I helped my friend, who never used LaTeX before, to convert her PG Diploma essay from a Word document into this system (for a molecular biology class). I convinced her that, with some learning, she could later produce better essays with LaTeX in shorter time, focusing on the content without worrying about the layout.

But she started to worry from the beginning.

She commented on the placement of large figures and tables which didn't fit immediately at the positions and pages where they called out. She was particularly concerned that these floating figures (placed professionally, I think, by LaTeX at the top of the following pages) "appeared in the wrong places in the middle of the next sections".

I explained to her that these automatic placements by LaTeX seemed "perfect" and "optimal" to avoid large white spaces left at the bottom of the pages; and that this approach is what we see in most professorially typeset materials (e.g., journal articles, and my thesis ;)).

However, the professor who later marked the essay commented that these positionings "look odd" and "broke the logical flow", and he seemed to prefer the "inline placement" of figures and tables. My friend now thinks that some points were lost because of this.


Should (such) layout and formatting issues in general affect the grading of student essays?

If yes, I assume this professor might not be familiar enough with professional typesetting practices, or he simply didn't like what he saw in the essay. Is he free not to accept the common professional typesetting practices in his course?

  • 4
    FYI, you can tell LaTeX to place the figure at a certain point in the document and nowhere else, if you want. tex.stackexchange.com/q/8625/14965
    – user9646
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 12:33
  • 1
    @scaaahu The figure has to be somewhere, right? Where do you want to put it? If you want you can even make the text wrap around the figure. tex.stackexchange.com/q/118602/14965
    – user9646
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 12:36
  • 1
    @scaaahu The first solution I linked essentially makes the figure non-floating... Anyway this exchange is getting a little bit off-course.
    – user9646
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 12:39
  • Is there really a fight over word processors? I have only run into the old "I expect it to be in MLA vs APA format" instances. I guess one could always ask the professor which processor they use/prefer. Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 18:10
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    I suggest your friend ask the professor for a breakdown of the grade. This can be helpful in many ways, as one strives to improve as a researcher and a writer. Your friend could mention that in the email, to prevent the professor from feeling uncomfortable with the request. Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 23:30

4 Answers 4

  • Is LaTeX better than Word? This is a holy-war kind of a question. I personally agree that LaTeX documents often, but not always, allow to produce a better typeset document in less time (as soon as you know enough of it to write the document, and do not spend time googling for "how do I do X in LaTeX").
  • Are LaTeX's floating objects perfect? Some things are less than perfect even with LaTeX, and handling of floating objects is one of them. You can suggest using [p] instead of [t]/[b]/[h] options --- this can still generate under-filled pages, but at least it looks like it is done on purpose.
  • Should you Professor comment on the layout? The way how the document looks definitely affects how it is perceived by the reader, so if something looks weird / unusual, it is all right for your Professor to comment on it.
  • Should the layout affect the grade? There is no general answer to that. Some Universities even have a very rigid guidelines on layout for theses submission, which sometimes, sadly, prescribe the use of Word, and sometimes, conveniently, the use of LaTeX (particularly if LaTeX is taught as a part of the Program). In this case, of course, students can be penalised for not following the guidelines. Sometimes points for "presentation" are included in the task specification --- and you can lose them if your Professor decides that bad typography affects the presentation of the document (I don't think LaTeX can be that bad, though). However, Professor should not simply reduce the grade if they feel that the layout is unusual.

I'll skip the software issue, which is irrelevant to the question

Should layout and formatting issues in general affect the grading of student essays?

In short yes. Any document which is handed in has to be formatted to make it as easy as possible to follow the train of thought and digest the reasoning. No matter if the document is a pdf, printed out, handwritten or ASCII text. If the document is not structured well it may not get full credits. Also note that one can only structure a document well, if one has well organized thoughts on the matter. As an example, it is usually fairly easy to see if somebody copied a solution for some exercises without thought even if there is not typo but only from the mere look of the result. Spacings are odd, linebreaks are often at the wrong point or the organization on the sheet seems to emphasize the wrong thing.

That said, anything more concrete will be on thin ice. Some people prefer strong structuring elements (e.g. having many lists and subheadings), others are distracted by that (prefer more plain text, less dominant subheadings, e.g. at the beginning of the paragraph rather than in a separate line). Some people prefer figures within the text, some prefer then on the top of the pages, some even like them in the margin or collected at the end of the document. I think one should remark that "common professional typesetting practices" do not really exist - there a lot of practices, man contradict each others and professionals did not agree on standards as is fact a lot of "taste" and "habits" are involved.

Don't ignore rules, also use common sense and intuition but stick to guidelines and requirements.


"Should" etc. is a philosophical question. Pragmatically, the questions are: Did this particular professor have specific expectations about the formatting? and In this field particularly, is there a clearly defined standard?

Most professors will provide or point to a style guide if asked. If there is a question about something that LaTeX is doing, then the student whose grade could be affected needs to get the professor's eyes on the questionable formatting before the paper is due (or at the very least, consult a grad student, writing tutor, etc., in the field).

Professors are often weirdly specific in their expectations - treating some style rules as law, and disregarding others that many people observe, often for reasons relating to the goals of that particular class - and so it's as well to ask: what standard are YOU grading on in this class? May I bring my work to you for a brief review beforehand?



Student essays are the best time to learn the formatting. You can comment the format, even if it does not affect the grading. Then you need to explicitly say that formatting does not affect the grading, possibly many times. At some point you may want to demand the proper formatting. The grading is a way to enforce that, instead of suggesting.

Academia is different from the industry. In industry the pictures must be in the proper places. In academia it is only a good thing. The professor has the right to decide in the end, what is the focus of the teaching.

Latex will make the overall formatting easier and saves a lot of time. Word is the best for what I call "shotgun reporting" where things are only added to the bottom of the document and once ready it's polished and then published. There is no revision and the document seldom is returned for editing.

I like to think that the students are adults that make the decisions. In few first tasks you may provide them with latex templates to learn latex, and give them the time to learn. But after many years I think that you should just ask for a proper document that will fit the purpose. If it's thesis and they know latex, then by all means they should use it (my opinion), but if it's about reporting the results, then they are free to choose (I still prefer latex, but Word almost just as fine).

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