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I am a complete LaTeX/TeX novice. I know nothing about it and have never used it. I have been reading about it today as it was been recommended to me but I can't work out if it is suitable for my use case.

I am still in the planning stages of writing a dissertation for a Masters degree which will be between 10k and 15k words long. This will include various chapters (thusly a 'Contents'), many citations, and hopefully quite a few images/figures/tables for illustration, (likely an Appendix also).

I am writing my proposal at present in LibreOffice, I have to submit it in a Microsoft Word format and LibreOffice can read/write using the MS Word file format. The same is true of the final dissertation document.

LaTeX sounds amasing and I would like to use it for my dissertation (most notably I am under the impression it will manage my citation for me, so I don't have to keep renumbering them when inserting new ones).

After reading this question and this question, in particular, all I am worried about before I potentially waiste a lot of time learning LaTeX only to find I can't use it is;

  • Is it easy to export to an MS Word format?
  • Apparently support for images is "flaky", can anyone quantify this, or has it improved?
  • Can anyone think of anything I have potentially overlooked for writing such a large document?

UPDATE

The subject is computer networking. There will be some use of formulae and superscript but it will be minimal. I don't want to produce an overly-colourful multi-font document. I want it to be easy to read, one font, one consistent size, standard alignment throughout; Like an RFC document but with some bold text here and there for titles and the ability to insert images.

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To keep it short: If you know Word and you have to submit in Word don't use LaTeX. You will not like the typography of word after you have learned LaTeX and enjoyed the beautiful typography of LaTeX. –  Kurt Nov 3 '12 at 21:16
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BTW: Welcome to TeX.sx! –  Kurt Nov 3 '12 at 21:16
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If you have to submit in Word format (a) complain that the rules are silly and (b) use Word (or LibreOffice) not LaTeX unless they change the rules. –  David Carlisle Nov 3 '12 at 21:33
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@javano: With a good pdf viewer you can highlight text and insert comments in pdf file independly which program you used to create it. Is your tutor willing to do this? BTW: the best way to mark errors in a document is to mark them on a printed paper (on screen you, I and everyone else oversee a lot of errors, on paper not). –  Kurt Nov 3 '12 at 21:40
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There are other systems besides word that can do review comments but really the complain part of my comment was an optional extra. The main part is if you have to submit in doc(x) format use Word or LibreOffice. Personally I have never used either system for anything except occasionally having to use them to read documents sent in that format, but if that is the format you need in the end use it from the beginning. Converting to Word from LaTeX is possible but error prone and tricky and in doing so you lose all the benefits of the superior typography implemented in LaTeX. –  David Carlisle Nov 3 '12 at 21:41

6 Answers 6

up vote 29 down vote accepted

I really hope you do find the time to learn LaTeX. You'll never look at documents the same way again. It can really turn a person into a bit of a document snob :)

LaTeX is not a word processor. You cannot 'export' to Word. LaTex is for professional quality document processing. MS Word is for cramming some text together as quickly and conveniently as possible for the writer. LaTeX is for deliberate, scientific, artistic and careful design for optimal readability. I'm not saying that word processors are bad! They are two different tools for two different jobs. Check out The Beauty of LaTeX, to see illustrations some differences.

LaTeX will give you a pdf, postscript or dvi file, which are not editable by MS Word. Nor would you want to do so, even if it were possible.

LaTeX has no problem with images, as long as you are using a modern driver as in PDFLaTeX. For some idea regarding what LaTeX can do, check out the TeX showcase

LaTeX (or rather BiBTeX) will generate your bibliography based on a database of information. I recommend you check out Mendeley for managing your references. It works brilliantly with LaTeX and LibreOffice.

LaTeX will also handle your table of contents, list of figures, list of tables, list of acronyms and index.

While I do recommend you learn LaTeX, I don't recommend that you write your dissertation in LaTeX with the intent to submit as a MS Word file.

The notion of an academic institution demanding a dissertation in MS Word format is unethical---even scandalous. If my University had any such requirement for a non-open standard, I would raise a hell the likes of which they had never seen. Needless to say, I would refuse to submit in a non-open standard format.

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Thanks for your answer, and to everyone who comment under my original question, some really great info has been posted here. I have emailed my tutor to ask about PDF submissions. If I get a "yes" I will make the transition to LaTeX. If not, I shall postpone what I expect to be long term relationship between myself and LaTeX till after the dissertation when I freely right my own papers. Cheers ;) –  jwbensley Nov 4 '12 at 15:20

Is it easy to export to an MS Word format?

