Getting Started – Working the Menus

Orwell Manuscript with Editing

A portion of George Orwell’s draft for 1984, with editing.

First Things First. What are you doing?

I mean, besides reading this article.

Here you’ve downloaded a program, called “LibreOffice” and you want to use it to write something.

More appropriately, I should ask, “What do you want to be doing?”

“Well,” you say, “I just want to write something and…” It’s the ‘and’s that will get you. They might include:

  • And read and edit it, check the spelling, maybe find a faster way to get the words down.
  • Write that “shit” first draft (Hemingway’s word, not mine).Hemingway-The first draft of anything is s***
  • Email it to somebody.
  • Format it in a particular way, so it’s easier to read.
  • Add photos, charts, spreadsheets, numbers, videos and Lord knows what else.
  • Create a PDF so somebody else can read it the way YOU formatted it.
  • Print it out on the cheapest paper you can buy.
  • Send it to a publisher (fingers crossed).
  • Put it on a website.
  • Put it on somebody else’s computer screen.

…because you want…

  • To teach.
  • To entertain.
  • To make money.
  • To be remembered until the end of time (or, at least, tomorrow).
  • To shake your fist at the world.
  • To create beauty. Poetry. Word music.
  • To disrupt.
  • To complain about the mind-numbing complexities of word processors.

Whew! You’re ambitious, I’ll give you that.

“Of course I’m ambitious. I’m a writer.”

Und so. Was ist das?

There are an infinite number of reasons why people write. The tool that we frequently use is called a “word processor,” an archaic-sounding term. (We don’t call spreadsheets “number processors.” We don’t call photo editors “image processors.” )

Maybe we keep the term “word processor” because we know that all writing is a process.

Fortunately, hundreds of computer engineers have volunteered their time to create this software to help us do that process. Why? Maybe because we’re all “idea processors.” That’s what it is to be human, no? It’s part programming, part ideas, part logic, part creativity, part communication, part magic.

But, they were programmers and engineers, not writers. (Well, a few of them wrote, too, I expect.) First, we have to figure out how those programmers expected us to write with “their” software. That’s why we have user manuals. We have to get past the engineering.

However, this isn’t a traditional user manual. I’m just here to give you some basics and let you fly on your own, little birdie.

So I’m just going to teach you some basics about using menus, toolbars, sidebars, customization and other means of wrangling this software to do what you want to do. Hopefully, these articles won’t be quite as mind-numbing as most instructional manuals (no promises, though).

Actually, there are some very good user manuals for using LibreOffice from the same site you got the software. If you downloaded and printed them out, you’d have a nice tall stack of paper.

But you don’t want to go through all that, because what you want to do is write – not read manuals. (That’s why I resisted reading those manuals for years before getting down to reading bits and pieces of them.)

OK, Andy. Isn’t this intro already too long?

Probably. OK. So, as in Rogers & Hammerstein’s Do, Re, Mi, “Let’s start from the very beginning. A very good place to start…”

The Start Up Screen, Menus, and Keyboard Shortcuts Galore

In our last post [link], we downloaded your copy of LibreOffice (LO) or Apache OpenOffice (AOO) and installed it. So far, so good. Let’s start up the program.LibreOffice Startup Window

Wait! I started the program. What’s this screen?

One of the big differences between Microsoft Office and LibreOffice (and Apache OpenOffice) is that the open office suites are a single program, not a collection of separate programs you open one at a time. So, when you start, LibreOffice (or AOO) gives you the ability to choose which module you want – in our case, Writer. The new LibreOffice startup screen also lets you see mini-versions of your recent documents and your saved templates. (AOO doesn’t, yet.)

Apache OpenOffice's startup screen is much more basic.

Apache OpenOffice’s startup screen is much more basic.

If you find the document icon and click on it directly, you bypass the startup screen.

Back to the Future with Menus

Hmm. What are these things on top of the screen?

Ahh, remember the days before ribbons and touch screens? Well, these are menus. It’s good to take a few minutes to examine all the menus just to get your bearings and check out the features. That’s usually the first thing I do whenever I try a new program or upgrade.

Don’t feel that you need to learn all these features and memorize where each one is before you can start writing. (“That way madness lies.” – Shakespeare) But, if you were a user of Microsoft Word before the 2007 version, this will actually feel very familiar to you. I used to use both Word for the Mac (versions 1.05 to 5.1) and Word for Windows 2000 and 2003). So when I first tried OpenOffice, I suddenly became nostalgic for the old Word. I even remembered many of the old keyboard shortcuts. If you’re old enough to be nostalgic for the old Word, leave a note in the comments after this article and we can reminisce.

