OpenOffice Writer lists: Dependable, powerful and won't self-replicate when you're not looking

Sick of spontaneous formatting with lists in Microsoft Word? Try OpenOffice's Writer, an open source alternative that gives back to you the power to create lists and take control via the toolbar.

I think that software should do what I tell it to do. If I insert a picture of my cat doing its happy dance, I want that picture to show up in the document. If I create a formula multiplying the number of times I've seen Lord of the Rings by 3, I want the right answer. And when I create lists, whether it's a list of all my shoes or a five levels deep reference guide to troubleshooting the Sphereon 4500 switch, I want the formatting...

that I applied to show up correctly. I certainly don't want a list formatted with styles I never created and never asked to be applied.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much what I get when using lists in Word. Even though I have 15 years of experience in the technical writing and desktop publishing fields, lists in Word drive me crazy with the spontaneous formatting. It's alarming. I have a feeling that if I could talk directly to the list module of Word and tell it to cut it the heck out, a voice would come back to me saying, "I'm sorry, Solveig. I'm afraid I can't do that."

More on OpenOffice Writer:
Lists with styles

So what's the alternative? Use OpenOffice Writer, of course. Lists in Writer do as they're told and don't strike out on their own. That's because you're in control. With control comes the responsibility for knowing what to do, but also the immense pleasure of being able to control the lists.

Two levels of lists: Solid basics and complex power

If you just want a simple list, maybe with a few indents, there's nothing to it. It's even pretty easy to use green clovers or blue diamonds in your lists. You rely on the default list attributes and behavior in OpenOffice.org for much of the formatting.

If you want to do some seriously complex work in which you control every single aspect of the lists, you want to raise things up a notch. To do that, you need to do two things:

  • Use the uber-features of the list formatting window in the Options and Position tabs
  • Use styles

"Use styles" may look like only two words, but doing that task of two words involves a fair bit of work. But understanding how to use styles is worth every bit of that work, however, because not only are styles amazingly effective tools by themselves, but many additional powerful features are based on styles.

In this two-part article, I'll cover lists in two sections. First, I'll focus on the easy lists. Then in the next article, I'll discuss the more powerful ones or how to combine both.

Creating lists with the OpenOffice.org tools and prefab formats

As I mentioned, you can start off with lists the easy way, which is to rely on what OpenOffice.org brings to the party. This section covers how to do the following:

  • Create basic numbered and bulleted lists
  • Indent items within a list
  • Use the Bullets and Numbering toolbar to indent, move items around and control aspects of the list structure
  • Apply default formatting using the Bullets and Numbering window

Creating lists: The first few steps

The most basic lists don't require that you know styles. Here's what you do.

Making a plain single-level numbered or bulleted list

Select every item in your list. You only have to select part of the first and last line.

Then, click the Numbering On/Off icon or the Bullets On/Off icon.

You have your list.

Making a list into regular text

To turn off the list, click the same icon again. It's like a light switch; click once to turn on, and again to turn off.

Tip: Type your whole list first, and then apply the formatting.

Indenting items within a list

If you want a nested list, something more complicated like this, what do you do?

You do pretty much the same thing, but with one important difference.

Type the whole list and apply list formatting just as you would with a plain single-level list.

Then, click to the left of each item to indent, and press Tab. (Press Shift + Tab to promote to the main level again.)

You can now select the indented items and apply different formatting if you want to. For instance, if you want the items bulleted rather than numbered, click the Bullets On/Off icon.

Warning: You might be tempted to select the items to indent and use the Increase Indent icon. Never, ever, ever use this icon with lists.

This icon will move the items physically but won't truly indent the items to another level within the list. You would get something like this.

1. Bread
2. Milk
3. Cheese
4. Gouda
5. Cheddar
6. Pizza

List structure control with the list toolbar

Once you've got a list, it almost always changes. Sometimes you need to add a note in the middle, and you don't want the note to be numbered. Or you might need to separate it into two lists, so #4 needs to be #1. You might need to move items around in the list, or restructure it so that #3 and its subitems are now subordinate to #6.

It's usually a pain, and the numbering will usually do the opposite of what you want. Usually, that is. In other applications.

You are about to meet your new best friend, who will let you do all of these tasks effortlessly. Choose View > Toolbars > Bullets and Numbering. You'll see this toolbar, either floating as shown or docked on your toolbar.

Use this toolbar whenever possible. Put your mouse over each icon to learn more about it. My particular favorites are:

  • The indent icons: Select one or more items and indent them all at once. This is faster than pressing Tab. The plain icons control just the selected item; the icons with the extra arrow will affect an item's subitems, as well.

  • The moving-around icons: Use these to move items in your list rather than cutting and pasting. If you need the fifth item to be at the top, then just select it and click the appropriate icon. Again, the plain icons control only the selected item; the icons with the extra arrow will affect an item's subitems as well.

  • The Insert Unnumbered Item icon: This is a great way to interrupt a list with a note or other unnumbered text without goofing up the formatting.

  • The Restart Numbering icon: The name says it all. Use this as necessary in master documents if you have problems with lists not restarting with 1 with each new list.

Applying preformatted list formatting using the Bullets and Numbering window

You've been using the plain bullet and numbering icons and the power toolbar, but you're not quite satisfied. You want something a little more exciting, perhaps, like a colorful, interesting bullet or perhaps you want to do something complex like an outline.

At this point, you'll find the prefab formatting very useful. The Bullets and Numbering window is chock full of fancy bullets and different numbering formats.

Basic prefab list formatting

Select the list to format and choose Format > Bullets and Numbering. Click the Graphics, Bullet, Numbering or Outline tab, and select the type of numbering you want. Then just click OK.

Here are a few examples.

Note: When you use one of the formats for outline numbering, remember to press Tab in front of each item to indent it, as many times as necessary, or to use the indent icons from the list toolbar.

Controlling what levels the prefab formatting is applied to

Let's say you have a list with indented subitems.

If you select it and apply, say, the red stars from the Graphics tab, you might expect that the red stars would be applied to all the levels.

That would be logical, but that's not actually how it works. For whatever reason, the formats from the Graphics, Numbering Type and Bullets tabs are applied to the last level that you select. Here are some examples.

Once you know how it works, then you can select the right level when you apply the bullets or numbers. But if you want the formatting at all levels, you can change this and apply the selected format to all the levels by doing either of the following.

Approach 1: Select an extra line
Select the whole list, plus an extra blank line below the list. Apply the list formatting. The extra line gets the formatting but so do all the other items. Press Backspace or just turn off list formatting for that line.

Approach 2: Choose all ten levels
Select the whole list, bring up the Bullets and Numbering window, and go to the Options tab. Click the 1-10 at the bottom of the list. Then go to the tab you want and select your formatting. (You must do it in this order.) Then click OK.

The default tools can keep you and your documents happy for a long time

You have a lot of reliable list tools at your disposal with the On/Off icons, the ability to indent, the toolbar and the default formatting in the Bullets and Numbering window. If you don't have great list ambitions, you can use these tools and never want for more.

But if you want to strike out on your own to have a much wider selection of bullets and numbers and to specify down to the millimeter the distance between bullets and content, and pretty much anything else about lists, then please continue to the next article.

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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