Latex writing tips

When writing papers or theses, Latex is the tool of choice for computer science students and researchers. In contrast to WYSIWYG word processors, whether they are locally installed or cloud-based, Latex emphasizes your ability to write text and deals with the layout on your behalf. Even if Latex’s decisions about placing figures and tables are not exactly controllable and not always according to your liking, it is actually very hard to use Latex for the creation of a document that is visually as unappealing as a letter written in word.

Although an author who is new to Latex may get used to the inconvenience of visible tags to represent special text features instead of a direct visual feedback of a WYSIWYG word processor, there are some things that are harder in Latex.

Collaboration

The classical collaboration tool of WYSIWYG users, email, has been impractical compared to Latex’s ability to be used with a version control system such as Git. Cloud-based WYSIWYG processors, however, allow several users to collaborate interactively with each other. This remains hard in Latex, but a Cloud service called Overleaf exists that provides the same feature for Latex users.

It features complete Latex support as well as PDF previews and at the same time also live interaction and side-bar comments. Furthermore, it provides Git access to the underlying repository, which can be cloned into a local directory. Consequently, it is also possible to push local updates into the repository in Overleaf, which permits safe offline working on the same document. The local Git repository can of course also be pushed to a secondary remote node, allowing a user to keep a secondary safe copy.

Spell checking

Spell checking has been notoriously bad for essentially all word processors except Word. This problem has been alleviated for many of us by the arrival of Grammarly. Grammarly calls itself “the free writing assistant”, and it is well capable of protecting us from most spelling and grammatical mistakes that we usually make in English. It can be integrated into Chrome and is already quite effective in its free version.

Interestingly, Grammarly can be used when Chrome is used to write Latex in Overleaf. A discussion on stackexchange reveals how it can be used.

Bibliography

Many people are disappointed that Google Docs has no bibliography system, while Microsoft Word users have access to EndNote. Latex can use several bibliography systems, among them Bibtex, which needs much less attention than EndNote. There is an old tool named bibtex that extracts and converts Bibtex entries according to a format chosen inside the latex document, and there is a younger tool named biber that does the same job. Porting Latex documents (but not the Bibtex files) from bibtex to biber has a learning curve, and I haven’t done it yet.

Most publishers provide options for downloading appropriate Bibtex (as well as EndNote) citations for every book or paper, but in the case of Bibtex, it is possible to collect all of them in one single large collection and refer to its entries from every Latex document that you write.

Just collecting bibliography in such a large file has its disadvantages, however. It is particularly inconvenient when the collection has grown large and you are searching for a specific document whose details you cannot remember perfectly. Of course, a basic text editor can be used to search in that file, but also other features such as grouping by topic are desirable.

This is where Mendeley and Zotero come in. Both are Cloud-based systems that allow you to manage to bibliography and export it in a variety of formats including Bibtex and EndNote. Both of these systems have desktop clients to manage your online collection, and both are capable of storing PDF files of the managed content for you.

Mendeley is today owned by Elsevier, Zotero by the Corporation for Digital Scholarship; a user may prefer the one or the other for this reason. At UiO, the recommended tool is apparently Zotero.