Alternative Document Formats

I’ve started writing my undergrad capstone paper for my Computer Science major, and I’m having a hard time deciding what format to write it in. I definitely don’t want to do it in MS Word, but the only other documents I know how to make are HTML/XHTML docs. I’m willing to learn a new document format, but there are a lot to choose from and I’m not sure where to start. Have you written big papers in a format other than MS Word? If so, what format was it and how did it turn out? What is the learning curve like? Would you use the format again?

I’ll need to print a nice bound copy of the final revision, but I’d also like to put it on the web (also maybe make a PDF). Other than this ability to convert to other formats, I only need basic formatting (paragraphs, bold, italics, font control, headings, pagination, maybe lists?) and dynamic page numbering. Obviously I don’t know much about what I’m talking about (which is the point of this post), so I’ll shut up now and let you post your experiences/suggestions. That is, assuming anyone reads this blog πŸ™‚

13 thoughts on “Alternative Document Formats

  1. Latex is without a doubt the answer. I did two undergrad projects (both >70 pages – they are on my web page if you want to see the results), the first one with Word (Regular Expression Simplification), the second with Latex (Static Analysis of Pointer Programs). I am also a web author and know HTML/XML/XSL/CSS in great depth, so considered that too. The rough points for each are:

    Word – does everything, but once you add lots of objects, i.e. equations and figures, it starts to crash. Data loss is possible, and will occur when you least want it. The formatting sometimes goes screwy over larger documents, with different bits reformatting themselves. Its easy to use, but you will pay for this at 2am on the morning before hand in – all the issues bite at the very last second. The other point against it is that its a big binary lump, which sucks if you want to use CVS to manage your document (which you really should want to,

    HTML – Good, but no support for page numbering. Then you also can’t do maths very easily, lots of files. The only thing that stopped me going XML/XSL with a convertor to XHTML was page numbering, but other things like contents tables etc. would be a pain. Raw HTML is just too painful for maths and some other things.

    Latex – see for a Windows version and for a nice editor. Between those two, you have a good combination of HTML and Word – HTML style source code, but properly designed for print. Its robust, if sometimes unpredicatable. Almost all academic papers are written in Latex. It also has macros, which come in handy, and all the features you asked for.

  2. If you want to use LaTeX, I suggest you use a front-end called LyX. It’s a graphical editor for LaTeX documents (which you’d otherwise have to code by hand), and it’s very nice. Allows you to do all the above, industrial-strength, lets you worry about the content and not how to format it, or how to write LaTeX tags.

    It’s available via Fink and in most major Linux distributions. Getting it to work under Windows is a bit more complicated (cygwin, an X server, etc.).

  3. Yep, you absolutely should use LaTeX. Front-end-wise, I think you’d be hard pressed to find something better than TeXShop (, assuming you want to actually write the LaTeX code (which isn’t bad at all) and are using OS X.

    The learning curve will be well, well worth it. Just the auto-shifting of internal references, auto-creation of bibliographies/indexes/ToCs, and auto-renumbering of figures and the like will pay you back many times over. And that’s not even getting into the typographic precision. I’ve written both journal papers (6-8 pages) and my thesis (118 pages), and it’s far and away the best choice.

    Plus, it’s trivial to make PS/PDF (depending on your platform), and there are LaTeX->HTML translators (although I’ve never used them).

    If you need examples, OS X setup help, or just have any LaTeX questions, shoot me an email or IM me (pink can hook you up).

  4. I’ve used LaTeX multiple times and I also think that the tool is excellent. I was planning to use it for my master’s thesis too, but now when I’ve heard aboud DocBook ( I’m not so sure anymore. Does anyone have any experience from using DocBook in general and from writing larger academic papers in particular?

  5. Docbook has a rich set of tools behind it, but as far as I know it has limited support for formulas and other basics needed for most technical publishing.

  6. How could someone connected with Mozilla products not use OpenOffice? It’s truly a fabulous opensource product — and absolutely free.

  7. As Benjamin Smedberg hinted, you will want to use some form of TeX if you want to include any non-trivial mathematical notation in your document. The math mode is the reason it is used for most technical papers. Plus it has all the advantages that Stuart mentioned.

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