Use LaTeX to Write Your Grants (and other complex documents)

I’m a big fan of automating tasks and finding efficient ways of doing things. Several years ago, I discovered the LaTeX, a typesetting and document prepping system that has entirely improved the aesthetics of the documents I’m able to produce but also increased the speed with which I can produce them.

It is not a word processing system in which you type on page and what you type appears how the document will be (“what you see is what you get” wysiwyg – wizzeewig). The files that you work in look like plain text, so you can focus on the content and less on how they look as your working. In the file that you’re working in, you designate environments, like section{My Section} … and then go with it … and go onto maybe twenty sections (or chapters, with a zillions subsections or subsubsections [and yes, subsubsubsections]). The same with figures. Why does this matter? Well, it takes away the worry of two key things in a grant document (and any other large document) — format & order.

This is a widely distributed plot of complexity and size vs. effort & time consumption. You'll see it on lots places on the web advocating for TeX.
This is a widely distributed plot of complexity and size vs. effort & time consumption. You’ll see it on lots places on the web advocating for TeX.

Format

Say I started out with all my section headings with a number, being bold, and a 1.5 line break before the text. I finish the document, but I want to change that to 1.25 line breaks. Instead of going to each section & subsection heading, selecting the text/line, then going to the menu, finding the interface window, and typing 1.25 (like you would with Word). Ligature for section headings is just one thing to specify in the Preamble of the LaTeX document; then the formatting of all the section / subsection headings is changed. Say I want to insert a figure and make it appear on the bottom of a page, I use the begin{figure}[b] environment (“b” specifies bottom, can also use t and h). So regardless of what other text I add or delete above and below where I put that figure; it will also be on the bottom of that page when the document compiles. With Word, if you were to add or move a paragraph amongst the text, you might go down a 3-hour rabbit hole trying to get the figure to align with the bottom of a page.

Ordering

As far as ordering goes, it keeps track of your figures and tables. LaTeX does the section & figure & table counting for you. If you decide that a particular figure should be moved and that would change the ordering, it’s a simple thing to do; the Figure Number in the legend is automatically ordered. In the text, you can make it so that you don’t have to fuss with figure and table numbers either by tagging the figure with a reference. So in the file, it would be “… the really cool flow cytometry data are shown in Figure ref{flowfig},” and if I were to move this section around, the ref{flowfig} will always show up as Figure (number) referring to the correctly numbered figure. So no more hunting and changing or relying on Find->Replace. This also applies to ordering tables and even sections and chapters … which will update the table of contents too.

Learning Curve

It does take time to learn to use LaTeX. Which is why I think it should be taught in grad school. Computer Science, Math, Physics, (maybe Chemistry) students learn it — but definitely not life sciences or biomedical sciences. Which is why we pass around horrendous – looking documents to each other and submit ugly-looking manuscripts to PubMed Central. I would not recommend jumping into writing a grant with a 4-week deadline if you aren’t comfortable with LaTeX. Instead, I’d recommend looking around the Stack Exchange site to see what’s out there. There’s a whole world-wide community of scientists and academics who use, improve on LaTeX and its capabilities, and help new users. Try downloading a few templates and see if you can put your typeset your manuscripts into an article class file and see what it looks like.

Resources

Create your CV or next syllabus in LaTeX; then for next grant cycle, jump in. Here is a link to an NIH grant template that I created.  I am most definitely not the first life scientist to advocate for LaTeX, and I won’t be the last. Some templates that I’ve found useful: latextemplates.org. The LaTeX comprehensive archive of packages, instructions, and documentation: ctan.org. And finally, the community of experts, users, and writers, TeX Stack Exchange.

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