Advice on how to help non-techies writing in LaTeX [closed]

Several of friends are soon going to write their theses, and I have offered to help them set it up in LaTeX. Their studies cover the entire spectrum, ranging from literature to medicine. None of them have any previous experience with LaTeX, and teaching them how to use the entire program seems like too much work for too little. So I am inclined to leave all the TeXnical stuff to myself and let them focus on contents. The big question is how they are going to communicate their text formatting (italics, quotes, long dashes, headings) and bibliographies to me. Does anyone else have similar experiences and solutions they would like to share? Any kind of advice would be helpful.

I can see several ways to accomplish this:

Let them write it in MS Word, then I'll convert it manually to LaTeX

Let them do it the way they are used to. Afterwards, I am going to copy it all into LaTeX and change the formatting manually. Obviously, this is an erroneous process; it is easy to overlook a short italic word somewhere. An even more significant problem is how to change the Word citations to BibLaTeX. Can this only be done manually? This means lots of work.

Let them write it in MS Word, then I'll apply a LaTeX conversion script

This might require as much manual correction as the first one, because MS Word and LaTeX are very incompatible formats. It seems writer2latex is the best tool available, since it is also claimed to be able to convert bibliography into LaTeX. Still, I have not tested it on large projects yet (I don't have any large Word projects to test it on!).

Let them use LyX, then output to LaTeX and change the formatting

I have never been fond of the complicated LyX interface or the formatting it outputs. I do not think it is necessarily much easier to learn LyX than to learn simple LaTeX formatting. Another major problem is that it does not seem to get BibLaTeX support any time soon. There is a workaround on the website, but I have not been able to get it to work yet.

Teach them elementary LaTeX

Teach them how to write \emph{...}, --, \chapter{...}, \section{...}, \enquote{...}, \textcite{...}, \parencite{...}, \textcite{...} etc. in a simple plain text document, then copy it all into my LaTeX document and correct their errors. It might be worth using ShareLaTeX so that I can look them over the shoulder while they type.

Use Pandoc or a similar program for easy plain-text formatting

Pandoc might be simple to use for simple tasks, but as soon as we want bibliography management, things get more complicated. Another option is to create your own (possibly LuaTeX-based) front-end to LaTeX with a Markdown-like syntax, where [smith] means a reference to Smith. This may require lots of work by me, and errors are likely to appear.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Paul Gaborit, user13907, Zarko, Martin Schröder, egregOct 31 '15 at 22:19

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

• Opinion based question , opinion based answer: Teach them LaTeX ;-) – user31729 Oct 31 '15 at 11:45
• By the way: The concept of learning new stuff efficiently should be the key point of everyuniversity – Johannes_B Oct 31 '15 at 12:14
• I think it makes sense to try to teach them LaTeX directly. To just write text, there are not too many things to learn, basically sectioning and maybe \emph every now and then (but better not too often). The question is maybe: Which editor to use? People are used to WYSIWYG nowadays. They don't like to write without seeing the output immediately. – jarauh Oct 31 '15 at 12:28
• Personally, I prefer a very skillful Word user rather than a bad LaTeX user. :) A lot of people just want to finish their texts at all costs, so they simply don't care about the potential underlying spaghetti code they might come up with, as long as the final result looks as they want. It is more acceptable for them to stick with a WYSIWYG approach rather than make them in control of every aspect of their documents. It is a sad truth. I believe using Word for people who is not committed to good TeX practices is the lesser of two evils; a bad TeX code is just as wrong IMHO. :) – Paulo Cereda Oct 31 '15 at 12:40
• Let’s not underestimate literature students. They wouldn’t be literature students if they didn’t love books, and if they see examples of really good typography done with LaTeX, in a font that suits the text (Latin Modern will look wrong to them), they’ll be intrigued and want to learn this. My own field is not technical, but I’ve had students comment on the appearance of my documents and ask where to learn LaTeX. – Thérèse Oct 31 '15 at 17:04

For my wife's thesis, I did your "Teach them elementary LaTeX": I gave her a template and explained the basics. Citations required me to furnish the bibtex file myself. Still, for someone writing a thesis it shouldn't be that hard to work from a template.

