Using Pages for a dissertation
February 4, 2007 9:57 AM   Subscribe

I would really like to use Pages for my CS dissertation. Should I?

I am going to start writing my Computer Science Ph.D. dissertation this month. Currently on a MacbookPro, I am searching my options for a good word processor. I have a pretty strong dislike for Word on Mac, although it is somewhat usable with Parallels. And with Zotero adding support for Word, it doesn't look too bad.

What I would really like is to use Pages for the whole thing. Just the simplicity and great UI makes it easy for me to fly through the writing process with Pages. But I haven't gotten beyond using it for Journal articles.

Will I regret using it for something as huge as dissertation?
posted by raheel to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Might I suggest Scrivener? I'm using it for my dissertation (albeit in the humanities). It helps you organize all the writing you've done, merge those "scrivenings" into a single document and, as I've found, helped make writing a little more enjoyable.
posted by mcgillicutty at 10:09 AM on February 4, 2007

I started using Pages recently and I have one complaint. And it might be crucial for a longer work. (It is possible I overlooked a feature here, though):

Pages does not allow for structured text, so where you might in Word, see level 1, 2, 3 headers in Word, you can't in Pages. But Word blows as a composition tool anyway.

Why not try something like Scrivener
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 10:12 AM on February 4, 2007

Crap. I screwed up and posted.

Why not try something like Scrivener, which is made for composition, then export to Pages at the end of layout?
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 10:13 AM on February 4, 2007

Also, CopyWrite, which does something similar to Scrivener. Maybe try both? I have used CopyWrite and like it, but Scrivener has some interesting research-related tools. My only concern is that it seems geared to screenwriting, but I hope it would be adaptable to other forms of writing.

Word processors, in general, are poor composition tools. Thankfully some developers are just beginning to address this long-standing gap.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 10:19 AM on February 4, 2007

I'd recommend DevonThink and then possibly exporting if it won't do something you need. It's specifically made for long documents where you need to keep track of lots of info.
posted by dobbs at 10:32 AM on February 4, 2007

A CS dissertation? You're not using TeX/LaTeX to build a structure document? TeX is pretty much the lingua franca of structured, well-formed computer science documents:

posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:33 AM on February 4, 2007

Blazecock has it. LaTeX is the way to go. TeXShop is a great editor to work with.
posted by number9dream at 10:40 AM on February 4, 2007

I like TeXShop and LyX too. So I'm thirding that recommendation. CS dissertations pretty much *have* to be in LaTeX, right?

LyX is, according to a CS friend, supposed to be "WYSIWYM" - What you see is what you mean. This means that it won't look as polished in the editor as you're used to (in Pages or Word). But then when you export to PDF, you'll be getting the *real* markup stuff in your doc. This is disconcerting at first, and I do lots of checking by just exporting a PDF to see what things look like.

Also if you pick LaTeX, you can take advantage of lots of other people's dissertation files: UW, Some dude, etc. Think of this as borrowing someone's CSS template. Then you can edit it to your heart's content.

You should also look into getting your .bib file into BibDesk. BibDesk is the best thing to happen to my CS PhD yet.
posted by zpousman at 10:49 AM on February 4, 2007

Yeah, unless there's something we don't know here, I'd have to ask why you're not using LaTeX. It makes everything so easy -- layout, style, cites, figures. Your uni probably even has a standard TeX package for your dissertation. The last thing you want to be doing during your dissertation period is finding out how to get page numbers working right in Pages 2 hours before your deadline.

I wrote mine in TeXShop on OS X, and it couldn't have gone smoother (the actual layout/writing part, that is!)
posted by neustile at 10:58 AM on February 4, 2007

ps Zotero can also export to BibTex.
posted by neustile at 11:00 AM on February 4, 2007

Response by poster: I should have clarified about my hesitance at not using LaTex: My advisor doesn’t like it, and prefers Word so he can do in-document reviewing. The department doesn't have any necessary file format requirements, and the graduate school wants the thing in PDF.
I guess I can still use LaTex and force my advisor to use soft copy-based reviewing.

What about the learning curve for using LaTex for something like this? I do know the basics and use it for equations.

posted by raheel at 11:06 AM on February 4, 2007

My advisor doesn’t like it, and prefers Word so he can do in-document reviewing.

