Choosing the Best Tools for Writing Long-Form Documents (e.g. Thesis)

Just as a side note:

I wouldn’t ever write a thesis or any other longer text-centric document with Pages.

Pages isn’t a bad app. But it shines when it comes to fluently integrate text with graphics. I always see it like an easy to handle mixture of a Layout program (e.g. InDesign) and a word processor (e.g. Word): perfect for short documents (letters), also perfect for short image-based documents (flyers, maybe brochures).

Things like thesis, i.e. text-centric 100+ pages with numbered figures, index, index of figures, lots of cross references, footnotes, etc., I would write with a dedicated tool.

The good tool for these things is TeX. Currently there are two major macro languages available for TeX: LaTeX and ConTeXt. I prefer the latter by a large margin.

If you are not familiar with any of the TeX macro languages —and aren’t inclined to learn it—, then use a dedicated GUI word processor:

  • If you’re fine with MS Word, then use it (I don’t like it, but for this use-case it’s way better than Pages); otherwise
  • Nisus Writer Pro is a very capable word processor for the Mac
  • LibreOffice should do it also
  • Mellel has pretty good reviews for many years/decades (I haven’t tested it personally)

For long-form documents, I recommend trying Scrivener. You can download a free demo and try it for 30 days.

Scrivener combines text/word processing with powerful organizational tools. Look around on their site -- they have many endorsements from academics, researchers, novelists and screenwriters. Most people who try Scrivener find it to be somewhat transformative.

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I know Scrivener, and I like it. Basically. I didn’t mention it because it’s like a meta tool, rather then a processor. It handles RTF input as well as Markdown or Plain Text input. It assembles the things together and produces some fine (or less fine) output.

In other words: Scrivener is not a word processor on its own. (At least in my perception; please correct me, if I’m wrong.)

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Disclosure: I use Scrivener for screenwriting, and some long-form business documents. I have not used it for a dissertation.

That being said, Scrivener is a word processor, but not a page layout program. Many authors use Scrivener for final output to e-books, but it doesn't have the same feature set as Indesign. Nor is it intended to.

Many users write and format in Scrivener. A smaller subset write in Scrivener and then export to a design app to create the page layouts. it depends on what you are writing. The developers are very responsive. They also have an iOS app that can sync with your desktop.

Hope that helps.

OK, thanks for the info.

it doesn't have the same feature set as Indesign

InDesign is irrelevant here.

Disclosure: I use Scrivener for screenwriting,

Screenwriting —as far as I know_ doesn’t involve footnotes, cross references, indices of tables, figures, etc.

But, not obvious here, the original context of my post was about “thesis writing”.

The developers are very responsive.

I can confirm this.

The funny thing is, I (in theory) like scrivener, though, ironically, I haven’t written a single book with it. (I have written (and typesetted) many books, mainly user manuals, with TeX, namely ConTeXt.)

+1 for Mellel – I find it excellent

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Are you actually using it?

(I tried it once, 10 years ago or so, it was pretty fine, but I had no place for it.)

Yes, as stated, if you look at their website, there are many academics who like and use Scrivener.

The long-form business documents often involve footnotes, citations and other supplementary information. Albeit not to the extent of a scientific thesis, but enough to know that Scrivener can be useful in that context.

I wasn't disputing your recommendations, merely offering an alternative that I and other users find useful.

Thanks for the infos!

Yes, not least because of some bilingual requirements.

For work I’m using mainly ConTeXt for longish documents, based on consistent environments (configs). However I’m always looking for capable GUI word processing apps, for shorter adhoc documents with individual layout requirements (off-template documents).

In many cases it is more efficient to do those documents with a GUI app, instead of setting up a one-time TeX config.

Last time I tried Mellel (many years ago) I was very pleased with the program, but —IIRC— the surprising point was that it was impossible to have correctly automatically numbered figures with the number appearing in the caption box (as usual), i.e. something very basic and essential.

Does this work now?

(Currently I’m using Nisus Writer for such documents. Great program with only minor flaws, but, somehow, I can’t get rid of the impression that the company behind Nisus isn’t making many efforts to keep the program up to current standards (though maintenance updates are still provided).)

‌What are the bilingual things that Mellel accomplishes better than others?

