emacs, LaTex, and graduate school
December 12, 2005 6:10 PM   Subscribe

Emacs & LaTeX: Do I make the leap?

I've read this AskMe and I've decided to make the plunge and switch to using emacs and LaTex for writing my thesis (and in the future, my dissertation). I'm not concerned about the time it will take to learn it.

However, I am also a teaching assistant. The classes that I teach involve students e-mailing me drafts of their papers frequently; invariably, these papers arrive in MS Word format. Do I need to keep Word installed on my iBook (in which case, the move to emacs seems kind of meaningless -- if I have to use Word all the time, I might as well use it for my own writing, right?) or is there some way to reconcile the two?

In a nutshell, have any academics had any success in writing papers/dissertations with these programs while being an active TA with Word documents?
posted by trey to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yep. I have Word and Excel, the former of which I use for very little and the latter of which I use for keping track of students' grades. I do everything else in LaTeX.

Can you require students to send you PDFs?
posted by transona5 at 6:15 PM on December 12, 2005


TeX + emacs is a very different thing than Word. There's no reason to not have both emacs and Word on your computer. Unless your school makes you buy your own copy of Word; in that case the free Word viewer or OpenOffice would be sufficient for viewing student submissions.
posted by Nelson at 6:28 PM on December 12, 2005


Keep in mind that MS Word is a WYSIWYG document editor, while Emacs is a programmer's editor. LaTeX is a page description language, like HTML, that is more easily edited in editors designed for programmers.

You probably want to hang on to Office so that you can communicate with the undergrad and non-academic world. But you will find that Emacs or BBEdit provide features that make working with LaTeX far more pleasant than doing so in Word.

There may be filters that take Word output and produce LaTeX (particularly now that Microsoft is moving to XML document formats, not sure of Office for OSX is there yet), but you will ultimately want to edit your LaTeX docs in a programmer's editor.

I have Office and a programmer's editor installed on my macs and my PCs. I need Office (word) to communicate with my co-workers, and BBEdit or UltraEdit32 (PC) to code HTML or scripts. I've also got XCode on my mac for C++/ObjectiveC apps, and VisualStudio 6.0 and .NET on my PCs for Windows development.

You might think that I have a lot of overlap, but each application does something unique that the others don't. Visual Studio is very good for editing Windows C++ code, but it is completely useless for perl. Word can do some HTML work, but I need BBEdit if I want to be absolutely suer I'm looking at the raw code without any magic Office goo.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:35 PM on December 12, 2005


if I have to use Word all the time, I might as well use it for my own writing, right?

Not at all. Suppose your students sent you papers as images in .jpg format. Would that mean you should just use Photoshop to do all your writing?

You've selected to use a superior tool for the creation of large structured documents, especially those containing math, bibliographies, numbered sectioning, labeled figures, etc. Your papers will never henceforth require upgrading. They will remain highly portable. Their format can be effortless changed leaving the content alone (e.g. manuscript and two-column versions).

Still, it may prove faster to type letters, memos, and party invitations using Word (or other such editors) as you get up to speed using LaTeX. So keep it around; pat yourself on the back when you're finally comfortable removing it from the Dock.
posted by fatllama at 6:43 PM on December 12, 2005 [1 favorite]


... and since you're on a Mac, if you are not already familiar with emacs, be sure to give TexShop a try.
posted by fatllama at 6:46 PM on December 12, 2005


I had no trouble at all using Word to print student papers while I was writing my dissertation and related papers in LaTeX.

But LaTeX and emacs are entirely separable questions. It's entirely possible to do just about all your writing in LaTeX without ever touching emacs -- I should know, I do it!

On a mac, lots of people absolutely swear by TeXshop as a LaTeX environment. Not having a mac, that's all I know about it.

