Now that I’m getting heavily into the writing part of my thesis, I’ve had the chance to procrastinate on the actual writing by looking into multiple arrangements, setups, and tools to support my actual writing process. There are many things to manage when writing a thesis: references, notes, drafts, citations, layouts, versioning, backups, and perhaps even more depending on your specific field. So I’ve decided to put together a quick walkthrough about my own process and workflow and how I’ve set up different tools across the research and writing process, along with links to additional resources. Before I begin, however, a warning: the process described here is unnecessarily complicated, and you can probably get by with a much easier setup. I basically took this path because I wanted to learn about several of the tools involved, and because my current setup is hard to put together upfront, but requires very little management as I go along. So, that being said, you should think carefully about what you want to write and how best to support that process.
Once you start doing research, you’ll quickly start to pile up on long lists of references including books, articles, book chapters, documents, conference papers, and so on. It gets hard to manage it all in a way that you can still find them several months later, and that you can keep track of the reference information once you want to start doing citations in your writing. There are many tools available that do this, but my personal choice so far has been Zotero, and I can no longer remember a world in which I did research without using this. Zotero works either as a Firefox plug-in or as a standalone app if you use any other browser, and is basically just a database where you can keep track of references and store metadata based on the reference type. That’s helpful, but not impressive. If the automatic capture doesn’t work (which sometimes happens), you can also add resources based on their ISBN or their DOI numbers.
And if all else fails, or you’re working with non-standard sources (like documents, audio recordings, or other non-indexed things) you can always do manual entry. The Zotero interface allows you to build collections of resources and export references lists for them. Zotero is also super helpful for writing: the MS Word Zotero Connector adds an extra toolbar to your Word layout specifically for citation management. There’s no shortage of tools to actually get your writing done. Some people just go for MS Word, some people like Apple’s Pages, some people are just using something like Google Docs. A lot of people lately are swearing by Scrivener. I decided to go with LaTeX, probably because I like the pain of it. LaTeX is not really writing software – it is technically a language or syntax to define commands and parameters that LaTeX then takes into account to generate a typeset version of your writing. Now, learning your way around LaTeX can be hard, especially if you have no coding experience whatsoever (even if you’ve done some HTML at some point, that’ll probably be enough).
But while setting up LaTeX to work for you can take a few hours upfront, once you’re happy and comfortable with your setup you’re pretty much good to go. The LaTeX package for Mac OS X, MacTex, comes with pretty much everything you need to get started and even with packages and macros that make a lot of things easier. A sample base LaTeX file using MITs thesis template. Packages and files are imported into this file to be processed for output. TeX and LaTeX have been primarily used for writing in natural sciences and mathematics, where lots of typesetting of equations and formulas take place, but you can really use it for anything if you find it convenient. Because LaTeX is not a full word processing solution but just a typesetting processor, it gets a little trickier to do things such as references and citations. Not too tricky, though: that’s where BibTex comes on. BibTex is the format in which you need to have your references for LaTeX to understand them. Zotero generates that format for you automatically.