What can I use to write my PhD in?
August 29, 2008 8:38 AM   Subscribe

PhD Filter: First year into my course, one chapter written, MS Word can no longer take the strain. It's a humanities PhD, I need a cheap/free alternative... all help appreciated.

I've been using Microsoft Word since the beginning of the Phd and just slightly bankrupted myself on the EndNote software to use as bibliography. Up till now I'd been using Zotero and Word. The amount of references I have in one chapter seems to be throwing Word off entirely, my word count is 20,000 and at around 55 pages, it no longer seems to be functioning. This may be due to the section breaks for some of the tables and figures I have as well.

I've read many previous and similar questions but they seem to be more science based - I don't need anything that can formulate equations. I do need something that could deal with tables however, columns for translation of poetry, and a serious mountain of references. What do other humanities students use? I know lots of people seem to have the same problem re: Word.

What I need is something free or else fairly cheap, easy ish to use (though I am quite techie, and could learn it if necessary). At the very most I could spend about £60.
posted by Augenblick to Education (37 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Open Office
posted by TeachTheDead at 8:42 AM on August 29, 2008

I don't think OpenOffice.org is going to be a good alternative. It's basically a Word clone, and in my experience has more performance problems.

You can use LaTeX for humanities documents. You might want to try the LyX document processor interface which is allegedly easy-to-use.

You don't say what platform you are using. Others might have Mac- or Windows-specific suggestions.
posted by grouse at 8:50 AM on August 29, 2008

I haven't done this yet, but you should maybe take the time to learn LaTeX, which is more or less infinitely scalable (and with BibTeX, can handle all the references you want). LyX is a graphical frontend.

You may have to convert your work to LaTeX manually, but there are conversion programs like pdf2latex available.
posted by nasreddin at 8:50 AM on August 29, 2008

seconding LaTeX .... for Windows, a good option is MikTeX and the text editor WinEdt (which has a very nice interface with MikTeX).
posted by pjenks at 8:53 AM on August 29, 2008

Response by poster: OP - sorry - I'm using a Mac and it's slightly tired. And old ibook G4, so it could possibly just be memory issues. I saw so many problems with Word though I assumed it was word rather than my ibook.
posted by Augenblick at 8:55 AM on August 29, 2008

If you think you might have RAM issues, then test your RAM. Never a bad idea, and you can rule it out. I'd say that is unlikely if your only symptoms are Word-related. This is consistent with problems I and others have had with long documents in Word.
posted by grouse at 8:59 AM on August 29, 2008

If you are tech-comfortable, there's a really good, free implementation of LaTeX for the mac, and it's super easy to install. There certainly is a learning curve for LaTeX. On the other hand, when I did my dissertation [mathematics, but certainly there are humanities folks that use LaTeX], and the time came for the checking of the margins, etc., it took maybe 3 minutes, because everything was perfect---because I was using a style file for LaTeX that did all the margin etc. rules perfectly. I was watching people who had been struggling with Word spend a long time with the rule enforcing ladies.

On the other hand, Word 2008 for the mac is a buggy pile of crap. So if you have the option, you might see how Word 2004 behaves with your file.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:03 AM on August 29, 2008

My heart goes out to you: stories of Word crapping out or acting odd past a certain size are ubiquitous amongst grad students.

There's not a single great solution for this. I've known people to split their thesis up into several Word sub-documents and merge them only at the last moment. Others have done their work in Word and then ported it to QuarkExpress for the final typesetting.

Someone will inevitably suggest LaTeX (too late!), which is a program that only a computer scientist would love. I used it for my thesis, but there's a steep learning curve and I wouldn't suggest a non-programmer use it directly. There are friendly programs for preparing LaTeX, like Lyx, and for preparing your bibliography, like JabRef. Even given these, you might find that LaTeX is too "in your face" about the minutiae of typesetting.

You don't say what platform you're on, but it may be worth trying some of the lesser known word-processors like AbiWord. Nissus and Mellel have good reputations on the Mac. There are a number of "scientific" word processors which may suit your purposes as - although you are uninterested in the maths, formulae they provide - they are designed to write papers, books are theses with. Scientific Word wraps LaTeX I think.
posted by outlier at 9:11 AM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're on a Mac, I've never heard anyone do anything other than gush enthusiastically about TeXShop, a particular LaTeX+editor implementation.

If you don't need to use the advanced features, LaTeX really isn't hard to get going on. Especially if your school has a class or style file for theses.

It's a different mindset from word-processing, but it's not difficult.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:12 AM on August 29, 2008

Someone will inevitably suggest LaTeX (too late!), which is a program that only a computer scientist would love.

