Experiments with numbering and horizontal rule in AbiWord

Grumpy old guy thinks word processing was better 15 years ago

By Rick Jelliffe
September 1, 2009 | Comments: 4

I loathe making documents with numbered headings or any kind of definite design in Word Processors. It used to be so much easier and better in FrameMaker and WordPerfect, fifteen years ago. Word made people lower their standards, and while Word has to the most part moved on, people's standards and expectations are still pretty low low. I find numbered headings and lists annoying in Word at best, maddening in Open Office at worst, so I have been using AbiWord today. And if it is not numbered headings, it will be something else. The trouble is that you need to go with the flow of the particular application, internalize its zen, cleve to its gew-gaws and renounce all others.

If you want to take a design-driven approach, then most Word Processors just suck. AbiWord is a non-nonsense, calm-feeling free WP not targeted at very large document. It has a native XML format pretty simple for transformations into and out of, and basic ODF and OOXML import/export.

Numbered headings are fine in AbiWord, but I wanted to have some horizintal rules. No button or menu item for this though. Hmmm, try a border property on the paragraph. Nope.

The way to do it turns out to be to to use tab leader: you set the tab to the end of the line, and the leader to a line, and press tab. Bingo. A horizontal rule.

Because it was a real document, I thought I would test out the DOCX and ODT export. Now I don't have the completely most recent versions of everything, so don't take this an an indication of the state-of-the-art. What I got was this:


  • Convert to DOCX open in Word 2007 previewer. Line drawn as dotted line. Numbering working but wrong format (second level is a. not 2.1)

  • Convert to DOCX open in Go Open Office 3.1. Displays empty.

  • Convert to DOCX open in AbiWord 2.6.8 again. No lines. Numbering not working

  • Convert to ODF open in Go Open Office 3.1. No lines. Numbering broken: sets everything to 1 always

  • Convert to ODF open in AbiWord 2.6.8. No lines. Numbering working

  • Save as ABW open in Go Open Office 3.1. Opened as text file showing the XML. This is a really good fallback policy.

Bottom line: without number working, this version of AbiWord 2.6.8 is not suitable for originating interchange of formal documents using ODF, DOCX or ABW with Open Office 3.1 or Word 2007. I haven't looked at the XML generated, so I don't know where the problem lies, it may not be AbiWord: the kinds of text you would find in a letter all came through, but not these basic things found in formal documents. I am reminded of the scene in Blackbeard where he is buried in the sand and the water comes up to drown him: well the water is pretty far from the pirate at the moment.

At this stage, AbiWord hung up. When I reopened the file, it has lost the data: or at least because I had last saved to DOCX rather than ABW it has lost formatting. I think it may be something to do with opening the same file in multiple applications at the same time.

These are exactly the kinds of things that I expect that the ODF plugfests will be picking up.

Moral: do regular saves and don't do experiments at the same time as real work. When will I ever learn?

One thing it demonstrates, I think, is the fallacy that presentation-driven user interfaces are easier to use or implement than structured document editors: and they look like becoming adequate for interchange only with great difficulty. The Word/OpenOffice/AbiWord style of interaction is designed to make it difficult to get consistency or creativity: you can often get an effect once, but getting it consistent across a large document is difficult. What drives me particularly bananas is how when using numbered headings you have to be constantly on guard against doing something that will make the Word Processor go ahead and renumber things automatically, wrongly, in ways that you may not notice in time to undo.

Moral: Just don't use unstructured tools like Word Processors for anything that actually has structure. Show me the tags!


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4 Comments

I totally agree and I have been searching some years ago for a more structured word processing application with no success.
I ended either with OpenOffice/AbiWord/KWord on one side or XML editor (Docbook) on the other side.
There are solutions, but they are not free: XML Mind Editor.

One solution could be to activate some kind of "structured mode" in OpenOffice. Something that could suppress some options and forces the use of a reduced set of styles.
Bruno

Whenever I'm doing a large doc in Word, I really miss LaTeX. Word seems to create a new style every time you click

When I have something large and important, I *do* still use LaTeX (edited with Emacs). It has its own quirks but it's reliable and produces great results.

Bob: And TeX is still used as the engine for many typesetting systems, including ones with XML front-ends to hide the TeX or macros: there have been many forks of TeX, or even just routines or algorithms copied from it. Seminal is definitely the word.

I certainly agree that there is a lot of value with sticking with a system that works, that you have skills in, and which produces beautiful output.

And the system you know sets the expectations for the next one. For example, I was used to SGML systems where you put in a lot of control of keeping things together: forcing a heading to a new page if the first paragraph broke, and that sort of thing (which TeX users can get too, perhaps with more intervention though.) So when I use Word Processors, I always feel they are silly toys that don't have professional quality typesetting. Actually, things seem to be looking up: the competition between Office and OpenOffice and between XPS and PDF looks like it is stimulating an increased interest in quality typesetting of the kind that TeX users may almost take for granted.

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