OK, before we start planning Old Word reunions, what are the essential menu items I need to start writing?

You actually need to know very few commands to start writing. In fact, it’s important NOT to get tied up with all the menus. But which menu items are essential varies from writer to writer. Here are what I think are the essential commands and where to find them.

The File Menu

  • The usual Open, Save, Save As tools
  • Print, of course
  • Both Export and Export as PDF

The Edit Menu

  • Find and Replace

You should be already using keyboard shortcuts for undo and redo. (See below.)

The View Menu

  • Choice of Print (WYSIWYG) view or web view.
  • Toolbars – don’t get carried away; Standard and Formatting toolbars are all most beginners will need for now.
  • You might want to activate the Sidebar if it’s not already available. Or not.

The Insert Menu

What you use depends on your type of writing. Some basics:

  • Manual Break – for line breaks, column breaks and page breaks.
  • Special Characters – for those letters and symbols not on your keyboard.
  • Other tools to insert web links, headers, footers, footnotes, media, text boxes (for page layout features), and more.

The Format Menu

Lots of goodies here:

  • Character and Paragraph level formatting tools;
  • Bullets and Numbering for lists.
  • Change Case is handy when I import text from the web or other documents. (More later.)
  • Autocorrect, if you want LO to make corrections as you type.
  • Lots of other features for page layout and using layers.

The Table Menu

If you used tables in Word (or any other word processor), you’ll find most of the same tools here, but not the pretty color styles featured in Word’s ribbons. Note that you can easily open up a spreadsheet in LibreOffice (without starting a new program) and use that for more complex tables, then paste it into Writer. Or design them artistically in Draw.

The Tools Menu

  • Spelling and grammar will be important to most writers.
  • Mail merge wizard.

By far, the most important choice here is near the bottom, for Options, which leads you to the vast back-stage world of LibreOffice choices we’ll talk about later.

The Window Menu

  • Switches between windows and open documents.

Learning to be a Keyboard Wizard in LibreOffice

Those of you of a more mature age may remember a rock opera by The Who about a blind pinball wizard. Well, you don’t have to be blind and you don’t have to master pinball, but you can become a Keyboard Wizard. Here’s how.


Learn your basic keyboard shortcuts!

For every program, there are keyboard shortcuts that everybody assumes that everybody knows. Except, not everybody knows them. (We all had to learn them the first time. Don’t feel bad.) Here are the basic shortcuts that “everybody knows,” just in case you don’t.

If you’re a writer, you really should remember the shortcuts for:

  • New (Control-N)
  • Open (Control-O)
  • Close (Control-W)
  • Exit or Quit (Control-Q)
  • Save (Control-S, try to get in the habit of hitting this every 5 minutes or so)
  • Save As (Control-Shift-S),
  • Print (Control-P),
  • Cut – Copy – Paste – Paste Special (Control-X, Control-C, Control-V and Control-Shift-V, respectively),
  • Find (Control-F) and
  • Find and Replace (Control-H)
  • Undo (Control-Z)
  • Redo – to undo your undo (Control-Y)
  • Bold (Control-B, repeat to return to normal)
  • Italics (Control-I, repeat to return to normal)

Note that although I typed the letter keys in Caps, you don’t use the Shift key except in the Save As shortcut.

You can use the mouse, toolbars, sidebars, or menus to do most of these things, too, so it’s not required to learn these shortcuts. But power typists know that it slows you down every time your hand has to leave the keyboard to use the mouse or the touch screen. Learn these shortcuts and you will bless me every day for the rest of your writing life (or maybe tomorrow).

If you’re not a fast typist check out the Frugal Guidance 2 list of typing tutors.

The ONE Absolutely Essential Keyboard Shortcut for Writers in LibreOffice

There is one – yes, just one – shortcut I think every writer should learn when using LibreOffice.

Angels announcing Control-Shift-J

Control – Shift – J

It is Control-Shift-J. Try it. Then repeat.