I am not a computer scientist. I love LaTeX. You can pry it from my cold dead hands, etc.

The OP is on a Mac. TeXShop is beyond wonderful. Take it in the morning with a full glass of BibDesk and a side of LaTeXit (if you plan on having any math in a presentation later).
posted by fatllama at 9:16 AM on August 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Someone will inevitably suggest LaTeX (too late!), which is a program that only a computer scientist would love.

This just isn't true. For things like writing a book or long paper, LaTeX is dead easy: you just write your text, with the following exceptions:

(1) Instead of putting in CHAPTER 1 or INTRODUCTION and manually setting the font, you put in \chapter{CHAPTER TITLE} and \section{NAME OF SECTION} and let LaTeX worry about what font and boldness it should be in.

(2) Instead of putting in citations manually and assembling a bibliography yourself, you write stuff like "\citeasnoun{bloznik1948} argues that..." and you put together a bibliography "database" like you would with Endnote.

(3) Instead of changing italicizing or bolding, you'd put in \emph{stuff you want italicized} or \textbf{stuff you want bolded}

And there are a few other things too -- block quotes and other things like that work with commands instead of you doing it manually.

LaTeX gets hard and squirrelly when you're trying to do something weird, or hacking a class file, or trying to control the layout yourself. As long as you're willing to let the layout engine do a better job than you were going to do anyway, LaTeX is dead easy.

It is a very different mindset from word-processing. You work on your content instead of on the presentation, and leave the presentation until the end. You work with logical markup (this bit is an introduction) instead of physical markup (this bit is in 14-point bold). It's not WYSIWYG at all, and you write "source code" that you turn into a final object.

But it's not at all difficult as long as you're following the defaults for a style or class. And if there's a class/style file for theses, that's exactly what you're going to do.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:20 AM on August 29, 2008 [4 favorites]

nthing LaTeX. I'm in a media lab style Ph.D program, with a background in film/video and compsci (more film/video than compsci). I love LaTeX for all the reasons listed above. It definitely has a learning curve, but once you're over the learning curve, life is good.
posted by Alterscape at 9:33 AM on August 29, 2008

LaTeX or, if you want to stay slightly more in a comfort zone, Mellel.
posted by stefnet at 9:52 AM on August 29, 2008

Tex, or if you don't want the learning curve, Mellel.
posted by Brian Puccio at 11:02 AM on August 29, 2008

Augenblick, I can see four possibilities for the problems you are experiencing.

The first may be Endnote. You said that you bankrupted yourself buying Endnote and you obviously want to keep using that if possible, or the investment is wasted. Endnote is worth its weight in gold for a dissertation, so I would try to find a solution that allows you to use it. You don't say how many references you are using in your first chapter. It may be that this is the problem and not Word. I have had many, many problems with Endnote in this respect (take lots of incremental backups and number these - e.g. V0.1, or with the date -- so you can roll back if problems occur). Have you checked the Endnote support website, to see if there are others with your problems? There may be a patch to Endnote for the issues that you are experiencing.

The second is having a graphic-intensive document. I have experienced similar problems myself, with documents that have more than a couple of diagrams in them. Particularly as Word saves most diagrams as embedded objects, that contain all the data for the graphic as a file that can be opened by the graphic-editing application. If you update the version in your doc, it updates the original file. This makes Word docs with graphics in them huge. You can make graphic-intensive Word docs much smaller by doing this:
1. Click (select) the embedded object that you want to convert.
2. Press CTRL+SHIFT+F9.

BEFORE you do this, save a copy of your diagrams to a separate Word file. You cannot edit or change any diagram after doing this - it becomes a "dumb" drawing. So make sure that you save a copy elsewhere, in a file without all the text and references, for editing purposes.

The third issue may be with Word itself, which was not designed for such large file sizes. You can easily get around this by creating a master document, with subdocuments for each chapter of your dissertation. See the Word Help system topic "About master documents." This tells you how to create a Master document, with subdocuments for various chapters (or use a new subdocument for different sections of large chapters). This should cure the "can't cope" aspect of Word with large files -- the only time you ever assemble the whole thing is to print the document and -- funnily enough -- doing this does not seem to crash Word, even with humungous files ....

