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There are several free word processors available. Many are mimics of Microsoft Word to one degree or other. One alternative is LyX, a what-you-see-is-what-you-mean (not see!) document processor.

It’s free and very capable.

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During my Ph.D. studies Word (version 5.1a) came with a printed manual. That’s right, a book. I read it. Cover to cover. (Crazy, but then I was a Ph.D. student.)

One of the tips for working with large documents that I took from somewhere – I think it was that manual – was to never type in blank lines as spacing: always, every last time, use the style sheets to layout the page and you’ll be better off in the end. (No backtracking later to hack fixes to individual pages when you decide to change something.)

LyX works like that. You just type text, and tell it what each block of text is: a header, the author’s name, standard body text, … You can do all of the ‘expected’ things: create tables, insert graphics, make bulleted or numbered lists, and so on.

Different document processors use different file formats for storing their output. Word has .doc files, many programs use RTF (Rich Text Format). LyX rests on TeX, a type-setting system with a long history. You don’t have to worry about that for most usage of the program. Just type away and style your document. You can export LyX documents as Word, HTML (web page), PDF, PostScript and LaTeX. (It does not export to RTF format.)

You can think of LyX as a two-level tool for document processing. Those that don’t know TeX can treat it like they would most word processors. Those that know TeX (which takes a bit to learn) can get considerably more out of the application and take their use of it to another level.

You must have TeX installed. That in itself isn’t too bad. The kicker is that a full installation of TeX is huge, a gigabyte-plus to download. (As an example, the latest version of MacTex just out is 1.6Gb.) There are much more compact versions available (e.g. ~92Mb for MacTex), which I’ve never tried. You may wish to start with them first if you want to explore.

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Reference management is a job every scientist (and, hopefully, science writer) will be familiar with. Reference managers are a topic for other articles, but here I’d like to re-assure that LyX won’t leave you short on this. BibDesk, which I am currently using, and JabRef work with LyX. Mendeley may too. (BibDesk also outputs EndNote and Word format files.)


Other computer-related articles on Code for life:

Apple tip: kill Flash in Safari without quitting Safari

Consumer brain-computer interface

Web browsers (part 1)

iPads for the disabled

The iPad: a cat toy?