I wrote my undergrad thesis using Word. Overall I managed to get the job done, but as with all WYSIWYG editors, by the end I feel like I had created a bit of a mess. It didn't show, but I know it's there. Soon I'm going to start writing my postgrad thesis, and I'd like to use a tool that gives me more control over the single elements. The obvious choice seems to be LaTeX, but as I'm going to be writing a thesis about humanistic matters, I wouldn't be using all its advanced features. Also, it's something I don't know, and it would take me a while to learn how to use it properly.

But here's what I was thinking. I know HTML. I know CSS. (I used to be a web developer, as a matter of fact.) Is it possible to use them for typesetting in an effective way? I think about XML and how it may be used with a specific schema to declare semantic tags, but of course that would need either a converter or a very complex XSLT.

I'm not asking about a specific software, but rather the approach. I'm not sure if my end is worth learning a new tool, or even creating a new one.

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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/17961/13404
    – JiK
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 12:50
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because I think it should be migrated to Software Recommendations.SE
    – jakebeal
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 13:51
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    Note also that "I'd like to hear your opinions" isn't a good fit for Stack Exchange. Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 14:29
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    I hate to be that guy, but... I believe latex is still the way to go. In the sister website, TeX.SX, we have many users with non-engineer background that use latex for their documents. Regardless of your field, latex allows excellent document organization, referencing, and etc. If you feel uncomfortable with latex syntax, you can use Lyx that offers latex advantages but in a more user friendly fashion.
    – Pouya
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 14:59
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    Depends on your field, but I would still use LaTeX. Why? It allows for automatic referencing of images/tables/etc., automatic page numbering, auto date formatting, easy headers, auto layout (as well as being able to set it yourself), automatic PDF rendering, etc. Plus it is super easy to work with git. It's such an amazing tool that on literally every document I can, I use it. Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 15:55

4 Answers 4


HTML and CSS for typesetting?

No, just no. HTML and CSS were designed for looking good on screen, not paper. Although there are CSS styles for page printing, using a medium for a purpose other than its original design will at best be an overkill (if it works) and in most cases a utter source of frustration.

The obvious choice seems to be LaTeX... I wouldn't be using all its advanced features.

This is the basic misconception. You will use all advanced features even in a humanities thesis. You will have inline references, bibliography entries (bibtex), links to bibliographic entries, figures, title pages, perhaps even tables etc. As you see, you are going to use much of the advanced features of LaTeX, regardless of your discipline. LaTeX has an increased initial learning curve, but in the long run it is worth this time investment.

Conclusion: Stick to LaTeX.

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    I use LaTeX for a social science thesis (so no equations, etc). It took me about a day out of my whole three year PhD to learn enough LaTeX to get started, and it was well worth it. I use referencing, glossaries/acronyms, chapter and section labels and references, and tables and love that they're all formatted for me!
    – Phil
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 15:24
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    @Penguin_Knight I would recommend What are good learning resources for a LaTeX beginner? on TeX.SE.
    – yo'
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 16:09
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    You dismiss HTML/CSS too easily; with the right setup it's perfectly capable of generating sensible printed documents. Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 16:58
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    @posdef He didn't say he learned enough to write a thesis in a day; he said he learned enough to get started in a day. As you do new things, you have to learn more, but it doesn't necessarily take that long for you to basically be able to write your text, while having a decent sense of where to look if you want to do something you don't know how to do. LaTeX really isn't very hard to learn; what's hard is mastering it.
    – cpast
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 19:31
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    @posdef It's very flattering to think so, but I don't think I'm a genius! For the same reason, I doubt you're 'slow'. I wouldn't suggest LaTeX is 'easy', but I was able to use a book template and get it building within one day, with a bibliography. I think that is achievable within a day or two, especially for someone familiar with markup (html). I then use en.wikibooks.org/wiki/LaTeX as a comprehensive resources for things I don't know.
    – Phil
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 19:38

I personally would stick to LaTeX for a humanities thesis, but that's not a super useful answer. So,

Consider using Markdown + pandoc to generate LaTeX, while being easier to write. Something like this workflow for a Linguistics dissertation: http://linguisticmystic.com/2015/03/04/how-to-write-a-dissertation-in-latex-using-markdown/

pandoc is a powerful conversion tool, allowing you to convert between markdown, LaTeX, Word, etc. It will potentially even allow you to embed certain HTML and/or LaTeX elements into the markdown, giving you occasional access to either domain as necessary.


Regardless of the subject at hand keep in mind that you are writing a long document, that is destined to print and thus you need tools to tailor such a document. Use the right tool for the job!

MS Word and it's spin-offs (Apple's Pages, OpenOffice Writer etc) are good for quickly whipping up a document, where getting the content right is the primary focus.

For good quality publishing you need more than that, which explains the domain which (La)TeX was designed to operate in. If you need a WYSIWYG editor that gives you much better control over individual elements than Word does, you can test Adobe InDesign or similar software. The concept is that you prepare your content elsewhere and design how the content is going to be displayed, then you plug-in your text in the placeholders which you have styled.

The issue here is the learning curve. No matter if you go with (La)TeX or InDesign or anything similar to that (Scribus is a free alternative for instance), it will take you a significant amount of time to get down and dirty with the software and to be able to create exactly what you want to do. So the question is; what would you rather spend your time on, learning how to make a more visually appealing thesis, or generate the content of the thesis.


  • If you know how to use LaTeX already than just stick with it, despite not needing the "math".
  • If you have never used LaTeX and feel like you want your WYSIWYG features, give a try to InDesign.
  • If you have no time to learn something new then stick with whatever you know and generate the content instead.

Though in theory HTML+CSS can be used to typeset page based material (e.g. http://www.w3.org/Talks/2013/0604-CSS-Tokyo/), I would stick with some other format that can be easily be converted to HTML (I personally use LaTeX for lengthy documents, Markdown for short ones). If you are good at programming, and willing to invest in developing tools to convert your own HTML format to other formats later (it is likely going to be necessary), then go for it. You can be the leader!

The main disadvantage of HTML is the lack of semantic tags. Perhaps an XML with some good XSLT that spits out HTML is better for organization.

  • That's kind of what I've been thinking about. I think that XML would actually work great for this kind of stuff, maybe with a schema that includes semantic tags and whatnot. A XSLT or even a plain converter to LaTeX could be very useful in this kind of situation. Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 18:23

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