Scientists write, it's part of the job. If writing feels laborious, it might be because you haven't found the right tools yet.
The wrong tools <cough>Word</cough> feel like a lot of work. You spend a lot of time fiddling with font sizes and not being sure whether to use italic or bold. You're constantly renumbering sections after edits. Everything moves around when you resize a figure. Tables are a headache. Table of contents? LOL.
If this sounds familiar, check out the following tools — arranged more or less in order of complexity.
If you've never experienced writing with a markup language, you're in for a treat. At first it might feel clunky, but it quickly gets out of the way, leaving you to focus on the writing. Markdown was invented by John Gruber in about 2004; it is now almost ubiquitous in tools for developers. It's very lightweight, but compatible with HTML and LaTeX math, so it has plenty of features. Styling is absent from the document itself, being applied enitrely in post-production, as it were. With help from pandoc, you can compile Markdown documents to almost any format (e.g. PDF or Word). As a result, Markdown is sufficient for at least 70% of my writing projects. Here's a sampling of Markdown markup, rendered on the right with no styling:
If you've been following along with our X Lines of Python series, or any of our other code-centric content, you'll have come across Jupyter Notebooks. These documents combine Markdown with code (in more or less any language you can think of) and the outputs of code — data, charts, images, etc. More than containing code, a so-called kernel can also run the code: Notebooks are fully computable documents. Not only could you write a paper or book in a Notebook, many people use them to give presentations with fully interactive, live code blocks and widgets.
I discovered LaTeX in about 1993 and it was love at first sight. I've always been a bit of a typography nerd, and LaTeX — like TeX, around which LaTeX is wrapped — really cares about typography. So you get ligatures, hyphenation, sentence spacing, and kerning for free. It also cares about mathematics, cross-references, bibliographies, page numbering, tables of contents, and everything else you need for publication-ready documents.
You can install LaTeX locally, but there are several ways to use LaTeX online, without installing anything — and you get the best of both worlds: markup with WYSIWYG editing. Overleaf, ShareLaTex (which is merging with Overleaf), Authorea, and Papeeria are all worth a look, especially if you write scientific papers.
When WYSISYG works
Sometimes you just want a couple of headings and some text, or you need to share a document with others. I often go for WYSISYG in those situations too — Google Docs is the best WYSIWYG editor I've used. When it supports Markdown too, which is surely only a matter of time, it will be perfect.
What about you, do you have a favourite writing tool? Share it in the comments.