LaTeX to RTF and RTF to LaTeX converters.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:18 AM on February 4, 2007

The department doesn't have any necessary file format requirements, and the graduate school wants the thing in PDF.

Your department probably has a template you can use for formatting your dissertation properly. Ask the department office or the graduate office administrator.

TeXShop exports a PDF file when you render your document, and displays it within the program.

If you've written any HTML, you'll have no problem learning enough LaTeX to get started. As with HTML, you might look up a "tag" or two to learn how to do a certain type of markup.

TeXShop includes a tutorial which I found to be useful. There are many others available through Google.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:29 AM on February 4, 2007

Have you ever written anything more than about 10 pages long in Pages? I've found it to get very, very, very slow - like multi-second delays to notice you typing slow.
posted by dmd at 12:07 PM on February 4, 2007

I guess I can still use LaTex and force my advisor to use soft copy-based reviewing.

Wouldn't Pages force the same thing?
posted by smackfu at 12:19 PM on February 4, 2007

What about the learning curve for using LaTex for something like this? I do know the basics and use it for equations.

You'll be fine. I have a very low tolerance for software making me do work that it should be doing for me and I have had few problems. The only way I see it making a lot of work for you is is you insist on trying to control aspects of the layout that LaTeX wants to do for you. If you're anything like me you'll be encouraged by the fact that the end product will look beautiful and authoritative.

Having said all that, if you really love Pages, I would consider using it to do your first/early drafts of individual chapters and then convert to LaTeX when things are more evolved. The staring-at-a-blank-sheet is hard enough, you might as well make it easier by using your favorite tools.
posted by teleskiving at 1:27 PM on February 4, 2007

Another vote against Pages here -- I don't know how long CS dissertations are on average, but I wouldn't want to see how slow Pages can get on 100+ page documents. Breaking it up into separate files for separate chapters might shorten load/refresh times, but then you have all kinds of problems keeping track of references, page numbers and such.

Let me joing the chorus supporting LaTeX, but once you get used to it with TeXShop, I'd switch over to Textmate. Some great screencasts show the neat tricks (near the bottom of the page).
posted by ontic at 1:35 PM on February 4, 2007

If you thinking of switching to LaTeX, you are right to be concerned about the learning curve. Some things that are easy in Word are difficult to do in LaTeX. Your advisor and you should have the "LaTex mindset", so to speak. For instance, is your advisor picky about figure placement? "Move this figure here" may turn out to be more problematic in LaTeX than in Word (not impossible, especially if you can enlist the help of a LaTeX expert in your department). In LaTeX, you specify the template and then let the software decide what the layout should be. This is great but might prove bothersome if you want more fine-grained control.

FWIW, I used LaTeX+emacs for my CS dissertation on a Powerbook and would not use any other software if I had to do it again. But, I suspect that I would have been rather frustrated if I wasn't already comfortable using LaTeX. Sorry, I can't comment on Pages (hence cannot directly answer your question) since I haven't used it but I thought you may interested in a LaTeX-specific perspective.
posted by aflatoon at 1:39 PM on February 4, 2007

I will third the recommendation for LyX. You can do anything with it that you can do with LaTeX (even insert LaTeX code and preamble), and for someone who likes TeX but wants somethign more user-friendly, LyX is a godsend. Roughly speaking, LyX is to LaTeX as Dreamweaver is to HTML.
posted by lunchbox at 1:56 PM on February 4, 2007

Another thing is that you can also use the export/import LaTeX features with LyX so that your advisor can revise the document too.
posted by lunchbox at 1:58 PM on February 4, 2007

I just started learning LaTeX last week; here are a couple resources that helped me with getting started:
- LaTeX at Wikibooks
- Comprehensive LaTeX Symbol List at CTAN

Also, if your advisor doesn't like/use LaTeX, get another graduate student or professor to give you a copy of a paper as a .tex file. Any paper will do--the example is what's important.
posted by Upton O'Good at 2:06 PM on February 4, 2007

For those suggesting Pages might not work well with a longer document: I wrote my dissertation in Pages because it handled length so much better than Word (which crashed trying to handle my 45-90-page chapters, let alone the entire diss).

