How to quit MS Word for good

This post I want to dedicate to the pressing question of how to live without Word in the Word-filled environment of Academia where Word lurks behind every tree and jumps at you when you’re not paying attention.

Do you actually enjoy this eternal distraction of a non-working text editor? Well, I don’t. And even though it’s not actually a good tool (if you’re being honest with yourself, deep down in your heart, you know I’m right), it has infested the world (not only of Academia).


How the story begins…

At some point, now over a year ago, I decided that I wanted to quit MS Word once and for all. I had hoped to do that before but every single time, I had came up with about a million excuses why I just couldn’t. Probably kind of like you are now already preparing your counter arguments as to why that might work for me but it sure as hell is completely impossible for you. You can’t survive in your workplace without Word because everyone’s using it.

Like Tim Ferriss, I want to invite you reflect on this Mark Twain quote now and better yourself:

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” – Mark Twain

The impossibility of quitting Word? Rehab.

Think of this post as your rehab where you can get sober once and for all. And I’ll provide you with answers to a few key problems which you might encounter during the process to make sure you stay sane.

I got fed up with Word so much that at some point, I wanted to quit but wasn’t sure it would actually be possible to get rid of it for good. Everybody was using it. How was I going to communicate or collaborate with my Word-loving colleagues? But I had really had it with Word and it needed to go. Because, you know, Word really is like drugs – it’s not good for you but you keep using it. I needed to break the habit. And, believe it or not, I have lived a happy, Word-free life for over a year now.

Transitioning to full-time LaTeX

So as this blog is called “The LaTeX Ninja”, of course, I urge you to quit Word in favour of LaTeX. “But that will everything take forever”, you say. What if I need to take a quick note? Well, as you might remember from somewhere way back in the past you most certainly have some basic text editor or notepad tools already installed on your system. It’s just that you never use it. But isn’t that exactly for that purpose of taking quick notes? You can still use that. Or just make it a habit to always use LaTeX. I also started that habit a while ago (for documents where I want some visual structure, highlight something, make lists, etc.) and really, you learn those few commands by heart so fast. Just make a mini project to commit to taking all your notes with LaTeX for two days (where you preferably don’t have important meetings where it’s vital you can keep up with your note-taking).

So if you say this will slow you down, that’s a blatant lie. Taking your hands off the keyboard to take the mouse, select and click to make something bold definitely takes longer than just writing it. If you’re using keyboard shortcuts, congrats you’re an advanced user. So you don’t have an excuse why you can’t learn a text editor like VIM which provides some auto-completion for LaTeX. No more excuses.

A side-effect of transitioning to LaTeX completely will be accelerated learning of LaTeX, since you will be forced to look things up and learn new concepts regularly. So if your goal is to become an advanced LaTeX user, I can tell you one thing – your progress will be exceptionally slow if you never expose yourself to having to rely on LaTeX. If you always use Word, your LaTeX skills won’t get better at a steady pace.

Problem 1: I sometimes work on computers without LaTeX installed and no rights to install anything

Working on a computer that doesn’t have LaTeX? It’s horrifying, I know. Yes, it’s a disaster. I tend to get panic attacks and so on, but hey – thank God there’s Overleaf, the tool that allows you to compile LaTeX even from weird, Word-infested computers, if they only have internet.

Problem 2: But I need to see what my text will look like while writing.

No, actually you don’t. You’re just so used to Word or Word-style WYSIWYG editors that you don’t remember anything else. The tools we use shape how we think and work. With Word being a tool which suggests to its users that they are so apt at typesetting that they should do it. Info: No, you shouldn’t, unless you’re a qualified professional. So, if typesetting really isn’t your job, you totally don’t need to see what the typeset final output will look like. Just focus on the fucking content. That’s your job.

Like typewriters, or an actual notebook and a pen, LaTeX is just a different medium. You were ok using a pen, weren’t you? That’s a different medium too. When you transitioned from analogue notebook to MS Word, that was a transition, too. And you mastered it. If you’re old enough, you might remember typewriters. There you didn’t have much control over how your output looked like either. Other than instant-typesetting Word, typewriters required you to write out the manuscript by hand, on paper, so you wouldn’t screw up too many times when actually typing it out. That was a completely different style of working. It took more time and precision. You had to pause and reflect before acting. So maybe transitioning to a new way of doing things will make you more aware than just typing away in Word where you write on auto-pilot. If you’re someone who needs nice looking output: transition to LaTeX. If you’re a knowledge worker: Congratulations, your professional worth is not determined by how fast you create content but by how good it is. Using a tool that takes a little longer to type it out forces you to reflect more and will up your awareness. Win-win! Transition to LaTeX.

