Whether you write for pleasure or as a paid freelancer, you want to have the most up to date and robust tools at your disposal. These tools need to help you get your ideas down on paper in an organized way, and with minimal distractions. If you’re like many writers, you need all the desired features in a package that is also easy on the wallet.
Today we will cover two of the most popular word processing software. We’ll compare features across several different categories, including price, spellchecking ability, usability, templates, and accessibility. The intent is to help you to clarify which of these two programs might better suit your own needs as a writer.
Unless you are a complete tech newbie, Microsoft Word will be at least somewhat familiar to you, while you may have only heard whispers about OpenOffice Writer. Currently controlled by Apache, OpenOffice has competed for Microsoft users for nearly two decades.
When it comes to cost, Apache OpenOffice Writer wins hands down. There is no cost to the user to download and use OpenOffice Writer. It also provides free access to any updates, bug fixes, or new versions. It costs nothing, unless you choose to donate. This is a huge plus for many users, especially writers working on a shoestring budget.
Microsoft Word, on the other hand, seems to cost at every turn. At the conclusion of the free trial period, Microsoft issues frequent reminders to purchase. Use of Word on multiple devices is also limited. To use Word on more than the allowed quantity of devices, you must pay more.
Recurring licensing fees could be the biggest drawback for most users of Microsoft Word. Another concern, especially for writers, is losing access to their work if they fail to pay renewal fees. Licensing fees vary for personal, student, professional, and corporate users. The recurring fees and absolute control over access to their work is a major drawback for many users.
Known to the ancients as “Multi-Tool Word”, Microsoft Word has been around the block when it comes to development. In 1987 they released the first version that would work across all platforms, including DOS and Mac. Word is proprietary, licensed through Microsoft, and therefore, code cannot be easily modified by users. Support comes primarily from Microsoft technicians and customization is more difficult and involved.
OpenOffice Writer, on the other hand, is an Open Source software, originally spawned from a distrust of big corporations. Its code is public and can be freely altered by anyone with the knowledge to do so. Support comes from a community of users who are passionate about innovation and hold a common belief in community problem solving.
Many novice users will see very little differences in the user interface between OpenOffice Writer and Microsoft Word. Hotkey labels and menus are different in OpenOffice Writer, so there is a bit of a learning curve if you have been using early versions of MS Word extensively. But for advanced users, Microsoft Word wins just about every time. Word is packed with features and Writer just is too young to be competitive when it comes to advanced features.
Newer versions of Word also feature in-document resources such as Smart Lookup and a Tell Me feature where users can ask how to questions to accomplish a task such as how to make an index. Word simply inserts the task for you rather than walking you through it. These “smart” features help to reduce distractions from the task at hand, and are a great benefit for writers.
When it comes to spellcheck and grammar check, tools most writers need, Microsoft Word wins again. The spellcheck feature in MS Word is adjustable, rigorous, and it consistently detects spelling errors.
Users can adjust grammar check preferences to include document information such as word and character counts and average sentence length. Excessive use of passive voice and subject-verb agreement errors, two common issues for many writers, are also recognized by Word. On the down side, the consistency for grammar errors like capitalization is subpar, and excessive use of adjectives and confusing modifiers are often overlooked by Word.
Spellcheck for OpenOffice Writer is less robust and doesn’t include anything to check grammar, although you can download and install the Language Tool utility to check for grammar and additional spelling errors. While it rivals some stand-alone spelling/grammar applications, it simply can’t yet compete with Word. Although use of a quality third party spelling and grammar check app can eliminate this difference.
Styles and Templates
A user can create a specific look (font size, color, etc.) and then save it so it can quickly be applied throughout the document. Styles are supported by Word, but as a long time user of Word, I can tell you that it is often less time consuming to just create the text each time.
In OpenOffice Writer, however, the user has more influence over settings and this option also includes things like lists, page styles, and frame styles. The lack of these options in Word means it has virtually no page design capability at all. OpenOffice Writer is the clear winner when it comes to Style capability.