Pages was brilliant at formatting and quick to navigate through when I was editing my own writing, but did cause problems when I tried to share with others (I ended up exporting into a Word document, which worked for the most part, when I wanted to give an electronic version to my advisor, writing partner, etc.).

Also, Pages has control issues w/r/t footnote formatting. I do not understand why.

But apparently overwhelming consensus says that you shouldn't be using either, and since mine was an Art History dissertation, I'm not qualified to contradict.
posted by obliquicity at 4:08 PM on February 4, 2007

Response by poster: I have done a lot of journal papers in, and to me the formatting is not the problem 8211; it8217;s the worry that it8217;s going to choke on structuring and/or page length with long documents.
I have been just waiting for some vote of confidence for Pages in these aspects. I can handle LaTex fine, but just don8217;t want to shift gears this late i the game (I hope to graduate in Summer).

posted by raheel at 4:27 PM on February 4, 2007

Response by poster: Oh wow. Was trying to use "Edit in Textmate" so Textile would work.. Sorry for the messed up punctuation marks!
posted by raheel at 4:44 PM on February 4, 2007

Go with something that is in widespread use around you, so that you have plenty of people to turn to when your document gets all scrambled as you rush to complete.
posted by Idcoytco at 4:59 PM on February 4, 2007

Just in case people haven't made it clear, using LyX feels like using a normal word processor, except you can't do some of the normal formatting you're used to (margins and other layout functions). You need to know nearly zero LaTex although it does sometimes take a while to get things like BibTex to work smoothly, and you may also need assistance getting the citations and bilbiography to display exactly as you want them.

I myself find that in fact layout and goodies like that can easily distract and get in the way of some pretty good writing. Since the layout is really, *really* secondary to the content, what I'd recommend is typing it up either in LyX or ideally something absolutely feature-free like TextWrangler and then pasting it in and fiddling with the layout later on. This way you will focus on the content and not the layout, at least until you have a nice amount of text.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:19 PM on February 4, 2007

Response by poster: Another thing that I should have made clear is that I need to rely very heavily on equations and that's one of the main reason why I am thinking of switching from simple text editors and Pages to LaTex right now. Embedding LaTex-based PDF equations into Pages, or using Word's equation editor just don't cut it for me;
I am leaning more and more towards using LaTex right now. LyX may be a good option then?

posted by raheel at 5:58 PM on February 4, 2007

While TeXShip is an OK choice for the typesetting aspects of LaTeX, I'd actually recommend emacs (or vi, if you're one of those people) for the source editing rather than TeXShop's built-in editor. The lack of word wrap and the very limited context-sensitive formatting drove me up the wall compared to the emacs editor I was using at work. About a month ago I installed a version of xemacs, started using that instead, and I've never looked back.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:48 PM on February 4, 2007

I'll nth TexShop, although I'd recommend against emacs unless you're already familiar with it, since it will only steepen the learning curve.

If you know the equation syntax for LaTeX, you probably won't have any problems learning how to do documents.

I'd also recommend BibDesk [] for bibliography management, which integrates well with TexShop and could potentially save you a lot of time if you have a lot of sources to manage. Frankly, after doing a thesis in LaTeX+BibTex, using TexShop and BibDesk, I'd never do any significant composition in a regular word processor again (although I'm told that EndNote makes using Word somewhat less painful).

For the basis of formatting documents, this intro is one of the best: You can download it as a PDF file to have on hand locally if you want.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:54 PM on February 4, 2007

Another thing that I should have made clear is that I need to rely very heavily on equations and that's one of the main reason why I am thinking of switching from simple text editors and Pages to LaTex right now.

Do that! You'll thank yourself when you're typesetting the equations, and you'll have the advantage that when the time comes to publish your dissertation, you won't then have to convert the Pages document to LaTeX to get it published. I doubt that CS journals will accept much except LaTeX (they certainly don't in mathematics).

Also, are you sure your university doesn't have style guidelines? I know that where I was, they were incredibly cranky about margins being exactly 1 inch (they'd measure) except on the binding side, Table captions needed to be above, Figure captions needed to be below, etc. I didn't have to stress about any of the formatting, because it was already set in my LaTeX style file, unlike others who had to go through all sorts of horrible contortions to get Word (or Pages!) to play nice.
posted by leahwrenn at 7:45 AM on February 5, 2007

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