Create and Manage Professional Letters with OpenOffice and PDFTK

I have slowly been learning the ropes of professional presentation for my freelance work. Design school taught me a thing or two about designing letterhead and the importance of looking professional and organized (sort of like flexing your muscles before a wrestling match). However, they certainly didn’t teach anybody how to actually put those designs into use in an organized workflow. Word-processing programs were the devil. As a result of their design program zealotry I have a lot of resumes, cover letters and general business letters that are Pagemaker, InDesign, QuarkXpress and Illustrator files. This isn’t what these programs were built to do.

These programs were built for carefully typesetting layouts

This problem makes the process of writing a letter too complex. I know what you’re saying. You think I’m lazy. You’re wrong. I have great powers of determination and focus, but usually I get distracted by details. Suddenly I’m typesetting a bill and not just writing up a bill. Before I know it I’ve shot the afternoon twiddling with letter-spacing on a 6 hour project billing.

The solution to this ease of distraction is to use the right program for the task at hand. A word-processor is a powerful tool and can save you a lot of time without compromising your concern for appearances. How do they save me time?

  1. Page Templates
  2. Style Sheets

“But my layout program has that and MORE!”, you say. Well, that’s my point. You don’t need more to write letters.


One of the cool ideas I came across in my Linux/Open-source self-education is the acronym ‘WYSIWYM’. We’re all familiar with WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) and that applies to all of our layout and common word processing programs. WYSIWYM stands for ‘What You See Is What You Mean’. A subtle but important difference.

The program that is most popularly associated with this concept is called TeX (pronounced ‘tek’). If you’re interested in the history, check out Wikipedia. My introduction to TeX was actually through another program called LaTeX which simplifies the creation of TeX markup. In LaTeX you simply see the text with no formatting. All you see is a definition of document structure to the left of your content (this line is a Headline 1 format, that line is a blockquote). No nitpicking about what font and linespacing. Unfortunately, this program had a big learning curve and I don’t recommend it for most people. Plus, when it came to printing and generating PDFs I ran into a lot of missing elements that needed to be installed separately. Not easy to setup.

Okay, so, what’s that have to do with using a word-processor? Well, you can use a w-p in the same way via style sheets. Here’s what you do:

  1. Take an afternoon to design your letterhead in your layout program of choice.
  2. Figure out what the margins on your letter have to be to fit your letterhead format.
  3. Save a pdf of your letterhead design as though you were printing blank letterhead.
  4. Open a new document in OpenOffice (or MSWord if you must…) and set the margins accordingly.
  5. Now type out some example copy or use an existing letter to work out your stylesheet.
  6. Design all the styled elements that you foresee using in your letters. Take your time. Get the after-paragraph-spacing and typefaces all figured out so that it looks beautiful. Make sure that you are using the ‘Styles and Formatting’ palette or window and modifying those elements with your changes.
  7. Delete your test content and save this document as a TEMPLATE somewhere handy.
  8. Every time you want to right a letter just open a new document from this template and write your letter with a WYSIWYM state of mind using your preset styles

Now your letterhead is one file and all of your little letters, bills and requests can be saved in simple word-processor files. If you’re especially concerned about future-proofing your letters, check out OpenOffice and the Open Document Formats. From Wikipedia:

OpenDocument benefits from separation of concerns by separating the content, styles, metadata and application settings into four separate XML files.

So, worst case scenario: after the demise of OpenOffice twenty years from now you are left with an ISO-standard document format that will most likely be supported by any respectable word-processing program that exists at the time.

Actually, even worse: ODF isn’t supported at all so you are left with the option of opening the XML file containing only the basic text content of your letter which you will have to reformat.

Either way what’s the chance of your InDesign CS3 binary format file being accessible that far in the future? Good luck trying to pull the plain text content of your letter out of a binary file!

Merging the Letter with the Letterhead

On Linux there is a great command line program called ‘PDFTK’ or the PDF Took Kit. It does some cool things but my only use for it right now is to merge our Letterhead.pdf with our LetterToBob.pdf. It’s simple as pie, but I want to look into creating a simple GUI for it. A little dialog window can’t be that difficult to program, can it? 😀

First install PDFTK via Apt-Get or Synaptic if you are on a Debian-based Linux distribution. Otherwise, get on Google and look into getting it. Sorry for the lack of support at this stage.

Once you have it installed, open a terminal window. For this example I am going to save my two PDFs to my desktop and then use PDFTK to merge them from there.

Go back to the Terminal, change to your Desktop directory (cd ~/Desktop if you don’t know) and type the following:

pdftk LetterToBob.pdf background Letterhead.pdf output LetterOnLetterhead.pdf

Break It Down!:

  1. First tell the terminal which program to use
  2. Specify your original PDF document by filename
  3. ‘background’ specifies the function of PDFTK to use
  4. Specify the background PDF document by filename
  5. ‘output’ tells the program what to name the product of the indicated action
  6. Specify the filename for the product of the PDFTK background action

Click enter and you will have a new PDF named ‘LetterOnLetterhead.pdf’ on your desktop shortly.

I don’t know, but I can only hope that Adobe Acrobat Professional can also merge PDFs in this way.

Now you have a professional letter on your own custom letterhead in PDF format for emailing or printing. The ODF files are simple to keep organized and your letter head is easy to keep track of on one layout file. This could be accomplished with layout tools as well, but this is how I do it and thought other people might benefit from hearing about it.