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Saving money, writing in TeX

I’ve switched many of my writing tasks to TeX, and it’s time I talked about that decision. I wrote a paper for a class last term in TeX, and I think that was the official beginning. Well, I guess I’d tried and failed to write a paper in TeX before, so my paper for Curtis LeBaron’s class was my first success. EndNote and Office 2008 for the Mac don’t get along yet, so TeX has a couple months to cement itself as my paper-writing environment of choice.

Some of you may have no idea what I’m talking about. For you, I recommend Wikipedia and CTAN: WHat are TeX, LaTeX, and Friends? Basically, TeX lets me write papers without having to format them at the same time. It uses tags to give formatting directions, then I run some command business, and wala, a PDF appears! I’m using it instead of Word because Word makes me angry when I’m trying to write papers for ACM conferences (e.g. GROUP, CSCW) with figures and/or tables. I’m also afraid of using Word for my dissertation because the rules about formatting are super-strict, and I bet Word could screw it up. TeX and the software I need to do my writing are also FREE. 100% FREE. The latest and greatest reason for me to use TeX, though, is that TeX + BibTeX works and Word 2008 + EndNote doesn’t. Putting references into a paper by hand is not an option. My dissertation proposal is only 19 pages long, and 2 of those pages are a single-spaced citation list. Sean, Jude, and I are working on a paper for CSCW that has 9 references, and each reference appears in the text a couple of times. You can see that I’m not going to be able to keep track of all those citations myself, let alone switch between citation styles (e.g. between APA 5th and ACM proceedings).

So, TeX + BibTeX beat out Word 2008 + EndNote. How do I do it? I’m also using Windows occasionally now, and because TeX documents are plain text, they couldn’t care less which OS I’m using. If you’re somewhat comfortable with markup (e.g. HTML, XML), TeX may be a good option for you. Even with the student discount, Office 2008 is $50, and EndNote will probably be $90 again when they have a version that works with Office 2008 – likely summer 2008. Save yourself the $140 and give TeX a shot.

I use TeXShop and BibDesk on the Mac (available in the MacTeX package), and I wouldn’t recommend other software. I tried iMacTeX or some such thing, and it was awful. TeXShop has a bunch of built-in AppleScripts that are helpful including Bibliography which automatically does the latex-bibtex-latex-latex order that you need to run in order to get a PDF with a properly formatted reference section. If you miss Bibliography in the dropdown list, you’ll change the color scheme of your TeXShop windows, and there’s no menu for resetting them. Instead, to change the background color of your source window, get the RGB values of the color you’d like, open up Terminal and use these commands (where XX = the appropriate R, G, or B value):

defaults write TeXShop background_R 0.XX
defaults write TeXShop background_G 0.XX
defaults write TeXShop background_B 0.XX

Similarly, you can change the colors of the text and the insertion point using foreground_R, insertionpoint_R and the like.

Now that I’m humming along on my dissertation and a couple of papers for CSCW, I’ll probably be posting TeX tips. I get stuck a lot, and you probably will too when you get started.

So, what do you think ?

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