At your service: the merits of Overleaf

“It’s not what she said, it’s the way she said it”.

Most of us have heard this phrase before. In conversation, the delivery of a message is as important as its content. A PhD thesis is no different! While students and supervisors spend years on building the thesis content, we may neglect to discuss the method of delivery. What options are there? Word is a popular choice: neat and straightforward. However, I love the style and sophistication of LaTeX. In this post I’m going to demonstrate what LaTeX can do, and hopefully by the end you’ll consider it for your thesis too!

First: what is LaTeX?

LaTeX (usually pronounced “lay-tek”) is a sophisticated document typesetting program. That means it arranges a jumble of information (text, photos, graphs, tables, and references) into a single composition (a PDF document). Overleaf is an online LaTeX editor that is particularly easy to use. The best thing is the double screen, which allows you to arrange your text on the left and arrange, or compile, the printable PDF document on the right.

What is so "alternative" about this text?
Input typesetting on the left, output PDF document on the right

There are also templates for specific document formats: for instance, for a manuscript submitted to the Geophysical Research Letters (GRL) journal, or for a PhD thesis submitted to the University of Bristol (an example available here).

I’ve drawn the comic below to illustrate the differences between Word and LaTex, and why I prefer the latter. An explanation of the comic follows.

An analogy is a thought with another thought's hat on.
The LaTeX and Word workspaces. Word is straightforward, but do you want to change an image’s text wrapping and emerge with spaghetti sauce on your shirt?

To explain: imagine that you are entertaining sophisticated guests with an evening meal. You worry about the best way to elegantly present the dinner. In this scenario, your ‘meal’ is your thesis and your ‘guests’ are the examiners. A ‘waiter’ (a series of in-document commands) navigates the ‘kitchen’ (the typesetting program) before entering the dining room. You are, of course, the star of the show: the brilliant and talented head chef. Before presenting the meal to your guests, your waiter must arrange all the elements: plate it up, add cutlery and seasoning options, and add a finishing ornament. Ideally, they will present the meal in a graceful and stylish manner.

If Word is your kitchen, everything is laid out in a single room. Here we find the meal. Here also the waiter can set (out) the tables, colour the text, resize figures – everything necessary to finish your culinary masterpiece. Simple! Except, as we know with Word, sometimes things go wrong. A simple resizing of an image early in your document can have effects that cascade through the document.  The waiter knocks over the starter and enters the dining room, shame-faced, with spaghetti in their moustache.

Consider the LaTeX kitchen. This kitchen is actually a series of separate workspaces: pantry, scullery, kitchen, closet. The waiter begins by choosing a tray on which to arrange everything. Next, the structure is added: the right-sized plate, the correct number of forks. In Overleaf this is called the ‘preamble’ and will set out how the rest of the document looks. The LaTeX kitchen is located halfway to the dining room. Because the kitchen is here, the waiter collects the ‘main matter’ (the food) only when they already have the cutlery. After visiting the pantry, the kitchen, the scullery, and a discreet closet for extra flourishes, the waiter enters the dining room. They bear a delicious and exquisitely-presented meal aloft a tray, with all the right accoutrements and a dahlia in their lapel – just to show off.

I’ll admit this analogy is not perfect. But I think it illustrates the reason why LaTeX is so useful. LaTeX breaks typesetting into separate, manageable blocks. This allows you to work exclusively on one area (e.g., napkin folding), and it’s also much easier to isolate where things have gone wrong, as shown in the picture below.

The Overleaf error log is an extremely useful tool.
Such a useful error message! The top left-hand text gives you a shorthand explanation of the error. Top right-hand text (circled in blue) tells you where the error is. The text in white box tells you the error in detail, and offers suggestions to fix it. Red text below is an extra helping of sass.

So, LaTeX is great because it gives your document order. LaTeX is also great because it makes things beautiful. Below I’ve included some essential thesis elements, and included a slideshow to show how each element appears in Overleaf.

  • Pictures. Overleaf allows you to make cool figures either as single pictures or as a matrix of multiple images. You can include captions and figure labels that you can reference in your text.
  • Glossaries. Overleaf allows you to add in glossaries, whether acronyms or regular text. There’s a whole range of styles and formats, and you can easily highlight terms in-text to link to the glossary definition.
  • Tables. You can make really funky tables: different lines, rotated, with funky colour fill. Admittedly, tables are a fiddly aspect of LaTeX. If you have a Word document that you want to translate, you can ease some of the trouble using Tables Generator. Sadly, there will still be some work to do, especially if you’re including fat tables in your Appendices. Fair warning!
  • Footnotes. Not too different from Word, but more stylish.
  • Formulae. I find writing formulae very fiddly in Word. It’s much simpler in LaTeX, which is optimised for this exact purpose.
  • Cross-referencing. Cross-referencing is really easy. You can keep all your references in a separate .bib file, which then you reference in your main documents using a \cite{ref} command. Cross-referencing sections is also very easy, using a \ref{section} command. This allows you to move around your document like this:
  • Languages. You can include multiple languages with different accents, direction of writing, and alphabets. I’ve got Spanish, English, and Arabic in mine. A word of warning below!
  • Quotations. LaTeX will arrange these nicely.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A final word of warning: if you choose to use Overleaf, please be proactive in saving multiple versions of your document! Despite its many virtues, Overleaf is not infallible. (Or is that the person using it?) I had a major mishap last week when I included Arabic in my preamble (the structural bit). This somehow typeset the whole thesis in Arabic (?!) and I had to restore an earlier version, piece-by-piece. You can quite easily restore earlier versions of a document in Overleaf. Unfortunately for me, my thesis was by then so big that I had to download and reupload each chapter separately.

Can you read this?
An example of the power of the Babel package in Overleaf.

So, be careful. And happy typesetting!

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