Saturday, June 11, 2011

Five tips for collaborating in LibreOffice

By Jack Wallen | June 11, 2011, 10:56 AM PDT

I write. A lot. I write both technical articles and novels, so without the means to collaborate with my writing tools, my job would become infinitely harder. Not only would my editor lose all her hair, it would take an inordinate amount of extra time before a book could be published or an article posted.

Naturally, as a writer covering open source software, I use the LibreOffice office suite. Fortunately, LibreOffice includes plenty of tools for those who need to collaborate on documents (of nearly any sort). But how can you make best use of those tools? These tips will help you collaborate with the best of them.

1: Track those changes

I would venture to say that anyone who collaborates on documents knows about track changes. It's one of the most important collaboration tools ever created for the digital age. The track changes feature enables collaborators to modify a document without actually deleting the original text. Yes, it's a common tool. But what most people don't know is that track changes can be configured per user, so that collaborators always know which user is saying or changing what. For example, I set up LibreOffice so that my changes always appear in a particular color. By default, changes are tracked on a Per User basis, which assigns a random color and ensures that no two writers/editors show up as the same color. The problem is, every time you start editing a new document, or even re-edit an existing document, your track changes color will be different. That's why I prefer to set my own color. There are other options available for this tool as well. To find them click Tools | Options | LibreOffice Writer | Changes.

2: Insert comments

Next to track changes, comments are among the most helpful tools for collaboration with LibreOffice. Comments simply allow editors to make comments about particular pieces of text in the margins of the document. With comments, colors can't be user configured. But the editor's name will appear in each comment. This does require the editor's name to be configured in LibreOffice. To make sure your name shows up as the creator of a comment click Tools | Options | LibreOffice | User Data. Fill out as much information as needed, but at least make sure you enter your first and last name; otherwise, your comments won't be identifiable as yours.

3: Use templates

Templates may not be the most common means of collaborating, but it does make sense to use templates in a collaborative environment. I highly recommend having a centrally located, shared directory to house templates for LibreOffice. When creating a new template, record changes within it, set it to open read-only, and password-protect it. By doing those three things, your templates will be better protected from accidental changes. To make these changes, open up the template and then click File | Properties | Security. This might make things a bit less efficient, but the time you save by not having to re-create or fix a template will make up for time lost due to password restrictions and/or files opening as read-only.

4: Share multi-user spreadsheets

The LibreOffice spreadsheet application, Calc, lets more than one user at a time to open a spreadsheet. To enable this feature, open a spreadsheet and click Tools | Share Document. Then, click the Share This Spreadsheet With Other Users check box. The spreadsheet will tell you that it must be saved in sharing mode. The spreadsheet will have (shared) in the title bar, so users will know the spreadsheet is being shared. To find out who is working with the spreadsheet at any time, click Tools | Share Document. The window will display a list of users currently editing the document. When a new user opens the shared spreadsheet, Calc will display a warning about the document's shared status. Note: Not all formatting and functionality are available in sharing mode.

5: Save to the cloud

This may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but it comes with an added bonus. An extension called gdocs is available for LibreOffice, which provides a one-click way to upload a document to your Google documents. Create a shared Google account and then upload away. This makes for a simple document management system that can be accessed from anywhere. Just be sure that the track changes feature is enabled and that the usual collaborative tools are used — otherwise, such a system could become a logistical, editorial nightmare!

More tips?

There are many ways to collaborate and open source software lends itself to some creative approaches. Have you found interesting tricks for collaborating with LibreOffice? If so, share them with your fellow TechRepublic members.

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