How to write a mathematics paper
June 18, 2007 5:47 PM   Subscribe

I need to write a document with a lot of algebraic formulas. What word processor / page layout program would make this quickest and easiest?

I use Windows, and have available Word, OpenOffice, PageMaker 7.0, and InDesign CS2 (whether it's layout or word processor software is not a big deal). I'd like to be able to set algebraic equations quickly and with minimum fuss so I can concentrate on the flow and writing (square roots, fractions, etc).

I know LaTeX (protext?) is often recommended for math, but I am worried about overkill and a steep learning curve. I'm not typesetting a calculus textbook or anything like that.

I am most used to PageMaker, but it has laughable math support. I considered finding a utility that creates a formula and spits out a TIF to embed in the document, but I nixed it as it could get excessively time consuming.

What would work best? I can consider cheap shareware or freeware (this is not for a professional project).
posted by rolypolyman to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'd recommend learning the bare-bones basics of LaTeX, which is really quite intuitive. It took me about ten minutes to pick up enough to typeset more or less anything that would come up in algebra, calculus, and physics. You can consult any of a number of resources (my favorite being Tobias Oetiker's guide at, which has a great chapter on math) as references.
Then, the easiest way to deal with it if you're just embedding formulae in a document is to use Art of Problem Solving's TeXer at which will output GIFs. You can just copy and paste them into your program of choice.

An alternative would be MathType (, but it's a little pricey at $97, or $57 for academic users.
posted by likedoomsday at 6:00 PM on June 18, 2007

Check out Lyx, it's very powerful (and free) and should do what you need. I've used it for a few math homeworks..
posted by aeighty at 6:08 PM on June 18, 2007

OpenOffice ain't bad, if the math isn't too hairy.
posted by futility closet at 6:34 PM on June 18, 2007

I'll second LyX. It's all the power of LaTeX with a (passable) UI on top. LaTeX pretty much is the best solution for typesetting math, and is definitely worth learning - the markup is simple and mostly intuitive, a lot of resources exist for reference (lshort.pdf is great, as likedoomsday mentioned), it's free as in speech, usable for things outside of math, and the documents you produce will look *very* professional.

Highly reocmmended :)
posted by mebibyte at 6:44 PM on June 18, 2007

Mathematica has the most effective and efficient interface, by far. I haven't required its use in a while so I don't remember the exact keystroke, but they're something like CTRL-_ (underscore) to start a subscript, CTRL-^ to start a superscript, CTRL-/ to insert a division operator, etc. After learning a few keystroke combinations you can type in symbolic equations as quickly as you could write them with pen and paper. And of course Mathematica allows you symbolic evaluation and manipulation. It is used in high-end academic and industrial research and can handle any mathematical expression you throw at it.

The full version is expensive, of course. But you can get student editions like Calcenter for $99 for a full-license, or $59 for a year, or even $39 for one semester.
posted by randomstriker at 6:45 PM on June 18, 2007

By the way, the best part about Mathematica is that it automatically formats everything like you would expect it to appear in a scientific journal or textbook. Assuming that's what you want (if not, it can do it other ways too).
posted by randomstriker at 6:47 PM on June 18, 2007

Latex is really not overkill for what you're talking about. I've never written a math book, but I used it frequently when I was doing things that had equations. (I tried, just once, to use the Equation Editor in MS Word, and swore never again. If I have to put equations into a Word document, I do them in Latex and paste them into Word as graphic objects.)

Latex can *look* a little daunting but it's really pretty easy. Any decent editor will come with predefined templates, that let you basically go through and fill in your information, and just start typing the body text. And there's a vast body of knowledge available online about it, so that I've never had a problem that wasn't immediately solved by Googling.

There are some neat "cheat sheets" (here's one, although there are many others) to tack up while you're learning the ropes, although again, I urge you not to be daunted by the commands you don't recognize.

