Help me pick a word processor too!
August 24, 2011 5:37 PM   Subscribe

Another "What program should I use for writing in the humanities" question. I'm considering Mellel + Bookends, Scrivener, LyX, or just keeping my LaTeX, which I know is weird because I'm writing in the humanities.

I've tried a couple of programs, and I really liked Mellel, but since it is $80 with Bookends even using their student discount, I decided to come here to ask for some possible other options.

Currently, I'm on a Mac, and I'm using Bean for my everyday papers, OpenOffice for the articles I write in which I need to track changes, and I used LaTeX for my 50-page thesis that I wrote last semester. I want something that could do (if not all) most of these things all in one, so I can get rid of this bulk (particularly OpenOffice).

I really hate Word and I'm not considering it for various reasons. Other than that, I have a couple of requirements:

1.) I'm a Religion major, so a program that can support right-to-left languages is important to me. (Bean, by the way, hates Hebrew. Hates it.) Mellel seems to win here.

2.) I want a program that can handle large documents. Bean and even OpenOffice tended to crash when I would open my thesis on them. (Even LaTeX crashed once, which I heard is impossible.)

3.) I want something that has some sort of outline. As in, something that has more of a way to overlook things than LaTeX does. I wonder if LyX would be easier to use here.

4.) I would like to be able to track changes, but it's not an absolute requirement if the program can do other things better.

5.) Something inexpensive. As in under $100. As in, even Mellel is pushing it.

6.) Something not totally scary to approach. Similarly, something with a relatively professional looking output...unlike Word.

7.) Something that can open and save/export in normal files (.doc, .pdf, even better .rtf). LaTeX could do PDF which was great but I hated that I'd have to wait until I was back home to my .tex file if I opened the PDF on another computer and found a mistake. Apparently, Mellel saves in .mellel, which I'm not so sure about.

8.) Something that is made for academic (preferably humanities) writing, works with bibliographies, footnotes, etc., but wouldn't be totally annoying to write that occasional 3-page paper on. Again, LaTeX isn't great in that area.

9.) WYSIWYG not a requirement. Typesetting is cool (it almost makes me want to be a math major).
posted by lhude sing cuccu to Education (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I'll defend LaTeX against a few of your criticisms:

2) LaTeX is a language. It can't crash. Whatever you're editing the .tex file in can, though. I like TeXshop, but any editor will work. Smart editors like Emacs/Aquamacs (which have their own learning curves) will make things even easier.

4) LaTeX can track changes just by commenting the old version out, or making your own "tracked changes" style macro. You can also use a utility like latexdiff (pdf manual) to get an annotated PDF showing the diff between two versions. It's super easy to save all your versions using SVN or git. (I know there's a latexdiff-svn utility, but I've never used it.)

7) ...And SVN and git can also make your projects (i.e., your .tex files) accessible from anywhere. Dropbox can do the same. You do need a LaTeX installation on any computer you actually want to do the compilation on, though.

8) Make templates for those short papers! They'll have all your headers and styles built in; you'll just have to fill in the body.
posted by supercres at 5:52 PM on August 24, 2011

XeTeX should sort you out for Hebrew and polytonic Greek. It's part of the standard Mac TeX/LaTeX installer. As for bibliographies, footnotes, etc., the biblatex package and memoir class give you a lot of versatility. If you're using MLA guidelines, this may be useful. That you're already familiar with LaTeX means you're up the steep part of the learning curve.

The nerdy way to track changes would be to use a standard text editor and something like git; alternatively, Scrivener gives you the flexibility to output LaTeX/XeTeX along with built-in snapshotting.
posted by holgate at 5:53 PM on August 24, 2011

Oh yeah-- definitely use Bibdesk (or similar utility) and LaTeX's built-in \cite{} commands (and variants thereof) if you're not doing so already. Citekeys are the lifeblood of research papers in my lab.
posted by supercres at 5:55 PM on August 24, 2011

In terms of (2), supercres is right, you can't really overwhelm TeX itself (I think you can theoretically overwhelm TeX while it's compiling, but you're not going to), but rathe rather the program you're editing the file in. However, for large files if you're not doing this already, I find it helpful to have a separate file for each section/chapter and then a 'wrapper' file with \input used for each section.

For (3), I'm not sure what you mean by an outline, but would an appropriately clever text editor solve this problem? Vim can collapse sections via folds. (I have only a rudimentary knowledge of vim, but I can at least do that much. I assume emacs has similar facility, but I can't remember emacs commands for the life of me.) I think some sort of track changes can be rigged up with vim, though I don't think it can go in real time like in Word, if that's what you're really after. I comment out sections that I'm probably deleting and then eventually delete them. This doesn't work so well for long sections, as you have to scroll past the commented out stuff, but it works well enough for the occasional rewritten paragraph.

For (8), bibtex is definitely the answer. It's not as elegant if your citations are in footnotes, though you might be able to improve that if need be. I agree that it's easier to edit footnotes (explanatory or citations) in a wysiwyg editor. I have so few footnotes that I can just search for the footnote command.

I have no experience with it (downloaded it yesterday to see if it gave a nice frontend to Macaulay2), but TeXmacs might give you wysiwyg that can be turned into LaTeX or PDF. No idea if it's practical for your purposes, though.
posted by hoyland at 6:12 PM on August 24, 2011

Scrivener is good for generating drafts, but I wouldn't use it for generating final versions of papers, and Scrivener itself doesn't recommend doing so.

