Advice for writing LaTeX documents
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README.md Add SCons in list of build automation utilities Jul 15, 2018

README.md

Advice for writing LaTeX documents

Introduction

If you're writing a scientific book, a paper, or a thesis in computer science, engineering, mathematics, physics or a related field, it pays to write it using LaTeX, especially if your work contains formulas, symbols, and heavy cross referencing. Here is advice for doing so, collected over decades of writing hundreds of papers and books, mostly using LaTeX.

Note that this list is not intended to provide advice on English writing style, scientific writing, or TeX programming. There are many other excellent guides for all these topics.

Contributions via GitHub pull requests are always welcomed.

Put the document under version control

  • Create a repository for your document and add to it all the document's source code. This can live on GitHub if you plan to work with others or want to keep a copy on another server, or it can be a local Git repository you create with git init.
  • Do not include in the repository generated files, such as the formatted PDF document, compiled bibliographies, or PDF charts generated from R or Python scripts. Instead, add Makefile rules to automatically create these files at build time. Generated files needlessly increase the size of the repo, making it time-consuming to clone and fetch updates. They also pollute difference listings with immaterial changes.
  • Commit your changes to the repository in logical chunks using meaningful commit messages.
  • When you remove text, delete it completely, rather than commenting it out. The version control system will keep track of it and your document will remain clean.
  • Tag the revisions you submit using annotated tag objects (git tag -a). This allows you to go back to specific versions when going over review comments, or when starting a version of a new publication venue. Push the tags to the online repository you're using so that all can see them (git push --tags).

Write readable and maintainable LaTeX source code

  • Treat the LaTeX source code with love and care as you would treat software code. You aim is to keep the source code readable and maintainable.
  • Avoid long lines, splitting text somewhere between column 60 and 70. (You can configure your editor to do this for you).
  • Start each phrase on a separate line, and further split a phrase according to its logical structure. Here is an example.
Obtaining metrics from large code bodies is difficult
for technical and operational reasons~\cite{Moc09,GS13}.
On the technical side,
code dependencies make it difficult to establish
the full context needed in order to parse and semantically analyse the code.
This is especially true for C code,
where the compilation depends on
system header files,
compiler-defined macros,
search paths, and
compile-time flags passed through the build process~\cite{Spi03r,LKA11,GG12}.
The operational reasons are associated with the required throughput,
though due to the relatively small number of releases we examined,
this was not a major issue in this study.
  • Splitting lines at the level of phrases and a sentence's logical structure offers you the following advantages.
    • It gives clean line differences of changes made between versions; a line change corresponds at most to a single phrase. (You can obtain difference listings on GitHub, or via git diff.) Clean differences make it easier to see what has changed and to merge changes of others when working as a group.
    • It makes it easy to rearrange the order of sentences or the elements in a list, simply by moving lines around.
    • It gives you with a second (a structural) view of your document, which nicely complements the flowed typeset view that LaTeX generates. This provides you with additional opportunities to spot and fix syntax, grammar, and style mistakes. For example, this allows you to spot inconsistent or repetitive structure in a paragraph's sentences.
  • Use comments (sequences starting with %) to indicate the key idea of each paragraph or section.
  • Use comment keywords, such as XXX or TODO, to indicate places where more work is needed.
  • Write LaTeX code and configure your editor so that you can fold sections and paragraphs. This shall allow you to inspect your document's structure as an outline. If needed, add fold marks in comments (e.g. % {{{2) to facilitate this. For example, if your document's structure is in sections and subsections, these would be level-1 and level-2 folds. You would then start each paragraph with a level-3 fold comment, such as the following.
% Advantages of model-based development {{{3
  • Avoid splitting short documents (such as a journal or conference paper) into multiple files (e.g. introduction.tex, methods.tex, results.tex, conclusions.tex). Such splitting makes it difficult to work perform a number of tasks with your editor:

    • overview the material's composition (e.g. the balance of the sections' length),
    • globally search or search and replace a particular term, and
    • move matter from one section to another.

    When the document is split, these tasks require you to switch from one file to another or to use external tools. Feel free to split longer documents (such as a book or a thesis) in order to shorten a project's long build and loading time.

Automate the document build

Ensure that the document can be built with a single command, and that files that are out of date are appropriately rebuilt. This saves you from repeatedly executing multiple commands, makes it easier to work as a team, and avoids the accidental use of outdated files. You have three options here.