Not really, specially if you want to preserve formatting down to detail.

Apparently support for images is "flaky", can anyone quantify this, or has it improved?

You can insert any image by including a file. Compiling into pdf gives you the option of using png, jpg , pdf and some others I think. Or if you have some programming skills, learn one of the drawing languages (pstricks, tikz, asymptote..).

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I learned the LaTeX basics this year and liked the output it produces. However, there are two main reasons that threw me back to MS Word:

  1. if you work in a team and your collaborators don't use LaTeX and don't like PDF, you're buggered. Especially if you send out drafts of chapters of your work, you won't get the kind of feedback you hope for if your commentators can't use their word processor of choice, which in my field unfortunately always is Word.
  2. I found LaTeX to be less supportive of the writing process than I hoped for, which is mainly due to the lack of possibilities to annotate your own text with highlights and comments. Any other word processor comes in more handy in this respect, although I don't want to rule out that that's just due to my insufficient understanding of LaTeX. However, if you want to revise your documents regularly (which you should), you'll find a Word-like processor more efficient, probably.
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Welcome to TeX.sx! –  Torbjørn T. Nov 4 '12 at 10:08
    
Thanks for giving a view from the other side of the table, someone who has gone back to Word :) –  jwbensley Nov 4 '12 at 15:10
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In question 2 you are not fully right: There is at least the package pdfcomment or, as already pointed out, you use directly the commenting functions of your PDF Reader (also Adobe Reader from version X = 10 on has this). –  Speravir Nov 4 '12 at 15:50
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-1 :There is also the todonotes package which is magical for annotations. –  Zenon Nov 4 '12 at 16:05
    
@Zenon: Yes, this one I’ve forgotten. –  Speravir Nov 7 '12 at 22:14

As others, I also believe that have no sense for a novice to learn LaTeX if the final target is Word. However, if you are an experienced LaTeX user, probably you will not desire to work too much with bloat-ware word processors and probably you have already something made in LaTeX. Only then exporting could be a good idea.

Is it easy to export to an MS Word format?

Yes. There are tools like latex2rtf, mk4ht or elyxer to convert to ODT, RTF and HTML formats that can be read by LibreOffice and saved in Word format.

For a novice a easy option could be write the documents in LyX or import LaTeX files to LyX because you can export to the above formats trough a simple menu, that internally call to the appropriate exporting tools. (Moreover, it a good option for a novice because you can write basic LaTeX documents without previous knowledge of LaTeX code).

However, the conversion is far from perfection. This could be painless for large but simple texts as hopefully is maintained the basic style typography (italics, etc.) and document structure (table of contents, sections, cite references, etc.) and lost format (margins and headers in HTML export, for example) are easy to fix later in Libreoffice.

For more complex documents (for example with a lot of equations, tables or figures) this final adjust could be more laborious. If it is also a very customized document (large preamble with uncommon packages and custom macros, or a lot of formatting code within the body text) then you can expect more serious problem (special formats are lost, or exported as garbage code, or you can export anything because the exporting tools do not know how manage the complex document). You mileage may vary, but the more complex the LaTeX source, the less chances of success.

Apparently support for images is "flaky", can anyone quantify this, or has it improved?

In what sense flaky?

First, you must understand that LaTeX is not kind of word processor with menu to insert images that can be placed or scaled with the mouse. LaTeX is simply you writing plain text with any text editor (even the simple Notepad from Windows is enough) that later can be converted into a formatted PDF (or DVI) with a compiler as pdflatex (there are more options). Lyx and many text editors can help writing the most common LaTeX codes for you, including the basic code to include an image, but these programs cannot cover all the possibilities of LaTeX with graphics. Understood this, what I can do with images writing only plain text?

  • Include external images in differents formats? Yes, you can include the common PDF, PNG, JPEG and GIF images. With LyX even SVG (that are converted to PNG). Need more? There are excellent tools to bulk convert other format images.
  • Rotate or rotating the images? Yes, you can.
  • Scaling the images? Yes, you can.
  • Find a good/elegant position for images? Yes. In fact, the float figures in LaTeX was for me one main reason to left Word/OpenOffice, where positioning of images is rather time-consuming and frustrating even when you are well experienced about arrangement, anchoring and text wrapping. But moreover, you can do much more that using standard floats (read about the Tufte format, for example).
  • Draw directly vectorial images, diagrams? Yes, you can. Even an animated chicken hatched from an egg. See How can I draw an egg using TikZ?
  • Draw plots from data? Yes you can. Directly with pgfplots package or indirectly, including chunks of R code (statistics language) or LaTeX code generated with Gnuplot, for example.
  • Write text or paint marks over the images? Yes, you can.
  • Round borders? Yes, you can. See LaTeX Photo With Rounded Corners
  • Any other thing that I can imagine about images? Probably, although surely you can do better or faster with more appropriate tools than an high-quality typesetting system. After all, LaTeX was not designed to compete with Inkscape or The Gimp.

