Writing our master’s thesis can be a long struggle, and the logistical challenges are great: the document’s parts (preliminaries, body, and appendices) must be formatted in different ways. First there are the preliminary pages which include declarations and acknowledgements. Then there is the body itself, which contains many different elements that must be individually formatted. Regular text must be structured within sections, subsections, and sub-subsections. Let us not forget all the tables and figures, which must be numbered independently, often nested within the appropriate section, and whose titles and legends must be formatted consistently. Often we should include numbered equations, or in-text equations, statistical analyses, or chemical reactions and symbols as well. But that is not all, there are also cross-references to pages, tables, figures, and equations, and not to mention all the references, which must be cited in the correct way, and summarized in the bibliography at the end, also in the correct way. We are not done yet, however: the page layout (margins, headers, footers, and page numbering style) must be independently formatted for the preliminary pages, body, and appendices. Needless to say, it takes a whole lot of planning to make some order out of the chaos that is our master’s thesis.
To make some order our of the chaos, most people use Microsoft Word or OpenOffice, or other word processors. These word processors fit into the category called “what you see is what you get”. Common for this category is that we format the text and see the end result immediately; we get exactly what we see in our document. This way of formatting is what we are used to from lower-grade school assignments, and the formatting is intuitive and simple once we learn where to find the various formatting options. However, do we naturally reach for Microsoft Word or other word processors because these are the best programs to use, or because we do not know that we have options?
There are alternatives to common word processors, one of which is LaTeX. To best understand what role LaTeX plays in the making of your thesis, let us consider the following analogy. To make a book, three different persons are needed: the first person is you, the author, who will provide the manuscript; the second person is the designer, who will design the book and page layout; and the third and last person is the typewriter, who will combine the manuscript with the design. Through you, LaTeX takes the form of both designer and typewriter. But how?
LaTeX is very similar to the mark-up language HTML. The name mark-up language refers to that when programming with LaTeX, we “mark” our text with a special formatting code by wrapping it inside certain special characters. These characters are recognized by the “LaTeX compiler”, so that the marked text is formatted the way we asked. Our text, along with all of our mark-up codes, are written in a simple text editor where no font specification, font size adjustments, or any of the “regular” adjustments are available. We adjust these settings by writing codes that are understood by the underlying system.
Whereas we create web-pages with HTML, we create documents with LaTeX. Whereas in Microsoft Word we decide what something should look like, in LaTeX we instead say what something is. That is, we define (by using codes) every important part of our document, so that LaTeX knows how to format these parts. Every section of our document has the same definition, and so every section is formatted exactly the same way. This means a table of contents is always properly generated, without error. Every citation, reference, cross-reference, page number, header, footer, margin, subsection, and equation is strictly defined, which leads to their formatting being consistent. If we add new tables, or figures, or any numbered entity, to our document, the internal numbering is always updated upon compiling the codes. Once the standard definitions are put down, which decide the structure and layout of our document, little of our time is spent designing our thesis, but rather on actual writing. If we absolutely have to adjust the layout, this usually involves altering a definition from a default option to a custom option. Hence it is often said that LaTeX efficiently separates content from layout.
LaTeX is promoted for academic use all over the world. For example, the textbook1 for the course “FYS145 – Quantum Physics” is written purely with LaTeX codes. Department of Informatics at University of Oslo and Norwegian University of Science and Technology have their own web-page for LaTeX-beginners. Further, many international universities, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Cambridge, and University of California Berkeley (to name a few), offer thesis templates for LaTeX, as well as helpful web-pages and how-to guides. Even several peer-reviewed journals offer LaTeX templates for authors to use when submitting articles.
LaTeX distributions are free and open-source and are continuously updated, and LaTeX offers other benefits too. There are many good text editors available that also are free, and many user-made macro packages can be downloaded for free (which make specific tasks much easier, e.g. creating tables, adjusting margins, importing graphics, etc.). The main output file is a PDF-file, which is transferable to every other operating system, and has no internal compatibility issues (old word-files cannot necessarily be opened in the newest Microsoft Word program without error). LaTeX comes with its own bibliographic database system and citation system that are extremely good, and so Endnote is not necessary. Despite all its benefits, LaTeX takes some time to learn; it is a mark-up language and the learning curve can be steep for some. However, there are many guides, articles, videos, and books available which help the learning process, and once the basics are mastered, writing long and structured documents is done with very little effort. It is very possible that LaTeX will make your life much easier when you are trying to make some order of your master’s thesis.
If your curiosity has been piqued by this article, I recommend reading articles and watching videos about LaTeX. For your convenience, I have added links to some articles that I found particularly useful when I started using LaTeX. I have also embedded a video that introduce LaTeX and its benefits nicely. If you have any questions, feel free to send me an e-mail; I am happy to help! I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was written by Anders Myhre Brakestad
1John S. Townsend, Quantum Physics: A Fundamental Approach to Modern Physics, 2010, University Science Books, ISBN: 978-1-891389-62-7
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