  • You can use the Unix make command. It's available out of the box, but expressing the need for multiple passes over your document is difficult, so you may end up processing the document more often than needed.
  • A second alternative is latexmk, which comes bundled with most LaTeX distributions. See this StackExchange answer for a complete example.
  • A third alternative is the use of BSD Owl scripts, as documented here. Both latexmk and BSD Owl will help you create clean and functional build setups. Choose the one that is easier to install on your system and matches your taste.
  • A fourth alternative is SCons. SCons' configuration files, typically named SConstruct, are Python scripts. One such is demonstrated here. You may find a short overview of supported commands/packages here.

Use Continuous Integration

Once you have automated your build, you are ready for the next step: CI for LaTeX documents! Executing an automated build on every commit allows you to easily spot accidentally forgotten auxiliary files such as images or tables. You can also easily isolate changes that broke the build and that are sometimes hard to debug later. Moreover, it creates a defined way to build your project that every collaborator can rely on.

Thanks to travis-ci-latex-pdf, there is a ready-made solution for Travis CI that you just need to copy into your project to get started.

Automate the management of bibliographic references

  • Create one or more centrally-managed bibliography files for your work, and list those in a \bibliography command in all documents you write.

  • Using BibTeX or Biber you can then automatically create the document's list of references in the style prescribed by the publisher.

  • Use \cite commands to reference specific bibliographic entries.

  • If you need to reference a specific page or chapter, include this information in square brackets before the key. For example, write: … educational use~\cite[p.~8]{LR89}.

  • If your publisher requires in-text author-year citations, use the natbib package in conjunction with the \citet, \citep, and \citeauthor commands. For example, write:

    • \citet{jon90} proposed … to get Jones et al. (1990) proposed …
    • Another argument \citep{jon90} … to get Another argument (Jones et al., 1990) ….
    • As \citeauthor{jon90} argued … to get As Jones argued … (e.g. on a subsequent mention in the same paragraph).
  • If you copy-paste a BibTeX entry from a digital library, edit it carefully to ensure a consistent high-level of quality.

    • Write the title using title capitalization, e.g. write The Elements of Programming Style, rather than The elements of programming style. This ensures that the title will appear correctly if a particular bibliography style requires title capitalization.
    • Put a title's characters that should always be capitalized in braces, e.g. The {C} Programming Language, or Fifty Years of {M}oore's Law. This ensures these characters will not be converted to lowercase in bibliography styles that do not require title capitalization.
    • Use a consistent format for referring to conferences, for example, {ICSE} '08: Proceedings of the 30th International Conference on Software Engineering. It would be a mistake to use a different format, e.g. 12th Working Conference on Mining Software Repositories (MSR 2015), Proceedings of in another entry.
    • Specify an em-dash or en-dash where required, e.g. The Entity-Relationship Model---Toward a Unified View of Data or The Evolution of {C} Programming Practices: A Study of the {U}nix Operating System 1973--2015.
    • Use LaTeX special characters for authors whose names contain non-ASCII characters, e.g. author = {Yann-Ga\"{e}l Gu\'{e}h\'{e}neuc and Herv\'{e} Albin-Amiot}. This change may not be required if you are using Biber, provided that the digital library correctly provides the author names in Unicode.
  • Use consistent, easily derivable, short names for your bibliography entries. One practical scheme is as follows.

    • The single author's surname first three letters, followed by the last two year digits, e.g. Ker08 for an article published by Brian Kernighan in 2008.
    • Up to four multi-author surname initials followed by the last two year digits, e.g. DMG07 for an article published by Duvall, Paul M. and Matyas, Steve and Glover, Andrew in 2007.
    • The lettera, b, c, etc appended to the above keys in the case of clashes.

    Through this scheme you can easily search for an existing entry in your bibliography files and saved articles, because you can quickly derive the key used. Also this scheme will help you avoid duplicate entries, because they corresponding keys will clash.

  • If you save the PDF document associated with a bibliography entry in your files, name it using the entry's key, e.g. LR89.pdf.

  • If you print (or photocopy) a document associated with a bibliography entry, write the corresponding key on its top right corner. This will help you reference it in your work. You can also use this key to file the printout so that you can find it in the future.

Use style files

Conference organizers and publishers often supply style files that determine the appearance and formatting of a document and its references. Download them and use them. Seeing your document in its published look boosts your motivation, helps you appreciate how your readers will experience it, and minimizes rework by forcing you to comply with the publisher's requirements while you develop your document.

Use third-party LaTeX packages

You can obtain many formatting goodies by incorporating into your document third-party LaTeX packages. Most LaTeX distributions provide a package management system that simplifies the installation and maintenance of packages. Here are some popular LaTeX packages your may want to know about.