It’s the Full Screen writing mode shortcut. Some people call this the “Distraction Free Writing Zone.” (It’s located under the View menu if you forget the shortcut.) This hides all the menus, sidebars, info bars, Windows trash (er, I mean interface), and expands to a full screen. This is the best way to separate the creative writing process from the editing and formatting process. My recommendation is that you memorize this shortcut and use it every time you are creating new text.

You can still use the Save shortcut in Full Screen mode. Without menus, though, many menu shortcuts won’t work.

Again, Control-Shift-J

Here’s another secret! When you are writing in Full-Screen mode, Right-click menu - formattingreach over to your mouse and right-click. (Press the button on the right half of the mouse – this means nothing if you use a single-button mouse on a Mac or if you have no mouse at all.) Most of the formatting tools you need are right here in the “contextual menu.” No need to exit Full Screen mode to adjust your font. Pretty neat, huh? (On Macs, I think it’s Command-click.)

LibreOffice has pretty robust contextual menus throughout the interface. Just right-click and see what’s there. Just don’t get distracted by playing with the right-click menu when you should be writing.

If you are using a laptop with a touchpad, there should be a touchpad equivalent for a mouse right-click. Same if you are using a touchscreen.

One more keyboard tutorial: Mouse-less Menus

OK, let’s leave that beautiful Full-Screen mode and get back to our menus. Don’t worry, if you have the sudden urge to write something, you can now hit Control-S, Control-N, and Control-Shift-J and start writing your next novel or article. (Don’t worry, I’ll still be here in your browser any time you need me.)

Do I have to remember every keyboard shortcut on the menus to write efficiently?

Absolutely not. Being a creative writing machine is easier if you know the essential shortcuts for your type of writing, though.

However, Windows users should notice that one letter on each top level menu is underlined. (This may be the case for Mac and Linux users, too.) To open a menu, hold down your Alt key and type that letter. When you do that, you will also see that each menu choice in the dropped-down menu also has a single letter.

For instance, to get to the Bullets and Numbering tool, hold down the Alt key and type the letter o. The Format menu opens up. To open the Bullets and Numbering, hit the b key. (You don’t need to keep holding the Alt key, but you can.) If the menu command has an ellipsis (“…”) at the end, that means there’s a sub-menu. Most of those sub-menus have keyboard shortcuts, too.

Once you drop down a menu from the keyboard, you can also navigate through them using the arrow keys. If you change your mind, press the Esc (Escape) key to exit the menu without selecting something.

White Keyboard image - Frugal Guidance 2

Another approach, especially if you want one-handed access, is to use the F10 key to highlight the menu bar, then use the arrow keys to navigate to the desired menu and command. (You can use the navigation keys on your numbers keypad, too.)

One of my favorite quick shortcuts is for the Change Case command, especially if I’m editing text from the web (say, names or article titles). For example, to change all caps or all lower case text to Title Case (capitalizing just the first letter of each word):

  • select the text to edit,
  • hold down the Alt key,
  • type o to open the menu,
  • then type c to open the Change Case… sub-menu,
  • then c again to select Title Case.

It’s much easier to do this than to describe. Once you remember the key combination 0-C-C, you don’t even need to look at the menus. Another way to do the same thing is to select the text, right-click, and select Change Case from the popup menu and then select the format you want. As you will learn there are three or more ways to do everything in LibreOffice. You get to choose.

If you are a Microsoft Word refugee, you might remember that you can do similar keyboard shortcuts using the ribbon interface, too, but I find it’s much more intuitive when using the more traditional menus. (If you used older versions of Word, you might find that many of the same shortcuts you memorized back then will come back to you. Many are the same.)

With a little practice, you’ll be a Menu Wizard!

Wizard with colorful magic

In our next part, we’ll explore toolbars, sidebars, more contextual menus, and the secrets of Find and Replace.

Other articles in this series on LibreOffice for Writers:

Writing with LibreOffice – An Intro

Writing with LibreOffice – Part 2 – Installing

The Surprising Secrets of LibreOffice Toolbars

10 Secrets of the LibreOffice Status Bar


George Orwell draft manuscript was found through Google. (No credit given.)

Ernest Hemingway quote is, well, from Hemingway. (Who did you expect?) The photo and pull quote is from Bang2Write Top 10 Quotes On First Drafts, compiled by Lucy V Hay.

Screen shots are by the author.

Magician Wizard Boy image is used courtesy of “vectorollie” and

Magician Doing Magic (rainbow) is used courtesy of “nirots” and

Frugal Guidance 2 -