Researchersâ€”at least in Computer Scienceâ€”spend most of their days at a desk typing. Picking the right software for writing is important.
Most of my writing time is spent on LaTeX documents. I have tried typical Word processors in the past, but they getÂ in my way. Indeed, by mixing document content and document presentation, Microsoft Word makes it difficult to maintain consistency. Word is meant for short-lived (or throw-away) business documents. It is easy to get started and get 80% of the job done with Word. However, as the document gains complexity, as the number of revisions grow, as the number of collaborators expands, Microsoft Word becomes inadequate.
Oh! I still use OpenOffice or Google Docs to produce quick-and-dirty documents. But for anything that is meant to have lasting value, that is research, I refuse to fall into the Word processor trap. It causes some friction with colleagues, but it is a price I am willing to pay.
I believe every single graduate student should learn to write without a word processor. And serious science students should learn LateX. Even if you do not care for LaTeX, at least explore alternatives to Word such as Scrivener.
In any case, you are unlikely to need more than a text editor to write your prose: Â Charles Stross, one of the best scifi writer alive,Â wrote many of his novels using a primitive text editor (Vim). If you have never written without Microsoft Word, how do you know that Word is not holding you back?
Right now, I write using a regular text editor (Smultron for MacOS) and the TeX Live 2009 distribution. I save all my documents to a subversion tree. Using a version control tool such as Subversion makes collaboration easy, and it allows me to go back in time years ago. It is a good setup.
Programming is also a form of writing. For my experimental work, I program in C++, Java or Python, often using Eclipse. I find it is slightly better for programming than my standard writing setup (using only a text editor). Eclipse has great qualities:
- It stays out of the way. In particular, you can collaborate with people who are not using Eclipse without any problem. Â For example, it will happily let you use handcrafted makefiles to compile your C++ programs.
- It offers incremental compilation of Java programs. Basically, it compiles as you type.
- It suggests corrections for many common compilation errors.
Essentially, while Java is still an awful language, Java with Eclipse is almost fun.Â Eclipse proves that sophisticated software can be helpful to programmers and writers.
Writing is hard and it will always be hard, no matter the tool. But at least, ease your pain!