The fourth possibility is the amount of memory in your PC. I work with 3GB of RAM and need every Kb of this, for Word to operate well. You could consider upgrading your memory, especially with lots of graphics and tables in your document.
Best of luck - and feel free to memail me with any questions. I have done this sort of editing a lot! I would stay with Word, as you probably want a solution with a low learning curve, if you are not a techy ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 11:21 AM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

The other advantage of TeX is the longevity of its file format. I set my thesis in LaTeX in 1993; it's still readable, and works fine with today's systems. Don't worry about processing power; TeX is pretty zippy on systems with less memory, processing and storage than your phone.
posted by scruss at 11:25 AM on August 29, 2008

Endnote is worth its weight in gold for a dissertation, so I would try to find a solution that allows you to use it.

There's a similar citation and reference management engine, "bibTeX," built into LaTeX. AFAIK you can dump your Endnote database to a bibTeX database.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:27 AM on August 29, 2008

LaTeX and Open Office are both free (libre and gratis) and would do the job. I suggest OO first (called "NeoOffice" for the platform you're on), and only if this proves impossible for some reason, then consider LaTeX (pronounced Lah-tek -- because you will need to ask for help, and you should know how to say it).
posted by cmiller at 11:27 AM on August 29, 2008

There basically isn't a military grade word processor for the Mac at this point, astonishingly. LaTeX would be the way to go, but set aside some time to learn it, for sure.
posted by bonaldi at 11:47 AM on August 29, 2008

nthing LaTeX (TeXShop) and BibDesk. You can download BibDesk right now and check if you can import your existing bibliography there. Once you're using TeXShop+BibDesk, long bibliographies become joy. Like people have said, rhythm of work is different and at least for me it is more rewarding. You write few paragraphs or pages in plaintext, then press 'Typeset'; it calculates for a second and shows you a very nice pdf. Suddenly your text looks professional and finished. Write, typeset, proofread and write more.

There are some packages that provide styles for word-to-word translations (word spacing is automatically such that the translation is below the original words.) I used gb4e (help/example pdf), but it is aimed for linguists, there probably is more suitable style collection for your needs somewhere.

One of the benefits is that the text you work with is plain text and as such computing load is light and it will *never* become sluggish. If you're working with a laptop, lighter load also means much longer battery life when writing in cafés.
posted by Free word order! at 12:03 PM on August 29, 2008

LaTeX and BibDesk and TeXShop. Possibly DevonThink or Yojimbo for source management. Also possibly Scrivener as a writing environment. All of these worked fine for me on my G4 iBook. Mellel's learning curve is gentler, but it's not a smooth transition from Word, either.

(For Windows, an alternative is Nota Bene, but that's not cheap.)

Endnote is worth its weight in gold for a dissertation, so I would try to find a solution that allows you to use it.

Not in the humanities. It just isn't. Not when you're creating a repository of notable quotables, and quoting with page references, rather than citing papers. Now, that's a problem to some extent with BibTeX, but with friendlier LaTeX styles like jurabib and the memoir class have gone a long way to make LaTeX work simply for non-scientific writing.

The big advantages of LaTeX? Your work will not be eaten, it's easy to backup, and if you deal with the learning curve at the beginning, the tedious crap at the end (bibliography, formatting) takes a fraction of the time. Working with different scripts? XeTeX is your friend. Need properly accented ancient Greek for translations? LaTeX and ibycus.
posted by holgate at 12:27 PM on August 29, 2008

Vim to LaTeX
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 12:49 PM on August 29, 2008

I am also on an iBook G4, and although I have and use NeoOffice, I would not use it for a dissertation: It's big, and often slower than I'd like (slow to load, and slow-running if it is left open), and it's a word processor, which makes it a poor choice for a large document. I used it for my bachelor's thesis (50 pp.), and I am no longer willing to use it (or any word processor) for any document exceeding 15 pages. The complexity of maintaining my formatting and structure by hand is just too high.

I am also unwilling to use Word format (in any program) for documents above about 2 pages, because of the neverending incompatibilities between different implementations, between different versions of Word even. Moving a file from Word/OS X to Word/Windows often screwed up my formatting as bad or worse than moving it from freaking Claris Works, and even adjacent versions of Word/Windows rarely understood each other in full. It was, to be brief, a nightmare.

