LaTeX for thesis writing

Having re-read my LaTeX for PhD students post, I realized I hadn’t mentioned a lot of things I would like to impart to you. So here comes LaTeX for thesis writing – a few more arguments in favour of starting to learn LaTeX now.

Just to sum up what has already been said in the last post: The main points speaking in favour of you typesetting your thesis in LaTeX are the citation management, tables, maths and images which can be more of a hastle in MS Word. In the aforementioned blogpost, I also added that you should take into account that a thesis will yield two PDF outputs with very different requirements from the same document – another reason to use LaTeX.

But there are many more things to take into account.

LaTeX for maths, images and the like (in short, everything MS Word isn’t good at)

A lot of people say that the “LaTeX is great for maths” argument isn’t that strong anymore nowadays because MS Word has caught up a lot. I couldn’t tell you because I don’t usually use math in my writing but I know how to typeset it in LaTeX and I do think the effort to learn to do just that isn’t exactly crazy. The more complicated equations and diagrams become, LaTeX definitely helps.

Also with typesetting images and floats, of course, like you might have to when typesetting an archaeological catalogue, for example, LaTeX will make your life a lot easier!

Citation/Bibliography Management

It is generally highly recommended to use a citation management system for thesis writing. Therea are a few well-known ones out there like Citavi, Zotero – you have probably heard of some. But, of course, you can also use BibTeX and there’s a useful Overleaf tutorial on that (Bibliography management in LaTeX). Given that I’m told you need to learn the other bibliography management softwares anyway and not all of them are for free, you might as well set out and learn LaTeX. It really doesn’t take that long to learn unless you want to do some crazy complicated stuff. Which – in case you are in the Humanties -, believe me, you won’t need!

Check out A Humanities’ seminar paper with LaTeX – in 10 minutes or Jumpstarting: Learn LaTeX in 3 minutes. (Also: Is LaTeX for the Humanities? No, it’s for editors!)

EDIT (Nov 2021): Also, in the meantime I have written about my workflow in case you were wondering how to go about Preparing your literature review and excerpting in LaTeX.

A few more reasons in favour of LaTeX can also be gathered from “Learning LaTeX – Why should you care?” Series Part 1: Common Objections against learning LaTeX.

LaTeX is a typesetting system (not just a tool for “writing”)

If you typeset your own book, you can usually save costs in the printing process. (Although I don’t think all publishing houses and series will actually allow you to do that, just so you know, and you would, of course need to have (or hire) the LaTeX skills needed for that – just as a caveat).

To avoid possible letdowns and extra work in case it should turn out that you cannot submit your thesis to your publisher as a finished LaTeX-powered PDF output, make sure you don’t go overboard on complicated typesetting in your thesis. You shouldn’t be procrastinating on this anyway. Just don’t use any typesetting which can’t be replicated in MS Word. Best even stick with whatever will automatically work in MS Word after a Pandoc transformation. I usually had quite a good feeling for what would translate to MS Word without problems because parts of my thesis had been published as articles. Ergo I often used Pandoc transformations anyway to come up with MS Word outputs, so I was aware at all points of writing in LaTeX what the time and energy cost of converting back to MS Word would be if I had to. I know a person who went totally overboard with LaTeX (also needed lots of specialty stuff because of their field/topic) and then had lots of trouble converting back to Word. So please just don’t say I didn’t warn you. But I also have to say that I’ve never heard about such problems outside of this one case.

Furthermore, depending on your university’s/culture’s system of how the book publication relates to the finished thesis (for example, I know that in the US they really are practically two different books), there might be lots of changes and re-writing necessary anyway. So this argument might not actually hold true for you. Just so you know.

What are your fears, objections or arguments in favour of using LaTeX for thesis writing?

I will probably edit this to add more after some feedback from you people, so feel free to comment or interact in some other way (Twitter, email, whatever you prefer!).

What I’ve already heard:

  1. How can I let people comment or edit my text? Short answer: LaTeX gives you PDF output which can be annotated by your advisor. You can transform your document to MS Word / Google Doc using Pandoc (explained in the blogposts How to quit MS Word for good and LaTeX for PhD students). You won’t be able to click “accept all” for suggestions but often, it’s not a good idea to do that anyway. Once a document needs to be submitted in a .docx format, I don’t bring it back into the LaTeX workflow after having Pandoc-transformed it to MS Word for submission (like a journal article submission), unless my final output will be a PDF I typeset myself (such as my thesis where I manually rework it to integrate the feedback).
  2. Footnotes are difficult to distinguish from the main text. A quick solution for this could be to separate them from the main text using linebreaks (single linebreak in LaTeX isn’t visible in the output PDF) or using comments right after the end of the sentence (such as “.% ” then linebreak, then footnote). But yeah, they are difficult to distinguish. But I usually don’t read my LaTeX document. I compile to PDF to read and find specific footnotes in the .tex source using the search function.
  3. How can I cite multiple sources in one footnote? You can use \footcites[cf.][99]{Knuth1985}[also cf.][55]{Knuth1990} to add multiple sources. If you only cite them without page numbers \footcite{Knuth1985,Knuth1990}will work, too, but don’t forget the final s in \footcites if you need more than one!
  4. Send me your fears and questions and I will try to list quick fix answers here!

Further relevant sources on this blog will continue to be gathered in the LaTeX for PhD category. If you’re convinced and now would like to know how to get started, check out: How to get started using LaTeX for academic writing? A book review of “S. Kottwitz, LaTeX Beginner’s Guide (2nd ed., Packt 2021)


the Ninja


  1. Further great resources: Using LaTeX for Structure in 10 reasons for using LaTeX and Debunking 6 LaTeX myths.

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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