Why you might not want to use Word in the first place…

In my last post I talked about how to use MS Word properly for reports.  However, for any report more than than a few pages long with a few references, equations and pictures MS Word starts getting cumbersome to use. Placing pictures in a huge report is generally very irritating. It never stays where you want it and sometimes it just disappears from the page altogether.In fact, the difficulty in putting in figures is the best reason to not use Word.  Refering to specific chapters or sections or figures can be difficult. Restructuring the report messes everything. And in a report of a reasonable size , this is bound to happen.

Much more importantly, when you write a report in Word, you’re constantly thinking of how things should look and where they should come, the fonts to use and the styles to use. If you don’t, you’re most likely going to have to restructure a lot after you’ve written everything and this will lead to the same problems I said earlier.  Also, while most people do have office, or at least some software like Pages or Writer that converts the docx files to a “usable” format, a “usable” format almost never looks like it does in Word also there are (increasingly) a lot of people who don’t use Word.

LaTeX is an alternative I’d suggest. Firstly, Latex isn’t for everyone. It’s plain irritating to use if you’re new to it and just writing something small.  But for anything like a thesis or your final year report or your dissertation, LaTeX is the way to go.

In latex, you simply write the text in a generic text file called a .tex file and typeset it using Latex to get a PDF file. The tex file can be opened anywhere on any system since it’s simply a text file. You don’t care about the content and placement, you simply write your content and put in references for images. Latex takes care of putting images properly and getting your references to figures correct. Writing equations is made easy and the equations look beautiful. In fact your whole report looks beautiful and very very professional. Page numbers, tables of content, bibliographies, etc. can be generated with a single command and their formats and styles can be changed easily. Most conferences specify their prefered style and to change styles is as simple as writing a single command or copying a few lines from the specified format.

I won’t go into details here since there are a lot of resources online for this. But I would just like to ask everyone with at least some time to spare to try it. Most resources on setting up latex are just a google or bing search away. Do contact me if you want any help/advice on starting using latex or if you want a few templates to get you started (I’ll upload them anyway, when I get a little time). A few resources to get you started:

http://www.osnews.com/story/10766 : An excellent , slightly long article on why you might want to use latex and also provides a hello world and other basic stuff in latex…

http://www.stdout.org/~winston/latex/latexsheet.pdf : a cheat sheet for latex necessary for anyone using latex regularly.

http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/LaTeX : A comprehensive and detailed wiki about everything you might want to know in latex.

http://ftp.itb.ac.id/pub/CTAN/info/lshort/english/lshort.pdf : A not so short introduction to latex.

http://www.ats.ucla.edu/stat/latex/ : A bunch of links for latex.

Writing reports in Microsoft Word

Almost all students use MS Word. At NTU, it is almost the only word processing software that students use for writing reports, even PhD students. I would recommend any student with at least a few hours to spare to give Latex a try; it’s totally and completely worth it. However I’ll talk about Latex another time. For now, I would like to talk about ensuring a certain minimum standard for the reports made in MS Word. Most people have no clue of the capabilities of Word and don’t make use of some of the brilliant built-in tools that could both make things more convenient and also much neater.

Even though I’ve always been a big fan of the MS Office suite, I hardly use MS Word these days. I actually stopped using word just over a year and a half back after shifting to latex. I’ve hardly tried Pages or Writer so I can’t comment on how good they are. The last time I tried Writer was too long back for me to comment anything on its current state and not make a fool of myself. So most of these guidelines are specifically for Word users.

  1. Use Justify alignment, 1.5 – 2 line spacing and a font size of at least 9 or 10 depending on the font chosen. Bigger sizes and smaller sizes both make documents either childish looking or too hard to read. And make sure that you use the same font and styling throughout the document. Use some simple font and not something fancy/ weird, especially not comic sans.
  2. Make use of the inbuilt formatting tools. For you chapter headings choose “heading 1” for section headings use “heading 2” and for subsections use “heading 3” . This will ensure uniformity and allow you to easily navigate through the side bar in office 2011 and also helps autogenerate the table of contents. Apply the styles whenever possible even to normal text. This way, to change the style of the document you can just choose one of the styles provided by word or if you want you can create your own custom styles.
  3. Use footers to generate page numbers.
  4. Always do a spell check but don’t always trust the spell checker. Try switching off the autocorrect and work because quite often it makes ridiculous corrections that you hate.
  5. For equations and symbols use the in-built equation and symbol formatter. This is very irritating and slow to use and the quality of rendering is nowhere near as good as in Latex. However, it is very much better than typing out equations which should never be done unless there is no other choice
  6. Insert captions for figures and tables. They should automatically be updated. In case this doesn’t happen, I think it can be done by selecting the whole text and pressing F9.
  7. Use the in-built reference management tool provided in Word. If not, at least use Endnote or Mendeley plugins. I haven’t tried these, but I’m sure they’ll definitely be better than manually ending references. General most references require you to keep a track of the author, year of publication and the journal, website or whatever the source of the article is. Page numbers should also preferably be included. Word provides a relatively easy method of entering these data.
  8. Generate table of contents and bibliography automatically. This will ensure everything keeps updated and more often than not gives a relatively neat output.
  9. Keep saving your work constantly. Preferably keep the report you’re working on in a Dropbox folder. Besides making the document available everywhere and making a reliable back up. Dropbox’s in-built versioning system makes it easy to shift back to earlier versions of your document.
Some general report guidelines:
  1. Write a structure first before starting directly on the text. First write the chapter-wise organisation. Then write down the section organisation and then what you will talk about in each section. Each paragraph should make sense. Each section should be summarized at the end and there should be a smooth logical flow to the next section
  2. Always adhere to the word limit. If you can convey all your ideas in lesser words and pages then you’re more likely to impress your examiner. Using more words generally shows a lack of clarity of the concepts.
  3. Keep figures either at the top or the bottom of a page and always refer to figures in the text.
  4. Have page numbers at the bottom or top of page.
  5. Don’t change font size or spacing from specified value. If you really need more space in the page go to page setup and change the margin sizes.
  6. Always reread your report. If possible get someone else to read it for you. Taking a printout and reading is a very effective way of finding out deficiencies in the documents
  7. Unless you are specifically asked to submit a word document, convert the file to a pdf file. This makes it neater and much more accessible to the professor.
  8. Wherever possible use diagrams, charts, etc. to explain your ideas.

These are just some of the points that come to mind. The two documents below show a lot of much more detailed guidelines for users using Word for their reports. I would recommend anyone writing an article in word to read at least one of them once.

1. www.jasonpang.net/reference/word_report.pdf : Fairly short, well written and extremely useful. Meant for Engineering students at the University of Waterloo.

2. http://www.brad.ac.uk/lss/documentation/word2007-long-document/word2007-long-document.pdf : Similar to above, but slightly more things are covered. I prefer the first one just because it’s much shorter.

Any other guidelines you can think of, please do comment…