Can anyone think of anything I have potentially overlooked for writing such a large document?

The possibilities of format that offers a markup language like LaTeX are incredible but a elegant default format for simple text is obtained simply with the first line of code defining the document class:

   \documentclass{article}

This basic format can be extended or modified in the preamble, (from this line until \begin{document}) to include images for example, but then you can mostly focus on the content. Although the content is not just clean text, since it must usually have many commands about the text structure, as \section{Some text} (instruct to the compiler that "Some Text" must be formatted as the title of a numbered section). This is hard to manage at first, but when you learn the most common commands, the hard thing is to leave your favourite lightweight text editor to return to LibreOffice or Word.

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I'd add pandoc to the conversion tools list you mentioned. It does a pretty good job from LaTeX (and other formats) to LibreOffice ODT (and several other formats), although, like the others, it loses some of the format. –  henrique Nov 7 '12 at 19:36
    
Thanks Fran for some really great info here, +1 :D –  jwbensley Nov 29 '12 at 16:31

As the others have already said LaTeX is a very good system. I am 18 and in college studying for A levels. I started learning LaTeX this summer and have since used it for college to produce an eBook about Vim, two 2000+ word reports and a small write up for electronics.

I have enjoyed the experience and have not found it too difficult. I have been able to find out everything I needed to know on-line. A Google search usually brings up this site and/or the relevant wikibooks page. Both are excellent resources.

You learn the basic commands very quickly and a good IDE will have autocomplete options to help with the rest. I use LaTeXila (Linux) and Vim with the snipMate add-on. The support for tables, images, equations and citations is excellent.

If you are able to submit the document as a PDF, go for it. It will be worth it. If not the converting to .doc process appears rather painful.

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I faced this issue for my report, now I've finished it and I can tell you my conclusion and what I think are the pros and cons.

Is it easy to export to an MS Word format?

Not at all. Of course there are many script to do that but they don't work in all the OS and are poor documented. The conversion is by the way approximative so this is one of the cons of writing in TeX you should find someone that write in TeX for editing and correcting it. Two facts:

  • I share the .pdf to my supervisor before a presentation of an extract of my job she found an error but we could not correct it because she have no TeX compiler.
  • A professor ask me to edit the report so I try to export to an MS Word format but with poor results. Of course I suggest him to edit the .pdf but seems that many people prefer a word processor for correct the document.

Apparently support for images is "flaky", can anyone quantify this, or has it improved?

No, I think this is not true. LaTeX allow you some useful trick to insert image with the right width:

\begin{figure}[center]
\includegraphics[width=\textwidth, height=\textheight, keepaspectratio]{nameoftheimage.jpg} 
\caption{Here goes the caption}
\label{fig:cc}
\end{figure}

If you have a lot of figures a word processor can become very slow, and (up to my knowledge) LibreOffice can't compress figures. LaTeX allow you to deal with a lot of figures with high resolution without slowing down the opening and saving of your document. You wont have the full control over your figures you have to trust in TeX for the placing in most cases but generally it do a good job.

Can anyone think of anything I have potentially overlooked for writing such a large document?

TeX force you to do a great job. This in not only due to the fact that TeX has one of the most competitive typesetting algorithm (with better words spacing than others editor) but even because TeX force you to think for every thing you do. You have to read manuals,visit sites and forum and maybe ask many questions if you feel the urge to explore and get into "LaTeX attempt to perfection". This is why there is a TeX stackexchange and not a Microsoft Office stackexchange. If you think you will write a lot of reports in your life LaTeX will be for you a good friend, that deserve a great amount of time (many and many hours) to be fulfilled. If you are searching for an easy solution for writing you thesis this is not the case. The main risk is that you spend more time in the attempting to make a perfect LaTeX document rather than a great thesis! :-)

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BTW, some people around the Internet could make good use of a MS Office Stackexchange site :S –  marczellm Feb 12 at 22:17
    
@marczellm you are right! –  G M Feb 13 at 11:40

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