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Create a Letterhead Using OpenOffice.org Writer

by Jean Hollis Weber, author of OpenOffice.org Writer
12/14/2004

Once upon a time, organizations had thousands of sheets of letterhead prepared by a commercial printer. These letterhead pages were then fed through a typewriter or, later, through a printer attached to a computer. Some organizations still do this, especially if they want colors, embossed text, or other fancy touches. But many smaller companies, and most individuals, now are very likely to print the letterhead and the letter at the same time, using a color laser or inkjet printer.

This article describes how to create and use a letterhead with OpenOffice.org. Along the way you'll learn how to use a wizard, templates, styles, and even a field or two. The principles described apply to many other documents as well, so even if you don't need a letterhead, you should find this exercise useful.

Designing Your Letterhead

This article doesn't cover graphic design. Before starting the project, you should have a good idea of what you want your letterhead to look like: the placement of the return address, a logo (if relevant), the date, the name and address of the person to whom the letter will be sent, the signature block, an attention line or subject line (if relevant), and so on. Don't worry if you change your mind later; it's quick and easy to change the appearance of the letterhead if you've used styles.

Figure 1 shows the letterhead I will create in this article.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Finished letterhead

The steps to take in creating and using a letterhead are:

  1. (Optional) Use an AutoPilot (OOo's term for a wizard) to create the first draft.
  2. Change the details of the draft letterhead, using styles.
  3. Use the letterhead template to create letters.

I'll go through each of these steps in turn.

Using an AutoPilot to Create the First Draft

This step is optional. You may prefer to do the first design work yourself, especially if you're familiar with the use of styles in other word processors. Don't fall into the trap of doing all the design using manual selections rather than styles, and then saving the result as a template. Such an approach may seem faster, but it usually isn't; and, more importantly, if you ever want to change something, you'll have to do a lot more work than if you use styles.

1. To start the AutoPilot, choose File -> AutoPilot -> Letter from the menu bar.

Most of the pages are self-explanatory, but some of the items are not, so I'll walk through the pages one at a time. You don't have to fill in every page, and you can stop at any point by clicking on Cancel. The next time you open the AutoPilot Letter, your choices will still be there, and you can continue the process where you left off. Or you can click on the Create button at any point; you might be a bit surprised to see the result if you allow OOo to use all its defaults, but you can always change the draft letterhead later.

2. The first page of the AutoPilot Letter dialog asks two questions: whether you want a business or personal letterhead, and whether you want a modern, classic, or decorative layout.

Clicking on Business letter or Personal letter changes the sample display, so you can easily see that a business letter has more elements (mainly address blocks for the sender and receiver).

The layout type is less clear: you have to go to the Help section to discover that this choice refers to the fonts used, not the layout: Modern means a sans-serif font like Arial, Classic means a monospaced font like Courier, and Decorative means a serif font like Times Roman.

Let's choose Business letter and Modern layout.

3. Click on Next to move to the second page of the AutoPilot, where you can choose to include a logo (graphics file) or a text block to go into the logo space.

If you choose graphics for the logo, click on Select Graphics to choose the file. If you choose text, the display changes to provide a text entry block. Type the information you want to appear in the space for the logo; include line breaks as needed.

In the lower part of the dialog, you can specify the exact location and size for the logo. Remember, you can change any of these choices later, if you don't like the result.

4. On the third page, you can enter the sender (return) name and address. The default name and address come from the user data in Tools -> Options -> OpenOffice.org -> User Data. You can change them to anything you want.

Note that > has to be the first character in the address field. If you select Repeat in the addressee field, all lines starting with > are repeated in the recipient field in a small font size above the addressee, so that the sender's address is visible when using a window envelope.

In the lower part of the dialog, you can specify the exact location and size for the sender address block.

5. On the fourth page of the AutoPilot, if you have previously defined a database of addresses to be used with OOo, you can specify which table of the database to use, and which fields are used in the Address block of the letterhead.

Later, when you create a letter using the letterhead, you'll choose the recipient from the database and all the address information will be filled in.

When you choose a database table, a list of the available fields appears. To add a field to the address block, select it in the list and click on the left-arrow button. Press the Enter key on your keyboard, or click on the Enter key button on the AutoPilot, to insert a line break where needed in the address. See Figure 2.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Using a database to insert name and address information

Below the address block is the salutation. Type an appropriate salutation (for example, "Dear") and choose the field (if any) you want to include (such as the person's first or last name). You can leave these selections blank.

6. On the fifth page, you can choose among many optional elements for a business letter and the form in which some of them (such as the date) will be displayed.