You don’t need Word. You’re just addicted to the Word way of life and I want you to quit and live a happier life in the long run – you’ll thank me later. Especially should you ever come to have some advanced typesetting needs. Like a 500 page PhD thesis in Archaeology with 2000 images. Or the honour of editing conference proceedings is bestowed upon you. Start learning the skills now, save time and tears in the future. Thank me later.

Problem 3: Everybody else uses Word – how will I be able to communicate?

The conversion routine, part 1: Pandoc

Just use a PanDoc conversion whenever you feel like sharing. It works as follows (and more info can be found in the PanDoc demos):

pandoc main.tex --smart --bibliography=literature.bib -S -o output.docx

This means that Pandoc will use your main .tex document as a source and pandoc-citeproc (the citation plugin) will use literature.bib as the bibliography file. -o means that output.docx will be the name of the output. However, please note that a) you have to install both pandoc and pandoc-citeproc for this to work and b) this is a very generic transformation. If you have custom commands or citation styles in your document, these elements will not be correct in the output. So if you already know you’ll have to hand in a document as .docx, just don’t do anything complicated. The citation might not come out the way you’ll need it but for a normal length paper, this doesn’t take more than 10 minutes to correct (and you’d have to check your citations before handing it in anyway – at least I assume you, as a good scientist, hopefully, always do that…). Use search and replace wisely. If you need to hand in author-year style, the big changes to be made are going to be only in the bibliography anyway.

Part 2: Manipulating and sharing documents with GoogleDocs (version control included)

Then, once this is done, you are just one more final step away from the bliss of Word-free life: Sell your soul to Google, so you can use Google Docs. Now, open a new document and import output.docx. Now you can do all your editing (without Libre Office messing everything with their .odts) and download in the requested file format (probably .docx). Also, in case you didn’t know, GoogleDocs has a footnote plugin you have to add manually (Add-ons > Get Add-ons > Footnote Style). Once this is done, you can mark any footnote and say something like “apply this style to all footnotes”. This will come in very useful because GoogleDocs don’t automatically support batch editing multiple footnotes at once.

Plus, the benefit of the “comment”, “share” and “track changes” (version control) features GoogleDocs provides. This even allows you to collaborate with version control while multiple contributors work on the same document simultaneously. No more “Document-1”, “Document-1-1”, “Document-1-correction”, “Document-1-final”, “Document-1-final-revision”. Who the hell is supposed to remeber which one is the current version? Get version control. Overleaf also has version control by the way. You can use any version control tool you want when working with LaTeX. Version control might still be a strange and scary topic if you’re a non-technical person. But it’s really no big deal and I’ll explain it in some other post. Also, for tools I suggested, like GoogleDoc or Overleaf, you don’t need to know shit. Thank God!

You still think you can’t live without Word in your life? If I managed to quit Word for good, so can you. And just so you know: I never regretted it for a second. Now I can’t imagine how people even live with Word in their lives.


your LaTeX Ninja


PS: If you think using LaTeX would slow you down, see this post on Typing fast in LaTeX.


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Learning “Advanced LaTeX” – The LaTeX Ninja Project

I had been using LaTeX for 5+ years and had always wanted to “do more”. But somehow I never did. The LaTeX Ninja was not a label I put on myself – it was a goal. I wanted to become a LaTeX Ninja and I wrote it down in my notebook.

The plan

Just before Christmas this year, I rediscovered that old piece of paper.
I had been working in Paris at the time and I had already typeset one book with LaTeX but was no further along the path of the LaTeX adept than I had been when the idea of “wanting to become a LaTeX Ninja” had first crossed my mind. Then, that summer when I was working in Paris, I decided: if I ever wanted things to happen, I had to put my plans into action.