Plus, knowing how to type up a few equations in Latex or its derivatives is a valuable skill, and one that you'll probably use more than once. I think this is a good opportunity to get your feet wet.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:47 PM on June 18, 2007

I third Lyx.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:48 PM on June 18, 2007

LyX is faster for inputs than Mathematica, and its certainly free-er in every sense. It's slower and more tedious to use than doing straight-up LaTeX markup, but still pretty easy, and you can include regular markup (if you want).
posted by janell at 6:51 PM on June 18, 2007

Response by poster: OK, I'm leaning towards Lyx and LaTeX, but can anyone offer any insight about how I'd fare in OpenOffice Writer?
posted by rolypolyman at 6:57 PM on June 18, 2007

MathType is really my go-to program for this sort of thing. It's unbelievable quick and seamlessly integrated with MS Word. I don't think I could have graduated from college in time without it. Really, if you compare it to a Mathematica license (Ha!), it's practically free.
posted by muddgirl at 7:20 PM on June 18, 2007

Actually, this looks promising: a Math component for Open Office Writer that looks similar to what I was doing with MathType. I don't have OO installed any more, or I'd try it out and give you a mini-review.
posted by muddgirl at 7:22 PM on June 18, 2007

Just to throw another option out there, I've been reasonably happy with MathCast.
posted by solotoro at 7:26 PM on June 18, 2007

If you have access to school systems, a lot will have Mathematica installed on linux/unix clusters, which you can ssh/remote-x into.
posted by devilsbrigade at 7:36 PM on June 18, 2007


Mathtype is a WSYWIG equation editor that snaps into MS Office (and a variety of other Windows software. It has no learning curve, basically.
posted by killdevil at 7:39 PM on June 18, 2007

Err, WYSIWYG. What you see is what you get. &c.
posted by killdevil at 7:40 PM on June 18, 2007

I made it through college with Microsoft Word and Equation Editor. It's very easy to use if you're familiar with Word. Just search the Word help file for "equation editor" to see how to install and use it.
posted by beandip at 7:47 PM on June 18, 2007

Microsoft Word Equation editor is a subset of MathType.
posted by Neiltupper at 8:05 PM on June 18, 2007

OpenOffice Writer should definitely do the trick for basic stuff, and the reference tables are really helpful. I've used it for discrete math, combinatorics, and logic classes and rarely do I run into something I can't figure out how to do. If you choose to use Writer, {} are your friends!
posted by version control at 8:14 PM on June 18, 2007

I made it through college with Microsoft Word and Equation Editor.

Equation editor is unsuited to serious work. It occasionally barfs and renders your equations garbage, and uneditable garbage to boot. This has actually happened to me, and was one of the final straws that drove me to the arms of LaTeX.

If you will only need to do equations occasionally, and this is not an important project, LaTeX would be overkill (though LyX might not).

If you're in a position where you're going to need to write more academic-style papers, articles, or books, it would not be overkill to start learning LaTeX now.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:22 PM on June 18, 2007

There are several excellent, free LaTeX editors for Windows - I've used Winedt and TeXnicCenter. There's also LEd, which I haven't tried, but it seems to be getting rave reviews.
posted by lukemeister at 9:23 PM on June 18, 2007

I like winedt, and use it, but it ain't free. It's nagware, and the nag is actually annoying, unless they've changed something in the most recent version.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:08 PM on June 18, 2007

OpenOffice is pretty intuitive to use (for maths). Since you've already got it installed why not give it a go for a page or two, and see how it works out?
posted by anaelith at 4:55 AM on June 19, 2007

LaTeX is generally pretty simple to learn to use competently, and does not have as high of a learning curve as you may fear. And once you learn it, making reasonable-looking mathy typeset documents is nice and easy.

The main problems I ran into were ones related to general layout, and I discovered that you could always find general templates of page layouts on the internets and from your friends.
posted by that girl at 5:11 AM on June 19, 2007

ROU_Xenophobe - You're right. Winedt licenses start at $30.
posted by lukemeister at 6:18 AM on June 19, 2007

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