7. On the sixth page, you can specify the location and contents of a footer for the letterhead. Note that if you've chosen to include page numbers (on the fifth page), you need to have a footer.

If on the sixth page you deselect the footer, the option for page numbers becomes unavailable on the fifth page. You can, if you wish, have a footer without page numbers. You can type whatever text you want for the footer on this page. For example, some organizations put their return address information in the footer, not in the sender block.

8. The seventh page is where you can define the placement of elements on any continuation pages of your letter.

Continuation pages normally do not have the same elements and appearance as the first page, but they may have the same footer, or a smaller logo, or some other header information.

9. On the eighth page, specify the filename and other information to go into the document information properties of the letterhead and any letters based on it.

For example, you can choose to have a database field (such as the name of the addressee) automatically inserted into the document properties of a letter based on the template. This is a simple but powerful automation feature to ensure that you don't forget to insert this information when preparing a letter. You can select these options only if you are creating a template for a business letter, not a personal letter.

10. On the final (ninth) page, you can specify when the logo and sender information will be included (always, first page only, continuation pages only, never) and set up the printer and paper trays.

Printer and tray information are useful if, for example, you use one type of paper for letters and another type for other documents. Be sure to click on the Setup button and make sure the printer is set up for your preferred paper size. Printer information is stored with the template and applies to all letters based on it, but you can change the selection for any individual letter at the time of creation or printing.

11. Having filled in all the pages (or as many as you want), click on Create.

The letterhead will be saved as a template, and a new OOo window will open, containing a new letter based on that letterhead.

Notice that some of the items in the letter have a gray background. Those are fields. Some are placeholders for information that will be inserted when you compose the letter; one is probably a date; one may be a page number. We'll look at the use of those placeholder fields later. (If nothing has a gray background, go to View > Field shadings.) The gray background will not be printed; it is there to help you see which items are fields.

At this point you'll probably look at the template and realize you don't like the font, or the type size, or some other element. If you look closely, you may even discover that the page size isn't what you want. The page size of templates created by the AutoPilot appears to always be Letter, regardless of your choice in the printer setup, and I have found no way to choose a page size during template creation. This is a great nuisance for those of us who use A4 as our standard paper size.

Fortunately, this problem can be fixed. In the next part of this article you'll discover how to change anything you don't like.

Change the Details of the Draft Letterhead

To change the letterhead, you need to work with the template, not with the letter that's open in front of you. You can change the paper size, the margins, the fonts, the paragraph spacing, and more. Here's what to do:

1. If you didn't keep a note of the name of the template you just created, you can find out what it is by choosing File -> Properties on the open letter and looking at the bottom of the General tab (Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3. The Properties dialog, showing the name of the associated template

2. Close the letter without saving it, leaving OOo open.

3. To open the letterhead template, choose File -> Templates -> Edit.

You'll probably have to navigate from wherever the dialog opens to the User Template folder, where you'll find the template you just created. For example, if you are running OOo 1.1.3, your User Template folder will be .../OpenOffice.org1.1.3/user/template. Select the name of the new template (the default is letter.stw) and click on Open.

Before continuing, go into Tools -> Options and turn on paragraph ends and tabs (in Text Document -> Formatting Aids), and display text, object, and table boundaries (in OpenOffice.org -> Appearance). Having these items visible helps you understand what's going on in the template.

To see what the second page of the letterhead looks like, go to the end of the "[Please insert your text here]" paragraph and press Enter as many times as necessary to send the complimentary close paragraph to another page.

4. Press F11 to open the Stylist (Figure 4).

Notice there are five icons at the top of the Stylist, for Paragraph, Character, Frame, Page, and Numbering styles. We'll use Page, Paragraph, and Frame styles while amending the letterhead.

Figure 4
Figure 4. The Stylist

5. We'll start with page styles. Click on the Page Styles icon in the Stylist.

You should see the First Page style highlighted. Also look in the status bar at the bottom of the OOo window (see Figure 5), where one of the items in the status bar should show First Page. This is the page style for the first page of the letterhead.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Location of the page style in the status bar

Now go to the second page of the letter. Notice that the page style is Default.

If you want to change anything in the page style (the page size or the margins, for example), right-click on the style name in the Stylist and choose Modify. Notice that the Organizer tab for the First Page style shows that the next style (that is, the style for the page following this one) is set to Default.

On the Page tab, you can change the paper size, margins, and other parameters. On the other pages, you can choose a background (for example, a watermark), change the header and footer, add a page border, choose more than one column, or specify the location of footnotes. Most of these choices clearly are not relevant to a letterhead, so you can safely ignore them for now.

