The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

WTF Open Office?


I write my books in emacs, then convert them (thanks to a macro by the lovely Anne) to .rtf format and do the final editing in OpenOffice. With my current project (Incrementalists #2) things were a bit more complex, because of working with a collaborator.  I now have the book on my Windows box instead of the Linux machine.  There is a reason I reserve Windows for things that don’t really matter.

But anyway, here I am.  Every time I close the file and open it again, formatting changes have been lost.  To wit: line spacing, paragraph indenting, centering, underlining.  This didn’t happen on the OO version for linux, but, as I said, here I am.

Does anyone who knows Open Office have any suggestions?  I tried OpenOffice help, but I’m having trouble phrasing the question in such a way that their automated help knows what I’m talking about.

Replies that take the form, “You should be using X application or Y operating system” will not be appreciated even a little.

ETA: Attempting to duplicate the problem with another file led to another symptom: I am able to use the “Format–> paragraph”, but not “Format–> Paragraph Style.”  The latter is not grayed out, but it won’t come up when I click it (in both cases, after selecting the entire document).




Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. I had a similar OO issue with formatting. Mine was Excel to .odt and back.

    I used Google Docs as my intermediate step. It let me export to Excel so I could send it back to my accountant formatting intact.


  2. Are you saving as a .odt or something else?

  3. skzb

    Chaos: Comes in as .rtf, goes out as .rtf

  4. I’m not an OpenOffice expert, but I am a techie by trade.

    This second symptom makes it sound like the style definition for the paragraph style is missing or broken. If OpenOffice is like Office in this regard, there should be a way to edit the style definition, perhaps on a styles/formatting menu. I’d start looking there, and checking the settings for the paragraph style.

    Use some text file you can destroy without consequence for testing. I’d hate to delay paying work while experimenting with possible fixes.

  5. 1. great that you’re an emacs/linux person. Makes me like your books even more…

    2. I find that the combination of open office and rtf sucks. The formatting is (often) ok when you first read it in. If I was you I would be editing and saving in their native format (odt) until you’re done. And then either send off the odt or export as docx. The docx format export seems to be very stable and your editors should be able to work with it.

  6. skzb

    That seems reasonable. Jen pointed out that, first thing, I need to get the most current version of OO. I’m trying that now, then I’ll look at style definitions. Thanks!

  7. skzb

    Meanwhile, OpenOffice update failed. However, thanks to Jen, there’s been good progress. I am permitted to change paragraph style as long as I haven’t selected text, and more of the changes (though still not all of them) are remaining when I close and open the document.

  8. Assuming your OO installation isn’t corrupt, my guess, since the text creator was emacs, would be that you hit ^Q or something like that and somehow inserted a disastrous control character or unicode sequence that broke OO’s RTF parser and revealed some horrible bug in OO. If you have some kind of tool that can detect odd characters in the source, it might point it out in the original .txt file.

    What happens if you save as .doc and load that back in again to a fresh instance of OO?

    I do have to say that much as I like open software, I don’t like Open Office or Libre Office very much at all, especially in conversion to and from non-native formats.

  9. I’ve had nothing but trouble with OpenOffice and RTF. I ended up installing other software purely for dealing with RTF. I know you don’t want software recommendations so I won’t tell you what I switched to after I gave up.

  10. In addition to trying the most recent version of OO, you could also try Libre Office.

    (When Oracle bought Sun they acquired “ownership” of OO, and were basically huge jerks about it. This resulted in most of the OO volunteers just splitting off the code base; they had to change the name, though! And thus Libre Office was born.

    Some time after this, the OO trademark was given to Apache, so now there are two quasi-competing open source office suites that share a great deal of code but are developed in parallel. So things are… confusing. Buf it one of them is fubar it’s worth checking out the other.)

  11. Definitely try a fresh install of Libre Office (the name got changed, but it is the same project). Calling OO “buggy” at times would be an understatement, but they do seem to fix things that are properly reported.

    Actually, grab the “portable” version of LO ( which doesn’t require an install. Should let you test with the least work.

  12. skzb

    About 90% fixed, thanks to a combination of playing with paragraph style, and changing styles to a stupid degree. Underlining still vanishes in random places when closing/opening the file, but I guess I can live with that.

  13. I’m glad things seem to be mostly resolved, and just wanted to express sympathy and fellow-feeling. OO’s help files are grotesquely useless. I really hate them.

    I always lose underlining when going to and from .odt to .rtf. While I don’t need some of it, having all the unicorn and dead-people dialogue fall out of it and become indistinguishable from narrative is extremely annoying.


  14. Now that the problem is sort of resolved, I wonder what conversion tools people actually like for going between formats?

    I am mostly writing using Google Drive Docs these days, but their download-as converters for RTF and PDF are no good — the RTF converter generates a file that is waaay too big when the original is in standard ms format, and the PDF converter screws up page formats in odd ways.