The idea of a document template is to save time and to create a more consistent, uniform look quickly and easily. This can be a real time saver when you have documents that are similar in format but just need to have new or updated information entered regularly. Templates were designed to eliminate the need to create a new document from scratch every single time.
But for years, even hardcore users of Word have virtually pulled their hair out when trying to use templates. The design of the templates in Word is such that a document can be created from a template but then unpredictably reformat itself the next time the document is opened. Default templates can also vary between work stations, which means one never knows for certain how a document based upon a template will actually look when it is opened.
OpenOffice Writer wins the template category hands down. The link between the document and the template it is based upon is much less integral than in Word. The template is merely the base of the initial document formatting. Changes to a document cannot modify the template the document was created from and the default template doesn’t change. Corruption of files due to unintended or spontaneous alterations is rare.
Writer also wins when it comes to list making, outlining, headers and footers, creating indexes and table of contents. All of these are useful features for writers who regularly write longer works such as research reports, novels, and technical manuals.
Open Office Writer also comes out ahead because of a unique feature called “conditional text”. This is used for hiding or revealing a specific chunk of text as needed and is often used when there is a need for two slightly different versions of one document. Technical and manual writers can use this feature to create a document that can then be distributed to basic and advanced audiences with specific instructions hidden.
Master documents in OpenOffice Writer are made much more functional through the use of its Navigator feature, which allows users to manipulate a master document via a floating window. The Navigator view window is much more user friendly than the outline view in Word when creating a master document.
Document Accessibility and Sharing
A huge benefit of MS Word, is the easy collaboration with others in real time via connected programs. In Word you can easily sync and share via Skype, OneDrive, or Microsoft Cloud. You can even access your Outlook contact list and send documents to coworkers or colleagues directly from Word. Real-time co-authoring in Word is possible if files are stored in OneDrive and Word features easy sharing of documents via its “Share” button.
Unfortunately, there is no ability for more than one person to be editing a document at once in Writer. Users will need a third party or an open source email solution to send OpenOffice Writer documents via email using Outlook. If you are a heavy MS Outlook user, this could be a deal breaker.
You can download and use an extension in Writer to access and store files online but it’s not as intuitive as in Word. Word also wins when it comes to online access with Microsoft Online and its newest creation Microsoft Office 365. There is currently no online equivalent for OpenOffice.
A major disadvantage in the usability category for OpenOffice Writer is that files originally produced in Writer can be unpredictably altered when you try to electronically share them with those who use Word. For viewing, this can be resolved by exporting your document to a PDF file prior to sharing electronically. OpenOffice Writer also doesn’t save HTML files nearly as well as Word so be prepared to do some intensive clean up either manually or via an HTML editor or utility for HTML files.
But one huge advantage of Writer is that it is designed to open documents of multiple file types and in addition files originally created in Writer are typically smaller in size. When converting files back and forth, there may be some manual adjustments needed for files with extensive columns, headers formatting or embedded images.
As Microsoft continues to cut off support for its older versions of Word, users are forced to upgrade or find an alternative to access their documents. OpenOffice Writer is advantageous to own simply to open documents that Word can’t open, including documents created in earlier versions of Word and even some corrupted files that Word cannot open.
In conclusion, it seems that you get what you pay for. Microsoft Word is a powerful feature-packed application with significant costs to maintain it. But for some people, time is money. If you are willing to pay for the convenience of the integrated features you need, without having to download and install add-ons and utilities, and if you do a lot of document collaboration with Word users, then Microsoft Word might better suit your needs.
OpenOffice will work perfectly though for users with only an occasional need to use a word processing program and for those who don’t need to do a lot of document sharing. If you’re writing your first novel, putting together a complex procedure manual, or just using it for thank you letters, OpenOffice Writer won’t hurt your wallet and you can actually save significant money that you would have spent on licensing and renewal fees for Word.
The only caution I would have is that it seems the most recent update to OpenOffice was back in October 2015. Developers and advanced users seem to be migrating over to either LibreOffice or Microsoft Word, which could mean slower updates and fixes. And of course, the caution with Microsoft is as it has always been, an ever increasing cycle of licensing fees and new version changes.