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OpenOffice Writer: Creating powerful lists using styles

A nicely formatted, easy-to-read list is one of the best assets of a good document. When your information is easy on the eyes and well organized, you're halfway there before you even start writing. Let's review the basics of lists, which we discussed in the first part of this article.

  • When you want to apply a basic list, use the Bullets or Numbering On/Off icons in the toolbar.
  • When you want to indent or control other aspects of the list structure, then all you need is the Bullets and Numbering toolbar.
  • And when you want a bullet that's more than a black circle, or when you want Roman instead of Arabic numbering, the prefab list formatting in the Bullets and Numbering window is there for you.

But some of us need more.

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Getting started with lists

When you need control over spacing, or you need more choices about the number or list, or when you want to control any other aspect of lists, then you need to go to the next level. You need to use styles, and you need to create the formatting using the Options and Position tabs of the Bullets and Numbering window. And that will be the subject of this article, the second in a two-part series about lists in OpenOffice.org Writer.

The true power in lists: It's all about styles

I hate to start an article with the statement, "To use this, you should already know this other thing." But styles are fundamental to nearly everything cool in Writer, so you'll be repaid in spades for learning it.

What are styles?

Essentially, styles are pre-made groups of formatting characteristics like Bold, Arial, 14 points of Space Below Each Paragraph, etc. When you apply the formatting, you just apply the style and not the fourteen things that make up the style. This means that it's immensely easier to apply the formatting, and also very easy to update the formatting. When you need to change the list formatting, all you need to do is change the style definition; all the lists with that style applied to them are changed, too.

Entire books can be written about styles alone, so I'm just going to hit the highlights here. Here's how to create, apply and update styles.

Creating styles

To use styles, choose Format > Styles and Formatting. In the Styles and Formatting window, click the icon for the type of style you want to create: paragraph, character, frame, page or list.

Then right-click in the white area and choose New.

In the window that appears, name the style. Then just click the tab you want for the formatting you want. (For lists, you typically just use Position and Options.) This part is just like normal formatting.

When you're done, click OK. You'll see the new style in the list.

Modifying styles

Sooner or later, you're going to need to change the list formatting. Luckily, it's very easy when you use styles. When you modify the style, the formatting of all the text that that style was applied to changes instantly. This method is orders of magnitude faster than changing all the formatting manually. Open the Styles and Formatting window, select the icon for the type of style you want, then right-click on the style name and choose Modify.

In the window that appears, make the changes you want, then click OK.

Applying styles

To apply your style, be sure the Styles and Formatting window is open. Click the icon for the type of style you want. Then select the text to apply the style too, and double-click the style.

List formatting is about the list structure, not the list content

I talked about the enormous control that you have with this type of list formatting, so I need to clarify something before we really get going.

List formatting has nothing to do with the actual formatting of the list contents.

For instance, nothing you do with list formatting controls how the word "Milk" is formatted in your shopping list. All text formatting, within a list, a paragraph, a heading or anywhere, is controlled with paragraph and character formatting. Set up your list styles to control numbering and spacing, and set up separate paragraph styles to control how the text in the lists looks.

In this example, the font and green text comes from the paragraph style and the numbering and indents come from the list style.

Using the power tabs: The position and options tabs of the Bullets and Numbering window

Up to now, you've been relying on the defaults of OpenOffice.org Writer. Now, you're ready to decide things for yourself. You'll do this with the Position tab and the Options tab.

Position tab

Here's where you control exactly how far in from the left the list items at each level are indented, how much space there is between the bullet or number and the text in each list item. Apply the settings to levels 1-10 if you want the same settings at each level, or select each level and specify the settings individually.

The Indent field is the indent from the left; you can leave this at 0 for level 1 if you want the list flush left. The Spacing to Text field is the amount of space between the number or bullet and the text. You can usually leave this as .25 to .5. You'll need more for bigger bullets or bigger text.

For levels 2 and lower, it's easiest to mark the Relative checkbox next to the Indent field, so you don't need to do math. Mark Relative, and then specify the amount of indent from the previous level, not all the way from the left. Remember that the second-level list number or bullet should be exactly as far in from the previous level as the text in the first-level item. For instance, if the Spacing to Text field is .4 in level 1, then the Indent field in level 2 should be .4, too.

The Preview area is a good tool. Fiddle with the settings until you see what you want.

Here's an example of the settings in the window and how they relate to a list.

Options tab

The Position tab is definitely about control, but not really about fun. The Options tab is about fun. Here's a look at a few of the things you can do.

The options you have change depending on the type of numbering you select. Much of the formatting is self explanatory, and some of it (like the numbering restart and levels) you don't use that frequently. But I want to point out a few key things.

Creating a bullet using any graphic

You can create a bulleted list with any picture you want for the bullet. Just select Graphics from the Numbering list, and then select From File from the Graphics list below it. Find the graphic file; then change the picture size to something good for your list.

Click OK, and you'll get a list something like this.

Create a bullet using any special character and any color

Choose Format > Bullets and Numbering. In the Options tab, select Bullet, and then click the Character browse icon.

Then, select the character you want from the huge list in the Special Characters window. Remember to select a different font from the list if you don't see what you want.

Click OK, then back in the Bullets and Numbering window, select a character style from the list. (You would have already created this character style by choosing Format > Styles and Formatting, clicking the Character Style icon at the top, then right-clicking in that window and choosing New.)

You now have a bulleted list in which the bullet has the symbol you choose, and the size and color you specified in the character style.

Creating a custom prefix for lists with the formatting you want

If you're creating a list of interview candidates, chemical reactions, or anything where you want to identify the information, you might want to create a specific prefix for each level. To do this, open the Bullets and Numbering window, and in the Options tab, fill in the Before field with the word you want. Be sure to put a space after the word, and change the After character if you want something besides a colon.

If you want to apply a character style to control how the text in the prefix looks, then select one from the Character Style list. (Again, you'd have already created this.) Do this for each level.

Then go to the Position tab and for each level, increase the spacing to the text to allow room for the prefix at each level necessary. You'll need to tweak a bit, since the preview isn't perfectly accurate.

You'll have a list that looks something like this.

You can do anything you want with Writer Lists

Every time I revisit the Bullets and Numbering window's Options tab, it seems like I find something else to do. It's amazingly flexible and powerful; spend some time there if you need to do complex list formatting.

Let me leave you with one last list:

  • Download OpenOffice.org 2.0.3 from www.openoffice.org
  • Take your laptop out to the pool and play around with Draw if you've never used it before
  • Install it on the computers of ten of your friends while they're on vacation this summer

Solveig Haugland has worked as an instructor, course developer, author and technical writer in the high-tech industry for 15 years, for employers including Microsoft Great Plains, Sun Microsystems,and BEA. Currently, Solveig is a StarOffice and OpenOffice.org instructor, author, and freelance technical writer. She is also co-author, with Floyd Jones, of three books: Staroffice 5.2 Companion, Staroffice 6.0 Office Suite Companion and OpenOffice.Org 1.0 Resource Kit, published by Prentice Hall PTR. Her fourth book, on OpenOffice.org 2.0, is coming this summer. For more tips on working in OpenOffice, visit Solveig's OpenOffice blog.

This was first published in July 2006

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