Friday, 6 February 2009

OpenOffice Writer for authors

As mentioned in a previous post, there are other word processors aside from MS Word.

One of the best-known (and free) word processor packages is OpenOffice Writer, part of a free, open-source productivity suite that also includes spreadsheet, database and presentation packages. It is available for all major consumer platforms; PC, Mac and Linux.

OpenOffice is open-source software. What this means in reality can get fairly complex, but at a basic level it means that all the source code for the programs are available on the Internet. Anyone can download the code, alter it, and make their own versions, as long as they fulfil the conditions of the licence. In theory this means that any programmer can take the code and alter it in any way that they want. A side-effect of open-source software is that bugs can be fixed faster than closed-source programs (although this is very much a matter of debate).

Firstly, let me discuss the positives. Writer is a good writing package; it has everything that most people will need to write a novel within it. You can track changes, take notes, alter font size, create indexes and footnotes; in short, you can do all the common tasks that an author will want to do.

OpenOffice allows extensions to be included. These are third-party pieces of software than extend the core OpenOffice functionality. Although there are literally hundreds of extensions, there are a couple that are of obvious use for authors - LanguageTool and Writers' Tools.

Of the two, Writers' Tools is of most interest. It has various functionality; amongst others, a writing timer (to see how long you are spending writing), an Internet word lookup, remote backup and a task list.

LanguageTool has a grammar checker that picks up many common errors in many different languages. Note, however, that such functionality is built into Word, and Word's version is, in my opinion, better integrated into the main package and picks up more errors (see below).

Writer can read and write files saved from Word; indeed, it has always managed to successfully to convert basic documents for me, and so this is not a particular problem. I had had difficulty in the past (with older versions of OpenOffice) when converting complex technical documents, but that should not be of relevance to most authors. Unfortunately, Word had difficulty opening my 120,000 word test .doc file saved from Writer; the footers were corrupt and inaccessible from within Word. This is more likely to be a problem with Writer than Word.

However, Writer does have various features and bugs, and is nowhere near as highly polished as Word. As an example: on my aged but otherwise serviceable laptop system (purchased in early 2005), Writer with a 120,000 word novel frequently pauses for a couple of minutes when saving documents. This is highly annoying, and alone may be enough to force me over to Word. Likewise, the start-up time in loading a document can also be much longer when compared to Word. Again, this is covered in more detail below.

On the other hand, the public participation in the OpenOffice project can be fulfilling. On New Years Day I discovered a bug in the Writer Notes functionality, and submitted a bug against the component. A fix was made available within a couple of weeks (although that is not yet in a release version). Whilst this is good for a techie like myself, it is of little use (or interest) to the majority of authors. Likewise, I am unsure how many authors would want to download and install extensions; it is better for functionality to come included within the package.

One of the claims made by proponents of OpenOffice is that 'it is as good as Word'. I thought that I'd look at this claim from the perspective of authors. I am assuming that an author is more interested in the content of any text rather than the styling, except when creating manuscripts (publishers tend to have very strict styling rules). With this in mind, I assume that the following features are of greatest importance:
  • Textual editing
  • Spellchecking
  • Grammar checking
  • Headers and footers
  • Page numbering
  • Page formatting for manuscript printing.
  • Margin settings
  • Change tracking and notes
This post will focus on the Writer package. It is currently at version 3.0.1. The following comparisons were done on a laptop running ista Home Premium, using Word 2007 and Writer 3.0.1 with LanguageTools and Writers' Tools installed as standard. No configuration changes were made, aside from changing the default language to UK English.

Textual editing
There is not much to be said about either Writer's or Word's text editing facilities. Both allow text to be entered, altered and formatted with ease. Styles can be applied to text with ease in both packages.

Both Writer and Word have spellcheck capability for multiple languages. Spelling mistakes in both can be picked up with highlighting in the text, and in a separate spellcheck window. Both support many different languages.