Advantages to writing your dissertation in LaTeX:

(1) Drastically better equation handling, if you need that.
(2) Handles long documents with ease instead of with great fear and trepidation on your end.
(3) Looks a lot better, which isn't a big deal but is nice.
(4) If there's a standard thesis class for your school, and there's a good chance there is, satisfying the Dreaded Ruler Ladies becomes dead easy.
(5) All the stuff you cite is in your references section through bibTeX, for free.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:52 PM on December 12, 2005


if I have to use Word all the time, I might as well use it for my own writing, right?

Wrong! as another poster beat me to saying.

I imagine the only particularly good reasons to use emacs for LaTeXing are (1) AucTeX and (2) emacs is awesome. I don't just mean "great", I mean "inspiring awe". Neal Stephenson has a nice comparison of emacs vs. other editors as like the Sun vs. other stars, not just more visible but so much so as to render all others invisible.

Probably the main thing to know about learning LaTeX (much like HTML, for that matter) is that you should just take an existing file and modify it to have your text in it. You can get usable results on day 1, without reading any books.
posted by Aknaton at 7:11 PM on December 12, 2005


You might also look into Docutils. It can be transformed into LaTeX and hence to PDF; or I can send you XSL:FO transformations to go direct to PDF via XEP or FOP (but you'll need to tweak them for your own purposes.)
posted by five fresh fish at 7:54 PM on December 12, 2005


Do I need to keep Word installed on my iBook

Not necessarily. Try setting OS X's TextEdit as the default application for DOC files. It usually copes well enough with papers and other simple formats if you just want to read and/or print them out. (You can't use Word's commenting capacities, but that doesn't bother me one bit.) If that works, you won't be as tempted to write in Word, because it won't feel as if you're launching a writing application; you're just viewing text files.
posted by holgate at 2:15 AM on December 13, 2005


Check out Lyx to ease yourself into LaTex. A mate of mine who is doing his PhD has a lot of good things to say about it.

And as people here say, there is no reason not to have Word or Open Office on your machine as well.
posted by sien at 3:28 AM on December 13, 2005


Agreeing with b1tr0t and ROU_Xenophobe. You'll need to have Office (or OpenOffice.org or something) around for when the office staff sends you the memo in .doc format about the department holiday party, and maybe for things like job-application letters (LaTeX can do mailmerge stuff, but it's a bit of a pain). But for producing mathematics, only LaTeX is the right thing.
posted by gleuschk at 5:15 AM on December 13, 2005


I've heard really mixed reports about Lyx. In a lot of ways, it seems like it's just Word with a different fundamental representation. It might be nice if you already know Latex, but I think it'll be a crutch if you're just learning.

I, too, would recommend TexShop. I love emacs, but TexShop's simplicity is too alluring to even spend time fussing with emacs. For each of your latex documents, your latex files have a big "Typeset" button in the upper left hand corner. It has at least the basic emacs commands that I can't live without (ctrl-e, ctrl-a, ctrl-k, etc). The only thing I really miss is emac's quick search. Also, it's PDF viewer is built into the app, so there's no issues with the file being open in another app, or acrobat trying to launch, or whatever. As an extra bonus it has a nice magnification feature for drooling over how pretty your EPS figures are.

So, bottom line: emacs is wonderful and worth learning, but if you want to write low-hassle latex on OS X, Texshop is the way to go. It's install process is grueling and epic, but it works great once you get it installed.

Also, I benefited a lot from a reference book. Latex info on the web is sort of scattered, and it was super helpful to have one solid source by my side. I use this one.
posted by heresiarch at 7:58 AM on December 13, 2005


Here's a wild idea:
Use MediaWiki (the same engine as Wikipedia) to write everything, then use something like WikiPDF to convert it to LaTeX.

Even if such tools might seems immature today, I'm sure by the time you'll finish your thesis they'll work much better.

You can alreday include LaTex in MediaWiki via Wikitex.
posted by Sharcho at 5:19 PM on December 13, 2005


heresiarch: This i-search plugin works in TexShop....
posted by Utilitaritron at 5:39 PM on December 13, 2005


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