Lyx: separating content and style through document processing

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, mainly because I haven’t read anything interesting in that time, which is mainly because we’ve spent the past month or so gearing up for undergraduate exams.  Now that exams are effectively over, we’re marking…sigh.  Together with the exams, our department is on a writing workshop in the hope that by the end of the year we’ll each have a peer-reviewed article ready for publication.  While this is a great way to bite the bullet and get something out, it does take away time from the more interesting task of finding and blogging about cool stuff.

So it’s the weekend, I have a huge pile of scripts to mark and an article to complete for review on Monday…and here I am, working on this post.  But it’s work-related, so I don’t feel bad.  The reason it’s work-related is because I’ve recently started using a document processor for writing articles, called LyX.  A document processor differs from a word processor (like OpenOffice) in that it attempts to separate the process of writing from the process of typesetting, or formatting.

This separation of content and style is hardly a new concept but has been increasingly evident in the whole Web 2.0 hype that makes use of the idea that content wrapped in meaningful XML tags can be syndicated in almost any form and presented in almost any format.  In the early days of the web, it was also being addressed in the argument against HTML tags that described the formattin of content, rather than it’s structure.  CSS is what allowed that separation to take place, but not to the degree that XML does.  While this isn’t really the place for that discussion, I just wanted to highlight the point that the separation of content and formatting has been an issue since we started using computers to write documents (here’s a great video by Michael Wesch that demonstrates this idea really well).

The earliest word processors gave everyone the power to format content, which could be argued is a good thing because choice is important, right?  While the ability to decide text colour, font size, page margins and the thousand other options present in a word processor may be great for that letter to your mom, it’s almost meaningless when it comes to academic writing, the formatting of which is already determined by either your institution or publisher.  So when I write, why should I have to bother with formatting?

This is where LyX comes in.  By separating the writing process from the typesetting process, Lyx gives the writer the ability to concentrate on writing, rather than mucking about with trying to figure out how to insert and keep track of in-text citations and all the other soul-destroying aspects of computer-based academic writing.  It also allows you to output your document in any of the major formats you require.  For example, my institution uses the APA style of document formatting, so when I’m done writing, I literally press a button that outputs my work to a PDF document, already formatted for publication.

This post has gotten incredibly long, so I’ll end with a few links to more information if you’re interested in checking it out.  A word of warning though, if you’re not used to the idea that content and style are fundamentally different, there’s a steep learning curve when switching to something like Lyx.