myself if I really wanted to. And I almost did, but my aim was to write rather than fix bugs, so my motivation ran out. I made this laundry-list of complaints not because I want to be critical or bite the hand that feeds me, but in the hope that they will be prioritised to make OpenOffice.org even better.

I used OpenOffice.org Draw for my one-piece cover design, and found that it worked well. Start by setting your dimensions to inches in Tools->Options->OpenOffice.org Draw->General->Unit of Measurement, since all the dimensions Lulu gives you are in inches. Then draw your front and back cover of the exact size according to the paper size you plan to use. Once you are happy with the designs, extend the objects on the appropriate borders into the bleed area. Then the trick is to group the front and back cover objects as separate groups, and then right-click on the front cover group and use the Position and Size object inspector to position the edge of the front cover group precisely according to the final width of your spine. Note that you won't know the spine width until you have the final PDF of your content completed.

If you want to manipulate images for use in your book using OpenOffice.org Draw, you may have trouble because you can't easily set the image resolution when exporting from Draw. To work around this problem, install this extension.

Chances are that you just want a word processor for simple documents; you're probably not writing a full-length novel. And even if you are, OpenOffice.org is up to the task. Despite my complaints, I highly recommend OpenOffice.org; and the more users it has, the better it gets.

About Graham

I combine trauma awareness, emotional healing and comedy to heal painful events from your past, so you can live a future life you love.
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11 Responses to Writing a book using OpenOffice.org

  1. Janice Kelley says:

    I am in the final stages of a 300 page manuscript with many, many pictures. I don't understand a lot of the words used to give instructions, so....I have the formatting done and it can be perfect, then when I try to send to a usb stick or export in pdf file, I end up with as few as 1 or 2 pictures out of sync with the format which ruins the whole thing. Is there a solution? (I have the pictures tied to paragraphs.) Thanks!

  2. Valentin says:

    Hello, thanks for the post. I'm Microsoft Word user, luckily got it for free at work. My concern is grammar and spelling checker built into word processor software. Looking at writing enhancement software on TopTenReviews (http://writing-enhancement-software-review.toptenreviews.com/), found Word and WordPerfect having good ratings. Not a word about OpenOffice though. It would be nice to see how OpenOffice compares with the others. Not sure if they review free software, but seeing OpenOffice there probably would make me switch from old good Word.

  3. Jim Plante says:

    Using cross-references instead of end notes might help.
    When A goes to B, discusses x, y, and z; and learns about C, then set a cross-reference there. In chapter N + 4 where C becomes an issue, insert something like (xref XXX), where XX is the cross-reference you set earlier. After final edit, search for "(xref ???)" and replace with "".

  4. Kris Cahill says:

    Thank you for this, Graham. I just learned about OpenOffice today, after googling for word software to write my book on. Then googled writers who've used it and found you. I appreciate the information, it's very timely!

  5. James says:

    The Read Text Extension provides text-to-speech/screen-reader integration for the OpenOffice.org application. You can get it for free at the official OpenOffice.org Extensions web site.

  6. Carsten says:

    Hi Graham

    Thanks for a great article 🙂

    I'm just starting to write a on book now, so that's perfect timing googleing your blog 😉

    Now i just need to go to the Open Office "headquarter" to find out how to set things up the way you described 🙂

    Best regards

  7. Dennis says:

    Good info. I am hoping to start my book soon.

  8. Mike says:

    I'm working on my first novel and I've got the first draft done (120,000 words in 28 chapters linked to a master document). However, now comes the hard part - the edit. I know there are conversations happening twice, character traits that need changing and sub-plots that need reworking. Many of these take place in different places over several chapters and so what I need is a hyperlinked synopsis that I can refer to.

    So far, I've done this with end-notes. Each chapter gets several end-notes eg:
    A goes to place, meets B
    A discusses x, y, z with B. Learns about C.

    They are detailed enough so that I can spot duplication or missing information, hyperlinks let me examine the full text and the filename lets me go to the original file but they will have to be removed individually for the final draft.

    Any suggestions as to a better way of doing it?

    • Graham says:

      Sounds like a good way to handle the problem. I'm currently mid-way through a structural edit of my 450+ page manuscript, and facing similar problems. In my case the biggest issue is whether I've included the key stories I need, and how well they have been developed. I'm using a spreadsheet to track each story, with a weighting assigned to describe the story's emotional significance and another for current degree of development. Once the structural edit is done, this will give me a roadmap for the work still needed on the next draft. In my case I'm writing non-fiction so I don't have to worry about creating story elements at the same time, just describing them adequately. Unfortunately there's no hyper-linking in my spreadsheet as there is in your solution.

  9. Thanks for this article - I found it very helpful and will probably use a lot of these points for my own work 🙂

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