Word Processing vs DTP

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Many people use office suites like Microsoft Office™ or OpenOffice.org. But at some point, they are no longer satisfied with the capabilities of their preferred word processor. Perhaps they cannot fine-tune a layout, or some of their ideas are just not feasible. Or the magazine from the kiosk just looks more professional.

So, these people look around for other applications. And they find professional Desktop Publishing (DTP) applications like QuarkXPress, Indesign or Scribus. The last one in particular has a great advantage: It is Open Source, so why not give it a try? After downloading, installing and starting the application an author who is used to word processors, sits in front of his screen like a rabbit in front of a snake. He doesn't know what to do. Everything looks so strange; and why can't he type text into his document? After some time, frustrated, the author uninstalls Scribus and goes back to his familiar word processor, accepting its limitations and disadvantages.

Principal differences

  • A DTP application is not intended for creating text — at least if one is talking about a large amount of text, ie. many pages. For this purpose, it's better to use a word processor or a simple text editor (with or without markup). After the text is finished it can be loaded into the DTP application. From this point, only minor changes to the text are done in the DTP application — you don't want to edit long texts this way. This separation comes from the division of responsibilities in professional publishing: one person creates the text content, and another person does the layout.
  • Most modern DTP applications are frame-based. This means that all the content on a page is placed into frames. Content includes text, images, drawings and everything else an author would like to see on the printed page. These frames are freely moveable and can be placed anywhere on the page. Text from one frame can be continued (flow) in another.
    One might counter this by pointing out that word processors frequently have "text boxes", and it is possible to import a picture or graphic into a word processor document. However, as you attempt to precisely place, resize, increase or decrease graphics resolution, or rotate, you quickly discover the severe limitations of these "DTP-like" features. Often, it's hard enough just to keep them from moving on their own as you add content to your document.
  • Once you have your text in a text frame, you can manipulate it with a high degree of precision. A word processor may offer size choices of 6, 7, 8, 9, 10... points, but with Scribus the precision is up to tenths of a point. Why is that important? So that you can fit a particular amount of text into an area of specific size. For example, you may need to match the width of a word with an underlying graphic element.
    You also have the capability to stretch a font horizontally or vertically, precisely set line spacing (again, to tenths of a point) and the space between letters (kerning). DTP thus gives you complete control over the placement of characters within text, allowing you to fit text within a rectangular or other shape. This is an example where that precise control over size and spacing is absolutely necessary. You can flow text around images (or not — try not having text flow around an image in a wordprocessor — yet this may be a desired layout feature in DTP), superimpose images on text (or vice versa), and create color separations for printing.
  • In DTP applications, the color palette contains just a few dozen different colors, more or less. Any other color which you need has to be defined manually. That's because in a professional offset printing environment additional colors are often considered spot colors, which can be undesirable.
    DTP also allows for transparency of images, graphics elements, text — whatever you can put on the page.
  • You can define so-called master pages. If a normal page uses a master page as its basis, all the elements of the master page will appear on the normal page. Think about a magazine or newsletter, where certain elements like headers, footers, page numbers, logos, and the layout of the page are repetitive, yet there are differences between a right-hand and left-hand page. Within a document, you can define more than one master page; a large document may have many.

What a DTP application can't do for you

  • A DTP application is for creating a layout of a document; its purpose is not to structure a text. It may not build summaries or a table of contents for you; there is no function to add/manage footnotes to your text. Scribus 1.3.x can build a table of contents for you.
  • Generally, it will be difficult to connect a DTP application with external data sources like databases. Scribus allows you to do this with its scripter python plugin.

Advantages of DTP applications

  • Absolute control of your layout. DTP applications never rearrange your frames to fit to text or printer requirements. Instead, you have to set up the text or printer correctly.
  • Text flow around irregular shapes.
  • Guidelines, margins and rulers are very useful for an exact placement of frames.
  • Professional output. PDF, PostScript or one of these really big offset printing machines? With a DTP application, you can satisfy them all.

Where to go from here

  • Check the main Scribus site, explore the Scribus Wiki, and the mailing list. Make sure you have a basic understanding of what Scribus is, how it works, and what the requirements are in order to download and install (Linux, Windows, MacOS).
    If you have questions, that's what the mailing list is for. Scribus now has versions for all flavors of Linux, Windows(2000 + XP), and MacOS.
  • While most of what you need is downloadable from Scribus, there are some other requirements, like ghostscript, that need to be obtained separately, before you install Scribus. This is all on the Scribus site under installation requirements.
  • Check out the tutorial on the Wiki site, "Get Started With Scribus", check out the "Working with..." pages of the Wiki in the HOWTOs section. You may even want to check these out before you install Scribus so you can fully understand Scribus's capabilities and operations. It's not a word processor, so it doesn't work like a word processor.
  • Something probably not a good idea is to plan to use Scribus for the first time on an important piece of work with a tight deadline, like tomorrow morning. Even those who have some DTP experience would likely be frustrated by that task (and would probably know better than to attempt it).