I joke that as a sociologist, you really have to love LaTex to use it. Many journals demand MS Word submissions. Many colleagues have no idea how to use LaTex. (Frankly, it is not worth their time to learn.) Dealing with small formatting problems can be an enormous pain in the butt.

But LaTex produces beautiful documents. More importantly, it changes the way you write. As in all coding, the simple ability to comment-out text allows you to explore ideas, make notes, experiment with stylistic shifts, and play with structural changes—all without losing text or awkwardly piling it up at the end of a document, in some “bin” in the margins, or in another window.

Sometimes people tout other nerdy benefits of LaTex, like the ability to integrate R code via Knitr or to typeset beautiful formulae and tables. Frankly, most of those things do not matter that much for most sociologists; they only rarely matter to me. (The meta-sociological paper on LaTex as a disciplinary marker of distinction, though, awaits authorship.) My allegiance to LaTex is basically about aesthetics and even more, the way it weaves into my writing processes itself.

To counter its many flaws—and there are many—I have compiled a list of resources that should make working in LaTex a little easier.

Typesetters

MacTex – A wonderful open source Tex distribution for Mac that includes the TexShop typesetter. My standard since I learned LaTex in 2006 in order to write my undergraduate thesis.

TexPad – A proprietary typesetter with a little nicer GUI than TexShop and that works a little more elegantly—at least most of the time. I’ve had trouble typesetting documents with the iOS app and in particular, getting the app to work with biblatex and Biber. But the desktop version is very nice to use and seems to work smoothly. TexPad also integrates well with iCloud, Dropbox, and Google Drive. One real plus that regular LaTex users won’t take for granted: a simple, continuously updated a word count.

Overleaf – A proprietary, cloud-based typesetter. Free for individual use; document sharing for collaborative work requires an individual or an institutional subscription. Ideal for collaborations; good interface with Dropbox and GitHub.

Basic Reference

LATEX2e: An unofficial reference manual – A continuously evolving, accessible, well-written reference manual for all basic LaTex questions that long predates the culture of asking for help on Stack Exchange—and in fact, long predates that website at all. I’ve been using this document since I learned LaTex as an undergrad—indeed, this document taught me LaTex! It is also an internet dinosaur: it has existed in one form or another since at least 1988!

References and Reference Management

Bibtex v. Biber – Social scientific journals mostly require author-year citations and organize references in alphabetical order, with all manner of more particular variations for particular publications. There are two major ways of handling this in LaTex.

  1. Use the natbib package, which depends upon bibtex and is used in conjunction with a style-specific .bst file that specifies how a bibliography should be formatted for a specific publication or standard (e.g. APA). natbib is older than Biber (see below) and is very stable and reliable. It’s also more deeply institutionalized: more people and journals use it.
  2. Use the biblatex package, which depends upon Biber and does not require style-specific auxiliary files, but which allows for style modifications in ordinary LaTex code (i.e. in a document preamble). Biber is newer and in some ways more flexible and “nicer” to use than bibtex and .bst files. It is also more likely to cause compatibility issues, e.g. with the iOS version of TexPad, in part because it is less well institutionalized.

BibDesk – An open source reference manager for Mac. Easy to use. Import .bib format citations from files or directly from the clipboard with command-option-l. Rather awkwardly, I often use the Firefox and Chrome plugins to import references into Zotero, and then import from Zotero into BibDesk for use with LaTex. This is silly and unnecessary, but keeping references in Zotero as well as BibDesk does make it easier to move into, e.g., Word when collaborating on a non-LaTex project/document.

Document Conversion (e.g. LaTex-to-Word)

Pandoc – An open source document converter. A must and, for me, a miracle. I’ve struggled with other converters in the past. Pandoc is much better. After installing, one line of code converts a .tex file to a .docx file with minimal conversion errors. For example, to convert a .tex document that uses Biber for the bibliography into a .docx document, you only need to:

  1. Use Terminal to navigate to the directory where the .tex and .bib files are located (or specify their file paths relative to your cwd);
  2. Execute the following code after subbing in your file names/paths:
pandoc -s your_tex_doc.tex -o new_name_for_word.docx --bibliography=your_bib_file.bib