I use Bookends as my reference management software and it has worked great for me. It's certainly less annoying to deal with than I've found Endnote on the Mac to be. I have a copy of Mellel installed on my Mac but after some experimenting I haven't used it much. I end up writing in Word or LaTeX, because that's what my co-authors use.

Given your requirements, Mellel sounds like the best bet. Mellel lets you export files to .rtf, .doc, and .pdf formats, so file format shouldn't be an issue. Have you already tried using it through the trial download?
posted by needled at 6:16 PM on August 24, 2011

I would say NOT to use LaTeX, if your discipline generally doesn't. I love LaTeX, but my discipline doesn't use it and EVERY FREAKING PAPER or book manuscript I have ever submitted to publishers HAD to be in MS Word format. It is a pain in the ass to convert from LaTeX to MS Word when you have complicated stuff for scripts and tables and alignment, which it sounds like you do. Sadly, it's just not worth the effort.

So for the other possibilities you mention, also make sure that they play well with Word, if that is what publishers require. That doesn't just mean exporting to .doc, either - I have used Open Office for papers, and saved to .doc, only to find that e.g. certain types of cross references and table captions and things didn't come out right.
posted by lollusc at 6:39 PM on August 24, 2011

Awesome, thanks so far.

And I have been using LaTeX for Hebrew, which has been pretty great so far, but as much as I like it, I still feel like I'm the only person using it for humanities writing!

I would say NOT to use LaTeX, if your discipline generally doesn't.

I will have to find out what's being used; I'd hate if it's .doc, but I already have to use it for the articles I write.

Related question: Is Mellel (or any other program) friendly about keeping the formatting of .doc tables and bullet points etc.? My little program Bean doesn't, but OpenOffice generally does, as far as I know..
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 6:58 PM on August 24, 2011

If you do stick with latex, check out Latexian. It's a new editor which does live preview, and it's just so well-done that it's totally changed my feelings about using Latex as a general writing tool.

I hear you, unfortunately, on the Track Changes thing... Every solution I've found has been too fiddly for even just me to use, let alone sharing with a collaborator.
posted by wyzewoman at 7:16 PM on August 24, 2011

My secret to tracking changes in LaTeX is to put each complete sentence on its' own line, and check changes into a Git repository. It's important (to me) to keep each sentence on its' own line so I can have relatively good change granularity in Git.

I have a remote repository on a server my department runs, too, which I can pull from wherever. I can use latexdiff to generate a document with marked-up changes -- just clone a copy of the git repository, check out whatever earlier version, and run latexdiff on the pair of them. The only fiddly thing here is that latexdiff only goes one level down into e.g. /input, so if you have multiply-nested inputs, things can get a bit screwy.
posted by Alterscape at 8:24 PM on August 24, 2011

I know an Oxford humanities academic who does all his writing in LaTeX.

You can do everything you want in emacs & LaTeX, if you want to.

1. XeTeX comes with every TeX installation

2. Emacs will edit huge documents, and if you manage to exceed even it's limits, LaTeX is perfectly happy to deal with documents which consist of multiple individual files.

3. Outline mode in Emacs: it recognises LaTeX section commands and will collapse/unfold them for you so you can see the structure of your document on screen.

4. You'll have to do this with a revision control system, but you can check in / check out within emacs.

5. Free! (Apart from your time, but you'll have to spend that learning whatever you choose.)

6. AbiWord is like Word used to be. That GUI approach used to be regarded as the height of user friendliness! (Never understood why myself.) Can't beat LaTeX for professionalism of output.

7. pdf is a print format: it's not designed to be edited.

8. Templates. Create a paper template with all your defaults in & then you just fill it in for each paper. LaTeX does Biblioraphies / footnotes etc etc better than (nearly) anything else in my experience. It's possible to use EndNote as a source for your bibliographic data, but not entirely straightforward.

9. You know LaTeX wins here.

That said, if every journal in your field demands .doc submissions then you may have to suck it up and use Word.
posted by pharm at 1:27 AM on August 25, 2011

Markdown and Scrivener. Either one or both, markdown is a very simple markup language that can be converted into anything, not too sure about right to left support, but I think its possible.

Scrivener is an editor designed for large scale works its pretty awesome.
posted by adventureloop at 1:34 AM on August 25, 2011

Are you a writer, right? Not a publisher? You don't need pretty manuscripts, you need manuscripts that support footnotes/endnotes and can be saved as file.doc or file.docx, which is what the journals and publishers want. Editors hate documents that are any fancier, format-wise, than a typewriter. We want to open your .docx, change your stupid font back to Courier, and have nothing else in the way of headline styles or special tab formats or footer styles to raise our blood pressure while we try to do our job.

Openoffice/Libreoffice is a good choice -- the word processor component is easily configurable to make it a no-nonsense writing environment with all the toolbars and helpfulness features turned off. Maybe soon its file.odt format will be the norm in publishing, but .docx is still king. Sorry about that. Another good option for generating .docx is Abiwrite.

Steering clear of Word is fantastic -- I understand completely -- but things like Scrivener and Latex are distractions from doing your job, which is writing manuscripts that editors can easily edit. If you want to write, write. Leave formatting to the people who publish you.
posted by FLAG (BASTARD WATER.) (Acorus Adulterinus.) at 3:49 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am a professional editor who works with academic writers, and I agree with the points lollusc and FLAG made. If you're going to be doing any kind of review with third parties, make their jobs easier and avoid LaTeX.
posted by Shoggoth at 6:38 AM on August 25, 2011

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