Grammar checking
I created a file with some common grammatical mistakes. The following text was used:
This sentence should not contain any grammatical errors.
The use of the passive voice was detected by most of the readers.
Then three of the men left, leaving one behind to stand guard over the boxes.
The boy went to the the school.
That were a stupid thing to do.
The fat brown fox ran up the hill.
i went to school today.
Action on the bill is being considered by the committee.
This section contained the following errors:
  • lack of capitalised first letter
  • subject-verb agreement
  • repeated word and white space
  • fragmentary sentence
  • passive voice
I believe that these are a good subset of all the possible grammatical errors.
For the test, I selected the ‘grammar and style’ option within Word. With this, Word detected all of the above; Writer missed the fragmentary sentence, subject-verb agreement and both examples of passive voices.

Word also has a very competent auto-correction capability; for instance, I mistyped ‘grammatical’ above, and Word corrected it as I typed. This may sometimes get in the way, however, especially when writing colloquial dialogue or purposefully non-standard English.

In practice, with the example document, both packages picked up useful errors. To get the most out of the grammar and spelling tools, you will have to have a good understanding of English and be able to configure the packages appropriately. Most of all, grammar checkers are notorious for picking up false positives, and you need to be able to understand the rules of English enough to reject them.

Word beat Writer in the quantity of items picked up, and also in the usability stakes. In particular, when going through my 120,000 words test file, Word found a far greater number of potential problems.

Headers and footers
I tried to insert a header and footer in the same document using both packages. This was trivial in both packages, although Word gave me a bewildering variety of footers. It also proved easier to find the options in Writer to insert the page count. Here, the simplicity of Writer won.

Page formatting for manuscript printing.
I tried altering the page to have the following features: double-line spacing, 1.5-inch left margins, 1-inch right margins. In both packages this proved easy. For these simple changes, there was little to choose between them.

Change tracking
I often switch change tracking on when doing simple line-editing. This means I can then review these changes later, and accept or reject them as appropriate. Both packages allow changes to be tracked.

Here, the buttons on word’s bar (accept, reject, previous, next) make it a much better and easier to use solution. Writer can perform similar functionality, but not as elegantly. Instead of clicking on easy-to-find buttons, you have to select menus. Additionally, I found the way that Word displays the changes on-screen to be preferable. Here, Word is the hands-down winner.

Word also has a 'reviewing pane', which allows you to see all changes made and go between them. This is very useful, and is missing from Writer.

Notes / comments
I often add notes within the document (for instance to mark somewhere I want to do a little extra research). Here, Word wins hand-down, with easily-viewable buttons to move between notes. However, Writer’s functionality in this area is improving all the time and, whilst far from perfect, is a workable solution.


In my opinion (and I wish that this were not the case), Writer is nowhere near as polished as MS Word, particularly in relation to the more arcane features. The saving delay mentioned above is noticeable on all our PCs, but is particularly crippling on my laptop. There are also a series of other little bugs and features that prove to be highly annoying.

At the end of the day, it comes down to whether it is worth MS Office is worth the cost. As a computer programmer, I am happy enough to stick with OpenOffice at the moment. Others may differ, especially if they are not particularly computer literate. However, when it comes to a final check of the document, I will load it into Word in order to perform final checks. This immediately removes OpenOffice's greatest advantage, as I still need a copy of Word.

The guys and gals who work on the OpenOffice suite may want to take a deep breath, and instead of adding many new features in order to compete with Word, improve and expand the features that are already there. A reviewing pane for changes would be particularly useful.

In my opinion, if you are going to be making your living out of writing, then you really cannot go much wrong in using Word. However, with the speed that OpenOffice Writer is being developed, that may not be the case for long.

For further information, see an old article at This is, in my opinion, a very subjective piece, but gives a different viewpoint; also note that it is an old version of OpenOffice. There is a more up-to-date review of Writer in OpenOffice 3 for authors at

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