Using Latex for college papers

A few months ago I posted about how I was tired of Microsoft Word and was looking for an alternative. I had decided on Latex as a substitute because it was a plain-text format that easily translated to PDF. It also has great tools including Mactex for OS X and the Auctex package for Emacs. This semester in college has been the most writing intensive so far. I have an Engineering Professionalism and Ethics course that has regular memos, reading summaries and four longer papers (and planning sheets for most of the above). My digital circuits course also requires regular lab memos. I’m glad to say that I’ve been using Latex full time for all my writing.

During the past few months using Latex full-time, I’ve learned a few lessons which might be useful for anyone starting to use it for full time writing. Here’s a quick guide to get you on your feet with Latex for daily college life.

1. Get Latex.

First order of business: head over to the Latex website and find yourself a package that you like. If you’re on a Mac I highly recommend the Mactex distribution. It’s somewhat heavy, but certainly worth it as it will have you all set to get going. For Linux, it’s best to find a package for your distribution, but if you’re an Emacs user, the Auctex package will come in handy.

2. Find a good tutorial

I’ll admit, Latex can be a bit overwhelming for beginners. So it’s important to find a good tutorial. The official documentation page is a good starting point. I also found Getting to Grips with Latex to be a very good jump start guide. Once you start feeling comfortable, be sure to use Google to find tips and tricks to achieve what you want. With its long history, chances are someone has solved the problem you are facing. On the same note, you probably want to just learn as you go along instead of reading one of the tutorials chapter by chapter.

3. Build some templates

Latex can be a bit of a pain for quick documents, but it can become very effective once you start using it for larger projects. If you’re writing a lot of memos or a number of papers with the same general format, it would be best to spend some time and create a Latex format that you’re comfortable with. I’m currently using two such templates: One for memos which is set up with To:/From: fields and all the usual trappings of a memo, and another for longer papers set up with proper spacing, title page, table of contents, bibliographies, the works. Making these templates might take some work, especially if you need custom packages like I do, but believe me, they’re worth the trouble later.

4. Keep focused on the content

Coming from the WYSIWYG world of Word, it’s very tempting to continually typeset your work to see what it looks like. Here’s a suggestion: don’t. Latex is designed to handle the looks for you so that you can focus on content. Take advantage of the fact that you don’t have to worry about how your paper looks and what it says at the same time. I find it helpful to do at least two passes on my paper. One is where I just write, without seeing what it looks like. I focus 100% on content. I care about nothing besides getting my point across. I don’t even bother about page limits at this point. Once I’ve put down everything that I need saying, I start pruning. I do a typeset to check basic things like length and to make sure that I don’t have huge solid blocks of text. I’ll then start shortening (or lengthening) to get to the limit and then alter paragraph and section boundaries to make sure that the text flows properly. However, none of this done at the cost of the quality of my writing.

5. Look over the result

One of the consequences of using a system like Latex instead of Word is that it harder to edit on the fly. So make sure that the result (probably in PDF form) is what you want it to be, (typos, formatting errors etc). I generally go through everything two to three times to make sure that everything is how it should be.

Like many powerful tools, Latex will take you some time to get used to. But once you get used to the powerful and clean efficiency that it offers, you won’t want to go back to WYSIWYG again.

One thought on “Using Latex for college papers

  1. LaTeX is great. I have been using it for a couple of years. The major problem that I face is, most of my colleague use Microsoft Word. As a consequent, writing documents in collaboration with others is a headache, although there exist some free and non free LaTeX to Word (or RTF) converters available. Perhaps, someone should start an opensource project to develop a good converter.

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