So during my last week in Paris, I started diving into what I want to call “Advanced LaTeX” (see [THIS POST] for reviews of learning materials for “Advanced LaTeX” and the discussion of what that might even mean).
The problem with this term, as you will learn, is that it is not at all being used in a uniform way. There are quite some tutorials claiming to “teach Advanced LaTeX”. But none of them really do in my opinion. I wanted to become a LaTeX superuser, but – as I was about to learn – there aren’t exactly many resources there to help.

The journey begins

So I had to learn the hard way with hours wasted on Stackoverflow, debugging my own shitty code. (Which is probably what you deserve for writing shitty code anyways, but that’s another subject). Then again, there weren’t any resources out there that systematically taught how to become an advanced LaTeX user. Often you would come across tips which were incorrect (only to find out about it after 5 hours of debugging).
Or there happened to be some useful advice but written along the lines of “LaTeX gurus know that XY is bad, that’s why they do MN instead”. But somehow, one could never find out why exactly that was. But that was exactly the kind of stuff I needed to learn if I wanted to become a LaTeX ninja. Some useful info was indeed scatterd along the pages of StackOverflow but for most learners, learning it “the messy way” will result in “FATAL ERROR: journey aborted.” Faster than you can say “LaTeX”. If you are lucky enough to have decided already (after due consideration) how the fuck you want to pronounce it. See this post where I elaborate on the difficult topic of the pronounciation – it’s not as simple and clear as people want to make you believe it is.

So, when I had realized there weren’t any resources, I decided to start a tutorial blog to document my on way to becoming a LaTeX Ninja. And this is why you are here now, reading this. People seem to think that if you are interested in LaTeX, you either don’t want to use it in an advanced way or, if you do, you are a programmer and very well able to teach yourself. Well, yeah. Right. (Also, I don’t really agree that learning only from practise and StackOverflow is the most wholesome way to learn, but for now be on lookout for another ramblings post on that).  This is probably why such a lot of LaTeX code one can find online is super ugly, in no way understandable code. It sometimes “sounds” like it’s written in Java, C or whatever the person’s “native” programming language is.


The roots: A CV template

But back to the story. Back then, that summer in Paris, I tought here was such a beauty to LaTeX. Not in the “simple” maths-freak/technician-kind-of-way but in a way more universal one. You could really do some serious typesetting and even, to some degree graphic design with LaTeX, I began to realize. So it happened, that I decided to create my own CV template just because there was creativity involved. The nice CV templates out there proved that LaTeX didn’t need to be beautiful in this “technician kind of way”, it could just be up-to-date cool modern style. That’s what I wanted to be able to create.

The obstacle: Scarce resources and ugly code

Before I was ready, however, I had to work thorugh tons of not-very-readable code. Back then I just thought I was too incompetent to grasp what these alleged LaTeX gurus had written, but then I realized that a lot of it was just not written in a good readable way. At some point “variables” were initialized like in other programming languages. One particular bit of code took me hours to understand until I plucked up the courage to say “Well, I think this probably is just badly written. It works, but it’s not good LaTeX”. That’s when I finally knew I was on the right path to becoming a LaTeX superuser. Yep, being confident enough to admit that – all while completely understanding somebody else’s code – I dare to judge it “bad code” was quite an achievement, coming from a non-programming background.

The goal: Good readable code

But it was also the moment I realized one thing: if I wanted to help others, I would have to write good readable code, in good LaTeX coding style. So I try my best to do that. If you are, in fact, a LaTeX Guru and have some style suggestions, corrections and so on, I would be very happy about your feedback so we can help aspiring LaTeX Ninjas in the best possible way!

What is required to become “Advanced”?

I now know one thing for sure: Some of the intricacies of Advanced LaTeX are just difficult to learn as, mostly – in my now present but certainly limited experience – you have to wade your way through lots of documentation to find the bits of gold. And you need to have in-depth working knowledge of the most important, most frequent packages if you want to walk the path of the LaTeX Ninja. Fear not, I will be here for you. That’s a subject for another post (to come). Enough for today with this somewhat personal addendum.

Seeing as I originally come from literary studies and really can’t hold it in: Please admire the wonderful circularity in the story I just wrote down. As I am writing this, I look out the seaside on some yachts in the south of France. It started in Paris, I am back to France now, but about to leave yet again. Looking forward to an exciting 2019!

So if you’re in for new years resolutions and good intentions and now want to become a LaTeX Ninja too, I would be happy if you joined me in the quest 😉

the LaTeX Ninja

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