Updated: July 4, 2018
I had an email from a reader, asking me to look more deeply into the Styles functionality of LibreOffice. This came off the back of my LibreOffice 6.0 review, in which I praised the improvements introduced into the latest version of this free office suite. But the reader felt the covered points were insufficient and inadequate, and that the real deal breaker in LibreOffice functionality is in its styles.
This is a valid request, after all. In a similar manner, I have people emailing and asking me to add or extend my Linux distro testing with additional features and use cases, and I'm always happy to try to make my work as thorough and as accurate as possible. So, styles. Well, challenge accepted.
Before we begin, let's clarify a few things. First, what styles actually are. Indeed. Styles are a collection of cosmetic attributes that you apply to document text to change its look. For example, you may want to indent a paragraph, increase the font size by 2 points, color it red, and make it bold. Four actions, and if you had to repeat that 100 times for 100 different paragraphs, it would be arduous. And if you then wanted to change red to blue, you would need to do it all over again.
Styles allow you to centralize your management of document layout. You make the change only ONCE - narrate this Michele from the Resistance in 'Allo 'Allo style [sic] - and then, the changes are automatically applied to all elements that have that specific style. This is very much like HTML/CSS.
Styles have been around for a long time, and they are available in every major office suite. You can make your documents look better while being efficient and orderly about it. I've always used styles when writing complex stuff, although not necessarily in LibreOffice. I have authored several books using LaTeX and LyX, and this is probably the most "correct" way of doing it. But if you do not want to go over the top, you can still use your office suites for the job.
So the question is - how well does LibreOffice perform, and how does it scale against the de-facto office, which is Microsoft Office? I have no complaints, and I find it suitable enough for my work flows. My big gripe revolves around tracking changes and full cross-format compatibility. In essence, this is similar to my Linux distro reviews, where I tend to focus on the things I expect an ordinary user would need. In this regard, being able to track changes or just open files with the formatting and layout fully and correctly preserved when going from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice and vice versa seems like a more pressing need. Styles are super smart and important, but also rather neglected among the majority of users, because most people do not think in terms of content and layout separation.
Fire up LibreOffice. You can find the Styles menu in many ways. F11 as a shortcut - identical to Microsoft Office. Application menu. The new ribbon-like menu that you can enable in the 5.X branch onwards. Sidebar. Either way, once you open it, you will have a list of existing, default styles at your disposal, and you can start working.
What you do is, select a portion of text, something like a line, or a paragraph, in your document, and then apply the style you want. Please note, you do need a basic understanding of document hierarchy and nomenclature to actually use the styles. If you do not know what headings are, for instance, you will struggle.
LibreOffice uses a different default set from Microsoft Office. In the latter, you get paragraphs with a relatively noticeable margin. LibreOffice uses something more like body text, with no margins. The naming is also different, but that's all right.
I began by applying various styles to my text, and it was easy enough. There were a few annoyances. Whenever you select a new portion of text, the Styles menu jumps to what the current selection is, so you need to scroll up or down to find the new style you wish to apply. Alternatively, you can use the drop menu in the ribbon-like interface. It will actually list the styles based on recent use, so this saves time.
Another visual annoyance is that the selected style may be unreadable in the list, as the text font and selection font could overlap. This is a hassle, as you need to sort of remember what you've just selected. You can navigate with up and down keys. Styles are only applied with a double-click, so you won't ruin your document.
Like Microsoft Office, you have the option to modify both the default styles as well as any custom ones you may have made. Here, I think the layout is actually more intuitive than Microsoft Office, as the categories are all listed in one window, under different tabs. But their order - top and bottom line - does change based on the actively selected one, and that's (also) annoying. I am also not sure why body text would be a conditional style by default.
You can auto-update and preview style changes, so that's quite useful. New styles are automatically based on the selected one, and that's also handy. There's no option to actually search for styles in the list, or select all document elements with the specific style applied. But then, this does not seem to be a major handicap.
Where LibreOffice does fail some is in that it has no straightforward global export option. You cannot create a style and then "upload" it to your master library so that it is available in new documents you create. You must create modified templates. Or manually copy & paste portions of text with the applied style from one document to another. This isn't terrible but it's not ideal either.
LibreOffice styles management sure can benefit from improvements. All office suites can. Not only that, there are dozens of other areas where this free office suite could better itself. But to focus on the original question, styles in LibreOffice are different from Microsoft Office, but they work reasonably well.
There are some annoyances - selected text, the style and tab jumps on selection, and the lack of global export. On the other hand, you have the preview option, and the modify sub-menu is powerful and rather intuitive. Usable and reasonable. Now, that does not mean you should toss away your payware suite and go free. Not at all. The specific, individual needs are very delicate. Moreover, while LibreOffice has improved a lot, it's still not quite as powerful as Microsoft Office, and this is more evident in Calc and Impress, less so in Writer, which often gets most attention and care. But it is marching in the right direction, and if you're keen on doing documents right, you need to use styles. And when it comes to styles, LibreOffice 6.0 works fairly well. But the quest for perfection continues. So long and thanks for all the fonts.