Make any changes you want, then click on OK to apply them.

6. Next, we'll look at paragraphs.

Perhaps you want to change the font used for the Sender's name and address. Click on the Paragraph Styles icon in the Stylist, then click on one of the paragraphs you want to change. In the Stylist you'll see a highlighted style name (Sender); you'll also see the same style name in the Apply Style box on the function bar (usually it's at the far left).

In the Stylist, right-click on the style name and choose Modify. The Paragraph Style dialog will open. Here you can change many attributes; the most likely ones are Font and Indents & Spacing. When you click on OK in this dialog, your changes are immediately applied to any paragraph with that style.

7. When you are done changing paragraphs, look at other aspects of the page layout.

Notice the gray boxes around some blocks of text. Click on one of these gray boxes. Small green squares appear along the edge of the gray box, and the cursor changes to a cross with tiny arrows at each end. The green squares (called "handles") indicate that the gray box is a text frame. (See Figure 6.)

Figure 6
Figure 6. Green handles on frame

In the Stylist, click on the Frame Styles icon. When you have a frame selected, the name of its style (in this case, Frame) is highlighted in the Stylist and shown in the Apply Style box on the function bar.

If you hold down the mouse button, you can drag the frame to another location on the page to reposition it. (For more precise control, right-click on the frame and choose Frame to open the Frame dialog, where you can change its properties.) Each frame has its own name, which you can find on the Options page of the Frame dialog.

8. If you included a graphic logo, click on it now. Notice in the Stylist that the frame style for the logo is Graphics, not Frame.

Notice also that the icons on the object bar have changed (see Figure 7). They are now icons relevant to frames and graphics, not paragraphs as they were when the cursor is in a paragraph.

Figure 7
Figure 7. The Frame/Graphics function bar

9. Now look at the right end of the object bar, where you'll see a left-pointing arrow. Click on this, and the icons change to another set for manipulating graphics (Figure 8).

Figure 8
Figure 8. Graphics object toobar

Related Reading

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By Jean Hollis Weber

10. Delete all the extra blank paragraphs now, so that only the first page remains visible.

All the settings for the continuation page are still in the template, ready to be used when needed.

11. Choose File -> Save to save your changes to the letterhead template.

Now you are ready to create a letter from this template.

Use the Letterhead Template to Create Letters

To write a letter based on the template you just created:

1. Choose File -> New -> Templates and Documents.

2. In the Templates and Documents dialog, navigate to the location of the template (the folder called default) and double-click on it.

The new document will contain all the text and fields in the template. Type the contents of your letter in the appropriate place.

3. If you did not include name and address fields, you can simply type the recipient's name and address in the address block, and then save and print the letter.

If you included name and address fields in the template, you can use the Mail Merge feature to extract the information from address book database. To use Mail Merge:

1. Press F4 to open the database window. Navigate to the required database table, if you have more than one.

2. Select the address you want from the database.

If separate letters are going to several addressees, select all of the addresses by holding down the Shift key or the Ctrl key.

3. Click on the Mail Merge button near the right end of the database toolbar.

4. In the Mail Merge dialog, choose Selected records, and choose whether to print the letter immediately or save it to print later.

If saving to a file, choose a location in which to save the letter (the path) and a filename to give it. For this exercise, we'll print to a file.

5. Click on OK. Name and address details from your selected record will be inserted into the letter.

If you have not previously saved the letter itself (with fields, but not the selected recipient's name and address), you will be prompted to do so at this time, regardless of whether you are printing the merged letter to file.

6. Open one of the generated letters.

Find the date field, place the cursor just in front of it; then right-click and choose Fields. In the Edit Fields dialog, note that Date (fixed) is selected in the middle column of the screen. This setting ensures that the date won't change if you print another copy of the letter later; it will always show the date you created it.

Conclusion

That's it. You have created a letterhead template and used it to write a letter. You now have a template that you can use for as many letters as you wish. Even better, if you want to change the appearance of future letters, you can simply open the template (File -> Template -> Edit), make the changes, and save it. If you don't want existing letters to change their appearance if you reopen them, remember to choose No at the prompt "The Styles in this document do not match your current Styles. Should your current Styles be applied to this document?"

Jean Hollis Weber has worked as a technical publications consultant for the past 12 years. She has written books, taught short courses in technical writing and editing, and presented parts of graduate and undergraduate courses at several Australian universities. She maintains several web sites, including one for technical editors and one about OpenOffice.org.


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