The biggest problem was troubleshooting errors when she mistyped something.

I fear that you might well be letting yourself in for much more work than you imagine. I don't think that it is sensible to effectively offer to proofread and reformat their work, unless of course if you have nothing else to do.

I would go with your "Teach them elementary LaTeX". Create a set of complete LaTeX files with the formatting for their individual theses. In the text explain, and show, the simple commands along the lines you mentioned (not forgetting that a blank line denotes the end of a paragraph and % is the comment character). They can then pdflatex and print their copy of the file and have a handy reference/guide. They could then edit their file by putting an \end{document} immediately after the \begin{document} and add in their own text between the two (thus keeping your words of wisdom at the end of the file for possible reference but not printed).

After they have produced something and have particular questions then you could help them on specific topics. The "Not so short guide to LaTex" (can't recall the exact title but is available on CTAN) would be useful for you/them.

If they should be still your friends after the thesis: spent two days to show them the alternatives and then let them decide about the input. Set up some input rules to avoid that at the end all the work load is on your side. E.g. word users can input \cite{key}.

• I tried that once, it was a desaster. The user didn't even try to get the grasp of basic simple markup. If the op is a human being (and i guess so) he will also make suggestions on alterations, which will be a huge amount of work. – Johannes_B Oct 31 '15 at 14:06
• I had a customer which handled this without problems - and between friends it should be possible to find a balance -- if not I would ask to get paid. – Ulrike Fischer Oct 31 '15 at 14:18

Markdown can be picked up by most in a matter of minutes, I would teach them that and then use pandoc to convert their thesis.

Also, I would point them to Sustainable authorship in plain text using Pandoc and Markdown. The article covers the whole workflow, bibliographies included.

I think the big question to ask here is What do they already know? Maybe they don't know LaTeX, but it's quite possible they already know HTML or Markdown (perhaps from their blogs or their editing on Wikipedia). If they know some kind of semantic markup, just have them use that; converting semantic markup to LaTeX is easy, and you can then do the formatting as you like.

The important thing, though, is to focus on LaTeX's strength: separate content from layout. Let them type the content; you worry about the layout later. Make sure they're typing in unadorned text, even if it's in a Word window that you'll have to extract the text out of later. If they're not already working in some clearly-defined markup format, set up some simple rules. Say, the following:

1. For emphasis, surround the text in asterisks (like *so*).
2. For sections, start the line with an asterisk; if it's a subsection, use two asterisks; and so on.
3. For sources, say "(cite:authoryear)" (or something else that you're sure will be unambiguous).

Anyone capable of writing a thesis would be capable of sticking to a few simple rules like this. Converting this into LaTeX semantic markup would be a matter of a few simple regexps; and then you can do whatever formatting you like.

Just make sure you emphasize to authors: you worry about the content, and I will worry about the formatting when you're done. It'll be hard for them to break the habit of changing all their section headings individually to sixteen-point bold italics, but after they get used to it, they'll probably find it liberating to just think about what they're writing, rather than how it looks.

• I'm not very familiar with OOXML, but wouldn't it be just as easy to convert the XML formatting into TeX, allowing them to edit the way they are used to? – Gaussler Oct 31 '15 at 20:20
• I'm not, either; maybe. But you'd still want simple text, to minimize the amount of word processor muck you'd need to strip out. – dgoodmaniii Oct 31 '15 at 20:22
• The standard dogma, but not accurate. LaTeX does not separate content from layout. Look at either Knuth's books or the Latex Companion, and you will see many tweaks aimed at improving layout and typography. Conversely, Word documents are not necessarily devoid of structure. You don't change your section headings to sixteen-point bold, you use a Heading style. – bubba Feb 19 '16 at 13:11