RTL LTR mixing and Levantine fonts

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  1. Don't use Word for your thesis; on the Mac, it's unstable for long documents.
  2. LaTeX is robust, and particularly functional for scientific theses and others needing to incorporate equations, tables, and vectorized and non-vectorized graphics.
  3. I've not used Scrivener, but you might want to consider it if your thesis is mostly text.
  4. Regardless of which program you choose, universities have very strict formatting rules, so see if you can get your hands on a template made for your university in your program of choice (for mine, there was a LaTeX thesis template available, though I had to update it).

My thesis was not atypical for one in the sciences: ~200 pages (double-spaced), subdivided into chapters, sections, and subsections, with numerous equations, tables, inserted vectorized and non-vectorized graphics, and over 100 references. It also had an automatically-generated table of contents.

I initially tried writing it in Word-for-Mac, but after it got to about 20% of its final size, the file began crashing (the program would have to close the document, which meant I had to save it continuously)---when you get beyond a certain document size, the program simply becomes unstable. Plus it doesn't handle inserted graphics robustly, and its equation formatting capabilities are limited. [I suspect the Windows variant is more stable.]

I thus switched to what I should have used in the first place: LaTeX. On a Mac, the easiest way to do this is to download the entire MacTex package from the tug site (there’s a link to it on the TeXShop page); this will give you the latest TeX distribution, as well as a very nice front-end editor (TeXShop) and reference-mangement program (BibDesk) (after completing this, do “check for updates” on both of the latter two).

Note also that universities typically have very strict thesis formatting rules, and at most universities someone has probably written a TeX thesis template. You should talk to the other graduate students -- they can probably tell you where to find it, and let you know of any modifications that need to be made to it to bring it strictly up-to-date (in case it was written a while ago).

It took me a couple of weeks to get comfortable with the program (and learn its basic idiosyncrasies), and another two weeks to become fairly fluent, but after that it was off to the races.

I've not used it (it wasn't available for the Mac at the time) but, if you want a WYSIWYG TeX editor, you might want to try BaKoMa TeX.

Having said that, I understand that many novelists use Scrivener. Because of that, and because Scrivener was originally written for the Mac, it might not have Word-for-Mac's stability issues for long documents. If your thesis is mostly text-based, you might want to give that a shot. [I don't know how Scrivener would deal with graphics, equations, etc., or how easily it interfaces with reference-management systems (I understand some people use Zotero, which in turn requires either Open Office or Libre Office: ] You can Google 'writing thesis in Scrivener'; I, for instance, found this: It would certainly be easier to learn than LaTeX.

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Hey @theorist,

Please specify what version of Word you've had trouble with.


Hey @theorist,
Please specify what version of Word you've had trouble with.

I wrote my thesis in late 2009, on whatever was the latest version of Word-for-Mac at the time. I then decided to attempt to create another large document in Word more recently, in the summer of 2017, using whatever was the latest version of Word-for-Mac at that time (I have an automatically-updated Office 365 subscription). I encountered similar instability. So my experience has been consistent over two different versions of Word-for-Mac, one from roughly a decade ago, and one that is recent.

Others have also reported that Word can be unstable with long documents.

I've also used Word-for-Windows, and my anecdotal experience is that it's more stable than Word-for-Mac. However, I don't know if it's stable enough for long, complex documents.

May i add Papyrus for long copy?

Gets always very good reviews in the German C’t magazine.

Ok, old thread, but I'll just throw my 2¢ in for using LaTeX over a traditional word processor. LaTeX documents are plan text, which offers several benefits like:

  • Longevity - Are you sure you'll be able to open that Word document 20 years from now?
  • Cross-Platform - Plain text works everywhere.
  • Stability - Plain text editors like BBEdit can handle whatever you throw at them.
  • Versioning - It's easy to put plain text into a powerhouse versioning system like Git and sync it off your computer over to GitHub or BitBucket.

Basically, it comes down to how much you value what you are writing. If it matters in the long run, it deserves to be in plain text, and if you need to transform that text into a beautiful document, LaTeX can give you a PDF that should last just as long.


Years ago, before I got used to LaTeX and editing plaintext, I used LyX which basically serves as a GUI crutch into LaTeX. It’s honestly quite a robust piece of software that as far as I can tell is still actively developed. It’s worth checking out I think.

Really well put. I will copy and use that list if that is ok with you when I have the discussion about this next? I will keep the link to your post too. Your point about longevity is also my main one . Once you get used to it you can write short form in it as well to get used to it. I keep templates and so on and don't find it anywhere as cumbersome as it feels when you first encounter it.

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