in Paper, Studies

The thesis writing toolbox

I spend the last weeks (or months?) at my desk writing my Master thesis about OSGi, PaaS and Docker. After my Bachelor thesis two years ago, this was my second big “literary work”. And as any computer scientist, I love tools! So here is my toolbox I used to write my thesis.


2014-06-20 14_07_02-Program Manager

I did most of my work with LyX, a WYSIWYM (what you see is what you mean) editor for LaTeX. LaTeX is a document markup language written by Leslie Lamport in 1984 for the type setting system TeX (by Donald E. Knuth). So what does this mean? It means that TeX is the foundation for LaTeX (and LyX). It gives you the ability to set text on paper, print words italic or leave space between two lines. But it is pretty raw and hard to handle. LaTeX is a collection of useful functions (called macros) to make working with TeX more pleasant. Instead of marking a certain word in bold and underline it, you could just say it is a headline and LaTeX will do the rest for you. A simple LateX document would look like this:

By choosing the document class article, LaTeX will automatically render your text to A4 portrait paper with 10 pt font size and so on. You will not have to worry about the layout, just the content. This is how the above code will look like as a PDF:

2014-06-20 14_54_57-Namenlos-1.pdf - TeXworks

The main difference between writing your document in LaTeX instead of (e.g.) Microsoft Word, is that you do not mix content and styling. If you write with Microsoft Word, you will always see your document as the final result (e.g. a PDF) would look like. The Microsoft Word document will look the same as the PDF. This principal is called WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). In LaTeX however, you will only see your raw content until you press the compile button to generate a PDF. The styling is separated from the content and only applied in the last final step when generating the PDF. This is useful, because you do not have to fight with your formatting all the time – but you have to write some pretty ugly markup.

This is where LyX comes into play. LyX is an editor to work with LaTeX, without writing a single line of code. It follows the WYSIWYM (what you see is what you mean) principal. This means you will see your document not in its final form, but as you mean it. Headlines will be big, bold words will be bold and italic word will be italic. Just as you mean it. However, the final styling will come in the end when generating the PDF. The LyX screenshot from above will look like this as a PDF:

2014-06-20 15_16_12-thesis_de.pdf - Adobe Reader


An important part of every thesis is literature. To organize my literature I use a tool called JabRef. Its website looks very ugly, but the tool itself is really cool. It lets you generate a library with all your books and articles you want to use as references. This is my personal library for my Master thesis (with 53 entries in total):

2014-06-20 15_25_13-Program Manager

JabRef will generate and organize as so called BibTex file. This is a simple text file, where every book has its own entry:

Every book or article I read will get its own entry in this file. I can make new entries with JabRef itself or with generators like I can link my library to my LyX document, so every time I want to make a new reference or citation, I just open a dialog and pick the according reference:

2014-06-20 15_31_51-LyX_ ~_Dropbox_MA - SS14 - Master Arbeit_thesis_de.lyx

LyX will automatically create the reference/citation and the according entry in the bibliography:

2014-06-20 15_34_29-thesis_de.pdf - Adobe Reader


When you write a large document such as a thesis, you will probably make mistakes. Your university wants to have some changes and you will improve your document until its final version. However, a lot of people will not read it twice. Instead, they read it once, give you some advice and want to see the changes again. With la­texd­iff you can compare two LaTeX documents and create a document visualizing the changes. Here is an example from the PDF page shown above:

2014-06-20 15_41_35-diff.pdf - Adobe Reader

As you can see, I changed a word, inserted a comma and corrected a typo.

A great tutorial about la­texd­iff can be found at

Google Drive

To make graphics I use Google Drive. It is free, it is online and it is very easy. The feature I like most on Google Drive is the grid. You can align objects to each other so your drawing will look straight.

2014-06-20 15_54_26-Untitled drawing - Google Drawings


If you loose your thesis you are screwed! Since LyX/LaTeX documents are pure text, you could easily put it into a version control system such as Git or SVN. However, you will probably use some graphics, maybe some other PDF and stuff like that. To organize this, I simple use Dropbox. Not only will Dropbox save your files for you, it also has a history. So you can easily restore a previous version of your document:

2014-06-20 15_49_38-Revisionen - Dropbox

eLyXer – HTML export


eLyXer is a tool to export LyX documents as HTML. Although, LyX is meant to create PDF documents in the first place, it is nice to have a HTML version to. eLyXer is already build in to LyX, so you can just export your document with some clicks:

2014-07-02 11_19_37-LyX_ ~_Dropbox_MA - SS14 - Master Arbeit_thesis_de.lyx

Here is the CSS I used to style the HTML output:

The result looks like this:

2014-07-02 11_24_13-Portierung einer Enterprise OSGi Anwendung auf eine PaaS

The thesis writing toolbox

LyX A WYSIWYM editor for LaTeX to write documents without a single line of code.
JabRef An organizer for literature.
latexdiff Compares two LaTeX documents and generates a visualization of their differences.
eLyXer Exports LyX documents to HTML

Best regards,

  • Christina

    I never noticed Dropbox saves the history of a document. This will probably save me during my own master thesis :-).