I will be using several of these programs to write my master's thesis, notably emacs and LaTeX. I have very little acquaintance with them now, but I am determined to learn what I need to write the thesis ere next April blooms, because I just cannot go back to the madness. I will render to PDF, using the excellent capacities of OS X to handle that format, and I will take the PDF to the print shop confident that all my structure, layout, fonts, and everything will print just as I intended them to. And there will be much rejoicing (yay).
posted by eritain at 1:11 PM on August 29, 2008

See also Writing a Thesis with LaTeX, from the PracTeX Journal.
posted by eritain at 1:19 PM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you have under 1 GB of RAM, that is probably at least part of your problem. RAM is pretty cheap, so install as much as your machine can hold. Go to ifixit.com.
posted by neuron at 2:07 PM on August 29, 2008

nthing LaTeX/TeXShop
posted by mrbill at 2:30 PM on August 29, 2008

Use Open Office 3.0, the beta or RC1. Write your thesis. Export the result to LaTex. You'll find it's not necessary to enter special codes for bold, italics, etc. Open Office will put them there automatically. With a little tweaking in LaTex--I second the use of Texshop on the Mac, which is a LaTex front end--you'll have a great looking thesis.
posted by tesseract420 at 2:46 PM on August 29, 2008

Ok, open source dudes, enough, seriously. Open Office is not Firefox, it's a second-rate clone of Word from the days Word was hideous. On the Mac, it's even worse than that.

And a thesis is practically the definition of "production" ... you know, the production you're told not to use beta software for.
posted by bonaldi at 2:49 PM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

LyX is pretty easy to use. It's specifically designed to be an easy to use document processor for academic-type writing. You don't need to know LaTeX in order to use it. It exports to tex, but it has its own file format.

Latex on its own works great (TexShop is a great editor for mac), but it is like a programming language. There will be a learning curve. Although, if you aren't using any complicated formulae, it won't be such a herculean task.

My suggestion would be to first see if you can make MS Word work on your computer (maybe by following neuron's suggestion and fixing up your computer). Lots of people use it (some academic journals don't accept Latex, but will accept Word documents), and you are already familiar with it. Spend your time researching your thesis topic, not how to use your word processor.
posted by bluefly at 2:53 PM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

(n+m)th-ing LaTeX! (I am philosophy PhD student, and I'd say more than half use it.) Lyx is a good way to get into LaTeX but you're not going to want to write your whole dissertation in Lyx since it's not as widely accepted at TeX, and once you get used to LaTeX, you'll probably prefer not to have it in Lyx.

Bibtex is also one of the top reasons to use LaTeX. It makes references soo freakin easy.

posted by singerdj at 3:08 PM on August 29, 2008

Definitely definitely latex along with Texshop. It's honestly not as scary as it seems. I picked it up in a couple of days during an undergrad summer project. The best part is that you can learn as you go and Texshop has very useful default templates.
posted by peacheater at 3:53 PM on August 29, 2008

Definitely go for LyX. All the ease of Word, with all the power of LaTeX. No need to learn the markup.

And the suggestion of using JabRef is good, too.
posted by achmorrison at 4:24 PM on August 29, 2008

I'm writing a PhD in the humanities (philosophy), approaching 150 pages now with many references (endnotes). In my experience the LaTex users are a tiny minority.

I use Open Office, but I keep every chapter as a separate file linked to a master file. On the rare occasion that I need to see the whole thing at once I use the master. I won't use Open Offfice 3.0 until it comes out of beta, but it is going to have an incredible notes feature. I can hardly wait.

I've got Lyx on my computer. It looks OK, but honestly I didn't see anything that would get me to switch away from Open Office.
posted by oddman at 5:13 PM on August 29, 2008

Speaking of LaTeX, you want to read The Not So Short Guide to LaTeX or you can buy Leslie Lamport's book. Either or both will get you going in no time flat.
posted by mrbill at 10:04 PM on August 29, 2008

I could be totally off the mark here, but could you split your thesis up into chapters (or perhaps smaller sections) and have each of those in a seperate word document? I'm not sure how that would affect your references though.
posted by kg at 5:42 AM on August 30, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks - I think the best plan is to get some new RAM, and if I still have these levels of problems to learn LaTeX. It sounds like though Word is screwy the most likely problem right now is the RAM. Solving the general Word problem, next stop. Thanks again for all your help.

(My thesis is currently only 1 chapter with 150 references, and around 55 pages as it stands to answer that question.)
posted by Augenblick at 3:25 PM on August 31, 2008

A G4 iBook maxes out at 1.5Gb tops (and that's the later model). I can tell you from experience that Word 2003 for Mac gets pretty wheezy with 1.25Gb, which is what my iBook maxed out at.

I'll just reiterate what I've said in previous threads on this topic: the LaTeX learning curve means putting in some learning hours now, when you have more time at your disposal. Sticking with Word for a thesis has the potential, unless you're meticulous in your use of styles and sub-documents, and in keeping backups every time you save, to throw a spanner in the works as crunch time approaches. I know this from experience, having used Word on a 15,000-word masters thesis and made the switch to LaTeX for my doctoral thesis.
posted by holgate at 4:11 PM on September 1, 2008

« Older Detox Me!   |   If people work on a startup as a side project, do... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.