I've been reading a couple of blog posts about other students' writing environments (both digital and physical) and the I've been really interested in the approaches they take when it comes to software selection but I've really been struggling to follow why they go to such extraordinary lengths to set up bespoke writing environment.  We have a few mathematicians associated with our course and they all swear by how LaTeX, for example, saves them days and days of typing equations and how they couldn't possibly write any of their materials without it.  But the part I'm really struggling to understand is that it was created about 40 or so years ago to overcome typesetting problems and surely there must be something more effective available now after all this time?

002:365 - My brain hurts...

Whilst I have a copy of Scrivener and I'm used to writing large batch files in Vi and ViM from my days using SPARC SunOS stations, I still choose to do most of my writing in Word.  It has an outlining tool which I find useful, but the deal sealer for me is that I can make it dance when it comes to large documents with regards automation.  Through simply using styles and captions, I can have a simply written and elegantly cross referenced document up and running in seconds.  Whilst scrivener is intended to get your ideas down on a page and get writing, I just don't feel that it's quite there for technical documents, as figures should be numbered and cross-referenced, as should equations and I'm far too lazy to do this myself and I've sort of gotten used to Word doing the donkey work for me for the past 20 years on these elements.

Admittedly the equation editor is dreadful in Word and is to type-setting what I am to men's ballet.  I've overcome this though by using MathType 6.7 which makes all of my equations look uniform and well typeset, with the added bonus of having numbering macros and scripts embedded into Word that allows me to automatically number equations and cross reference them in my writing.

Another boon for using MathType is that I can colour code equations, something that might sound trivial, but actually can be really useful in presentations to grey out parts of the equation that you're not interested in for the minute or for making critical terms bright red to make them pop out on the slide whilst you discuss them with the students.  I know you can do this too with LaTeX as that's the technique that I use for embedding equations in this blog, but I create the equations first in MathType and then after I've pasted them into here I simply edit a few colour tags.

To be clear, I'm not criticising anyone's writing setup, the key to writing is finding something that works for you.  But there does seem to be a trend on several social media sites to push for methods of writing that avoid mainstream packages.  I understand that money is tight nowadays and every penny counts, but I've managed to get myself a copy of MS Office and Mathtype together for about £60 all in, I'm sure that it can be done cheaper using something like LibreOffice that comes pre-installed with Ubuntu, but I take the view that £60 is less than an hour of my charge out rate when I was in industry and doing it this way will save me countless hours.

I do like peeking into other student's writing environments, both physical environments and their digital environments, but I'd love someone to explain to me why I should adopt LaTeX over Word and MathType, particularly given that I'll be embedding a lot of vector graphics from OmniGraffle and Visio and I'm really struggling to see how these other sorts of environments will help me write more efficiently, but then I guess it's horses for courses...


  • August 25, 2012 - 20:36 | Permalink

    Hi Neil,

    I don't disagree with anything you're saying above. My post was not a "Windows sucks, use LaTeX". I already have a student license for Office and I use it quite regularly. The reason I selected LaTeX for this project was due to the intense use of mathematical formulas, and the short amount of time I had to prepare this thesis.
    I needed a tool that didn't get in my way. Working with flat files and ViM was ideal when at the same time I had around 30 PDFs open, 2 instances of Matlab running, Mendeley, Safari with approx 40 tabs, and so on ans so on.
    At some point I found myself typing equations as fast as I could physically type, and I don't think that's something I could've done with MathType.
    All in all I wanted to work with LaTeX, hence the choice. I would not have selected it if I were to write a different kind of document.
    On another note, I really enjoyed working with flat files. I could do a version control and comparison with Git much more effectively than Word, bibliography handling was much smoother and I think the overall aesthetic presentation was superior to that of Word.
    All in all it was the right tool for the job, and if anyone else has decided to go the same route I thought I might give someone some roadsigns.

    Best regards,


    • Neil
      August 25, 2012 - 21:10 | Permalink

      I think you raise some really interesting points Christos, I've had over 30 years hacking about on different platforms and operating systems and count myself as being fairly IT literate, but I seem to be missing something on LaTeX as I'm really just not getting it all, but what I think I'm coming to realise is that there are users on LaTeX, Word, Scrivener or whichever platform who can make beautiful and elegant documents, and there are also that look that there's been a crash at the letraset factory with awful type setting and formatting.
      I'm totally with you on using vi though, writing script files are much easier on vi particularly for global search and replace and I miss some of the tools that I used to use to compare two batch files when trying to debug them. I'd really like to see some of your finished work in LaTeX, I'm not bashing the process at all, I think my concern is that I could be missing a trick in my own writing... I can make office dance, but when using MacOS essentially it's a unix system and I'm sure there are more efficient ways of working. Who knows, once my thesis starts to swell in size perhaps I'll change my tune as Word starts to creak a little? Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog.

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