  • algorithmicx: Display good-looking pseudocode
  • amsmath, amssymb: AMS mathematical facilities
  • amsthm: Typesetting theorems (AMS style)
  • booktabs: Publication quality tables
  • cite: Improved citation handling
  • fancyhdr: Extensive control of page headers and footers
  • geometry: Flexible and complete interface to document dimensions
  • hyperref: Extensive support for hypertext
  • listings: Typeset source code listings
  • minted: Typeset source code listings with highligthing
  • natbib: Flexible bibliography support
  • PGF/TikZ: Create PostScript and PDF graphics
  • setspace: Set space between lines
  • siunitx: A comprehensive (SI) units package
  • url: Verbatim with URL-sensitive line breaks
  • xcolor: Driver-independent color extensions
  • xspace: Define commands that appear not to eat spaces
  • cleveref: Intelligent cross-referencing

Avoid explicit formatting

  • Avoid the use of explicit formatting within the text. Instead, use commands that specify why your text should be formatted in a special way. For example, rather than specifying a large bold font, use \section and rather than specifying italic text use \emph.
  • If your document requires that particular text should be formatted in a special way, declare a new command or environment to format it. This will allow you to easily adjust the formatting throughout the document. For example, the following command sets a document's finding in boldface
\newcommand{\finding}[1]{\textbf{#1}}

while the following environment declaration will list a software's license in a small font keeping its formatting.

\newenvironment{license}{\verbatim\scriptsize}{\normalsize\endverbatim}

Mathematics

  • Set all math, including formulas, stand-alone math symbols, and negative numbers in LaTeX's math mode. See the following example, which includes a little-known formula and in-text references to its elements.
\[
E = mc^2
\]
This formula states that the equivalent energy ($E$)
can be calculated as the mass ($m$) multiplied
by the speed of light ($c$) squared.
  • Use balanced \left and \right commands to markup (balanced) bracketing elements. This ensures that the elements will be correctly sized, according to the formula they include. For example, write \left(\cos(x) + i \sin(x)\right)^n.
  • Use special markup for character sequences math mode. LaTeX assumes an implicit multiplication in character sequences it encounters in math mode, and sets the text with corresponding spacing.
    • If the characters indicate one of LaTeX-supported operators then use that operator command, e.g. \mod, \max, or \sin.
    • If the characters indicate an unsupported operator, declare it using the amsmath command \DeclareMathOperator, e.g. \DeclareMathOperator{\sha}{sha}.
    • If the characters indicate a multi-character variable name, set it in italics or roman using e.g. \mathit{Delta} or \mathrm{Delta}.
  • Indent elements and break lines in order to express the logical structure of the formula you are writing. For example, write:
F_{n} =
  \cfrac{1}{\sqrt{5}} \left(\cfrac{1 + \sqrt{5}}{2}\right)^n -
  \cfrac{1}{\sqrt{5}} \left(\cfrac{1 - \sqrt{5}}{2}\right)^n
  • If you write a lot of math in LaTeX, acquaint yourself and follow A.J. Hildebrand's Top Ten List.

Use symbolic references

  • Mark sections, tables, figures, and equations using the \label command,   and reference them using the cleveref \Cref command.
  • Avoid referencing floating environments by name  (e.g. see Figure~\ref{fig:foo});\Cref can create that for you:  see~\Cref{fig:foo}.
  • Use self-descriptive label names. For example, use tab:statResults rather than  table1. Use the tab: prefix when labelling tables, the fig: prefix  when labelling figures, and the sec prefix  when labelling sections.

Tables

  • Avoid the use of rules (\hline and |) in tables. They are unsightly and this is the reason you will rarely see them in professionally typeset books.
  • Specify the alignment of numbers to the right, text to the left, and single symbols on the center.
  • When listing numbers with a decimal point align them on the decimal point. You can easily do this by using the siunitx package.
  • Use hard tabs before each column's & separator to start each column's data on the same LaTeX source document column. See the following example.
tr -cs  & 1     & \X    & --    & \V    & 1 \\
sort w  & 0     &       & --    & \X    & 0 \\
fmt     & 1     & \X    & --    & \V    & 1 \\
tr A-Z  & 1     & \V    & 1     &       & 1 \\
sort -u & fmt   & \X    & --    & \V    & 1 \\
  • If the column labels are too long, start them on separate lines, keeping the columns aligned with the data. Example:
% Column labels
Command and options
        & Input requirements
                & Matched
                        & Connected
                                & Matched
                                        & Connected \\
\hline
% Data
tr -cs  & 1     & \X    & --    & \V    & 1 \\
sort w  & 0     &       & --    & \X    & 0 \\
...