    For that reason, in exporting from Docs I have to d/l in Word format, then use Word to convert to RTF or PDF. Much as I dislike Microsoft and the whole ugly Word approach to word processing (which is why OO and LO are no good as well), the converters they build into Word work very well.

    If only Adobe wasn’t charging $1,000 (!!!) for a Framemaker license…. But regardless of bank account size, I wouldn’t pay such an iniquitous price to such a malicious company.

  15. Miramon, I normally use the print as PDF function to convert MS Word to PDF using the trial version of Nitro Pro PDF reader when I need to convert to PDF. Of course I normally never need any other format than those two, but I haven’t noticed any significant formatting changes.

  16. Whilst probably breaking the rules of this thread, if one installs cygwin, one can probably happily use emacs on windows.

  17. Emacs runs in windows already with no need for cygwin. However, I gather skzb prefers to avoid windows.

  18. skzb

    I not only prefer to avoid Windows, but the whole point is to put it into .rtf format for my publisher, which requires a word processor, not a text editor.

  19. Does Open Office write a log file, or write to the Windows application log? When things go wrong you can sometimes learn a lot from messages that get written there.

  20. I’d be interested in what people say to Miramon’s question about going between formats. Not even .txt is safe from getting buggy going from one text editor to another–I had a lot of trouble with a .txt file I was writing with an Ubuntu text editor (I can’t remember what it was called) and MS Notepad. Paragraphs of text kept appearing and disappearing, and strange line breaks showed up everywhere (even when the ‘word-wrap’ box in Notepad was always unchecked). I haven’t found any two text editors that work well together with any file extension, but I really hope there are some out there.

  21. I have an .rtf file (exported from scrivener & now I’m working with it in OO) and there is a spot where, every time I open it, a page break reappears. Very frustrating, and I doubt anyone could diagnose the problem from a distance, but commenting here is a cheaper vent than breaking my laptop.

  22. Yeah, the problem is that rtf is pretty-much a write-only format. I can actually see where the problem is looking at it in emacs (happening to have the file you speak of in my possession :)), but I can’t fix the problem because it’s all just mysterious slash-codes. Perhaps you can just copy-and-paste the entire text back into a new scrivener document and export it again?

  23. If you’re looking at it in a plain text editor, you can search for the string \page (slash + “page”), which is a manual page break, and delete it if that’s the problem.

    The RTF spec is pretty easy to follow, and you can find a basic list of control strings at if you’d like to experiment.

  24. I write copy for a living in Emacs (Linux), and moving it to my clients’ Windoze machines in .rtf format almost always triggered a support call — an irritating reality for a “universal” file format.

    Looks like you’ve hit on a “mostly” solution. But in case you haven’t tried yet, the import/export filters in LibreOffice work a *lot* better. Might solve it without any gymnastics.

    Ultimately, I started writing in Markdown or RST, then using Pandoc to convert to .docx files, which are horrifying but made the clients smile (proving once again happiness isn’t free).

    Anyway, first-time commenter. I enjoy the site.

  25. Yah, in this case, no such tag. The converter implemented the page break some other way…. I think it’s inside of this:

    …(end of some actual text after which the page breaks)…

    \par \sect }\sectd \ltrsect\linex0\sectunlocked1\sectdefaultcl\sftnbj {\headerr \ltrpar \pard\plain \ltrpar\s15\ql \li0\ri0\nowidctlpar\wrapdefault\faauto\rin0\lin0\itap0 \rtlch\fcs1 \af2\afs24\alang1081 \ltrch\fcs0

    …(next comes some stuff for the next page’s header section)…

    … but I could be wrong 🙂

  26. Maybe it’s time to write to Stephen King and ask him to ask his publisher to change for his convenience. If they’ll do it for him, then they’ve done it for everybody else who uses that publisher.

    There’s very little to lose by attempting it.

    Of course, he might be comfortable writing in Word.

  27. @Miramon — I finally determined that it was happening because Scrivener was instructing OO to have a different first-page header. Not really understanding or caring how to change the spot where that code appeared, I managed to make it so that all the pages had the same page style. This meant the “name/title/pg#” header started appearing on the first page, which looked stupid, but the damned page break stopped reappearing so I said “fuck it, I’m done.”

  28. “I think it’s inside of this”

    With the standard tech disclaimer about not being willing to state anything for certain without seeing the full file, since, for example, the default section definition could contain odd formatting that’s being carried into the new section, I’m wondering if the problem is the column definition (\ltrsect).

    That idea comes from the fact Word displays columns as normal columns in its Print Preview view, but as a single column ending with a continuous section break when viewed in Normal mode. Perhaps whatever program is loading this file isn’t set to display the page as printed but rather as typed, and the break is for the section, not the page. That would mean the trouble is in the viewer, not the file itself.

  29. Haha, who knew my favourite author was a Linux guy. :3

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