LaTeX and LyX for (thesis) writing


​One of the first things I did after passing my PhD confirmation exercise (like a qualifying exam in the USA) was to research the best way to write my thesis. As a side note, I use the word ‘thesis’ to refer to any large written work, including a PhD, while other English speakers might use the word ‘dissertation’ to refer specifically to the work that a PhD student produces. In any case, the relevant information here is the term “large”, since I knew I was going to be writing a lot. I now consider the tools I’m writing about here to be essential for a productive workflow, and so this post continues the theme of an earlier post on linguistic tools.

In researching how to write my thesis, I asked friends and fellow linguists who had written grammatical descriptions. Most of them had used MS Word, and told me horror stories of lost work, un-editable documents due to the sheer size of their files, difficulties formatting and printing the thing, etc.. So that was out of the question for me, at least at the time (2011; I think more recent versions of MS Office may have fixed some of these issues). But one of them mentioned a program called LaTeX (the funny capitalization is actually part of the name), and that it made typesetting and organization a breeze. And it’s free! Which is pretty important to students (if not everyone).

So I checked it out, and ended up spending the next few months learning how to set it up on my computer and how to use it (I use MacTeX as the backend). I am fortunate that I have a little background in coding, because LaTeX is essentially a markup language. You write the text of what you want, formatting parts of it by using special combinations of characters and commands (or ‘tags’) that tell a program how to format them. Then you run a ‘compiler’ that outputs everything in the correct layout in a PDF. This is pretty brilliant, because it lets you (the writer) worry mostly about the content rather than the format. But learning how to fiddle with the code is rather time-consuming, so if you’re not a hardcore programmer (and I still don’t really consider myself one of the hardcore types) there is quite a learning curve. Worth it, but steep.

This is where a visual editor like LyX comes in. LyX is, pretty much out of the box, a simple way of interacting with your LaTeX code. It hides most of the code and offers formatting options, similar to MS Word or other word processors. Unlike them, however, you choose the general formatting parameters and let the backend handle the layout. You can also fiddle directly with the code if you need to, or add code to the front of the document for particular use cases, like a PhD cover page, interlinearized glossed text (IGT) examples, and more. Basically anything you need to add has probably been coded or figured out by someone, and if you’re a troubleshooter like me you can run a Google search and find forums (and contribute to some yourself) that deal with your particular problem or at least something similar. And the assistance you get can be pretty phenomenal.

LyX does take a bit of configuration, and I might write another post that explains how I set it up for my use case(s). But for now, I’ll just say that using LaTeX/LyX was one of the best decisions I made as a PhD student. It really simplified my writing process and allowed me to do so much more. Rather than spending the final month on formatting my thesis, I was writing and making final changes all the way up to the deadline. I probably wrote more, and re-organized the structure more, in the last month than I had in the previous three. And the text file that contains my 700+ pages of analysis, examples, and appendices is only ~6 MB. Possibly the greatest benefit was that LyX kept track of all my linked example sentences, and formatted them all properly. Once I got it set up this saved me days and weeks of man-hours. The learning curve was totally worth it.

In closing, if you are seriously considering using LaTeX/LyX, there’s lots of good articles about this online. Here’s one, and here’s a discussion on the topic, to get you started.