Figures

  • Use vector rather than bitmap images. So, avoid including a .jpeg or .png image if you can include a PDF created from vector data, e.g. by direct export from Inkscape or GraphViz or by converting an .svg file.
  • Use the same font in all your figures. This need to be the same font as the one you use for the document's text, it could be a sans-serif one, but it should be the same e.g. in charts and diagrams.
  • Ensure figure fonts are scaled to match the size of the document's font. Eyeballing is often enough. For exact measurements you have two options. If you scale the figure by an explicit amount (e.g. 1 or 0.5) you should use a font of the corresponding size (e.g. 11 points or 22 points). If you scale the figure by an arbitrary amount to match the document's column width, , you can load the resultant PDF in Inkscape and measure the font size there.

Floats

  • Allow large displayed elements (figures, tables, listings) to have a floating position by using a figure or table environment.
  • Put floats in your document before your first reference to them.
  • Use \centering within a figure or table environment to center its contents. This avoids the extra space introduced by the center environment.
  • Don't sweat too much about float positioning while writing. If your write for a journal, this will be handled during production; if you will provide a camera-ready version, leave this for the last minute.

Typography

  • Be consistent in the rules you follow. Some style guides offer contradicting advice, e.g. regarding the placement of footnotes before or after punctuation or the spacing around the em-dash. This isn't a license to randomly use both the one or the other alternative within the document. Adopt your publisher's style or consistently follow the same rule throughout your document.
  • Use three dashes (---) to create the em-dash, which separates parenthetical phrases. According to the Chicago Manual of Style (2.13), an em-dash has no space before or after it. (Note that The Associated Press Stylebook specifies spacing.)
  • Use two dashes (--) to create an en-dash. Use this to specify number ranges, e.g. 2009--2015.
  • Use \dots to produce an ellipsis (...) punctuation symbol.
  • Put footnotes after punctuation symbols, unless your publisher's style specifies otherwise. For example, write … is true.\footnote{See also …}
  • Avoid underlined text. Underlining is used for emphasis in handwritten text and was also carried over in this capacity in typewritten documents. With modern printers and software you don't need to underline, because you can use a different font style (bold or italic) for emphasis.
  • Avoid sequences of uppercase text. Text written in all-uppercase characters is an eyesore and considerably more difficult to read than its lowercase equivalent. Lowercase letters have been designed for easy reading, uppercase were originally designed for easy chiseling on stone.
  • Use small caps rather than an unsightly sequence of capital letters for writing abbreviations. For example, write \textsc{sql}, rather than SQL. Note that some publishers do not follow this style. If you are supplying the final camera ready version (e.g. for conference proceedings), use small caps. If a publisher will edit your document and the publisher does not use small caps, avoid their use; a common frustrating mistake is for publishers to remove the \textsc command, without writing the text in uppercase.
  • Display pseudo-code using the algorithmicx package and environment. See this wikibooks entry for more details.
  • Display source code snippets using the listings (simpler) or the minted (nicer, but with extra dependencies) package. Make sure your code does not go over the paragraph length; if it does, adjust line breaking and/or font size accordingly.

LaTeX formatting

  • Don't spend too much time on formatting your document. Concentrate on communicating your ideas and on making your document maintainable. Excessive formatting tweaks can be counterproductive: you waste time implementing them and your publisher may find it more difficult to use your document.
  • Use a tilde before \cite \ref etc. to avoid a line break immediately before the reference. For example, write Some also use logging statements~\cite{Spi06e}.
  • Put a backslash after a non-sentence ending period to ensure this will not be followed by the period-ending spacing. For example, write In 1962 Watson et al.\ famously found …
  • Match opening and closing quotes using one or two single-opening ( or ‘‘) and single-closing ( or ’’) quote characters. Do not use the keyboard's double quote symbol (").
  • Use the new local font style commands (e.g. \texttt{}, \textsc{}, or \textbf{}) rather than the old switches (e.g. {\tt }, {\sc }, {\bf })
  • To obtain a PDF document with the widely available Times/Helvetica/Courier font set, rather than the LaTeX, less widely used, Computer Modern fonts, use the following packages.
\usepackage{mathptmx}
\usepackage[scaled=.90]{helvet}
\usepackage{courier}

Enforce all of the above

CI enthusiasts will want to include the ChkTeX linter into their build process, which checks documents for certain LaTeX anti-patterns, like the use of ... instead of the typographically correct \dots or other such violations. Users can define their own rules, too, for example to enforce consistency in the spelling of certain phrases. Now it is up to you to create ChkTeX rules to enforce the guidelines in this document ... (if you do, would you mind sharing?)

See also

License

Creative Commons License

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