Boilerplating Pandoc for Academic Writing

Mort Yao


For starters, this is how you might want to turn your well-written Markdown file (with common metadata fields like title, author and date) into a properly typeset PDF document:

$ pandoc -o out.pdf

However, Markdown is not TeX. Not even close. Once you need to have some bleeding edge control over the typesetting outcome, or perhaps just a little refinement on its LaTeX templating, you’ll soon notice that Pandoc has its quirks and gotchas. I’ve been utilizing Pandoc in all my serious academic writing (incl. homework reports) for years, ever since I gave up on learning more about the overwhelmingly sophisticated TeX ecosystem and turned to something that “just works”. Pandoc fits my needs well. And when it doesn’t, there’s almost always a workaround that achieves the same thing neatly. And this is what this write-up is mostly about.

Tweaking default.latex? Bad idea.

You could, of course, modify the default template (default.latex) provided by Pandoc, as long as you’re no stranger to LaTeX. In this way, you can achieve anything you want – in pure LaTeX.

$ pandoc --template my-default.latex -o out.pdf

There are, however, a few problems with this naïve approach:

  1. If you are tweaking the template just for something you’re currently working on, you will end up with some highly document-specific, hardly reusable template. Also this won’t give you any good for using Pandoc – you could just write plain LaTeX anyway.
  2. If Pandoc improves its default template for a newer version, your home-brewed template won’t benefit from this (unless you’re willing to merge the diffs and resolve any conflicts by hand).

I’m conservative about changing the templates. If it’s a general issue that needs to be fixed in the default template, sending a pull request to pandoc-templates might be a better idea. Of course, if there’s a certain submission format you have to stick with (given LaTeX templates for conference papers), then you will fall back on your own.

Separating the formatting stuff

I wouldn’t claim that I know the best practice of using Pandoc, but there’s such a common idiom that cannot be overstressed: Separate presentation and content!

In the YAML front matter of (the main Markdown file you’re writing), put only things that matter to your potential readers:

title: Boilerplating Pandoc for Academic Writing
subtitle: or How I Learned to Stop Typesetting and Concentrate on the Math
author: Mort Yao
date: 17 November 2016
abstract: |
  Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit,
  sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna
  aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation
  ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

And in a separate YAML file (let’s call it default.yaml), here goes the formatting stuff:

geometry: margin=1.5in
indent: true
header-includes: |

Above is my personal default, and it’s worth a few words to explain:

  • geometry is where you control the geometric settings of your document. For example, you may narrow down the page margin to margin=1.5in, and this is equivalent to raw LaTeX:
  • Set indent to any value other than false if paragraph indentation is desired. (And it is often desired in formal publications.)
  • header-includes is where you define your own macros, configure existing ones, or claim \usepackage in case you want to use a package not enabled by Pandoc (e.g., tcolorbox). Although you might as well define those in other places (e.g., in the content of a Markdown file), don’t do that.
    • This decent Q.E.D. tombstone: \newcommand\qed{\hfill\rule{1em}{1em}} is my favorite of all time. It doesn’t require the amsthm package.

With a separate default.yaml, now here we are:

$ pandoc default.yaml -o out.pdf

Separating header-includes

You might have already noticed that the subtitle field won’t display in the produced PDF file. As far as I’m concerned (in Pandoc 1.18), this is the expected behavior. See here in README:

To make subtitle work with other LaTeX document classes, you can add the following to header-includes:


Unfortunately, this won’t work (until Issue #2139 is resolved) since Pandoc parses the header-includes metadata field as Markdown, and the bracketed [1] is misinterpreted as literals rather than a part of LaTeX control sequence. So the workaround is: Instead of embedding header-includes as a metadata field in YAML, we should separate it into another file for this dedicated purpose (it’s simply raw LaTeX anyway), and include it using --include-in-header/-H:

$ pandoc -H header.tex default.yaml -o out.pdf

Note that you can’t have two header-includes for one document. So the header-includes field specified in YAML metadata will be overridden by the content of header.tex.

Citing sources

While the Markdown syntax for citing is rather easy ([@id]), it takes effort to make things right, especially if you have a certain preferred citation format (APA, MLA, Chicago, IEEE, etc.).

The suggestion is: Use pandoc-citeproc. Once you have a list of references you’re interested in, you need two things to typeset those nicely in your document:

  • A CSL (Citation Style Language) file (.csl), to specify the citation format you want to use.
  • A BibTeX file (.bib), which is a list of all entries you might cite.
    • Citation entries in BibTeX format may be found easily on the Internet, through academic search engines and databases. Concatenate them one by one.

As part of the YAML metadata: (Assume you have ieee.csl and references.bib)

csl: ieee.csl
bibliography: references.bib

Using pandoc-citeproc as a filter, generate the document with citations:

$ pandoc --filter pandoc-citeproc -H header.tex default.yaml -o out.pdf

The list of references is appended to the end of the document. It is often desirable to give the references an obvious title (“References”), start from a new page and avoid any further indentation, so the following comes in the end of the Markdown source:


# References

Putting it all together!

Basically, we need 5 files in total:

  • For content:
    • (Markdown + possibly LaTeX mixed format): Main text.
    • references.bib (BibTeX/BibLaTeX format): List of references.
  • For presentation:
    • default.yaml (YAML format): Format-related metadata.
    • header.tex (LaTeX format): Content of header-includes; package imports and macro definitions.
    • ieee.csl (CSL XML format): Citation style.

And one command:

$ pandoc --filter pandoc-citeproc -H header.tex default.yaml -o out.pdf

Open question: Lightweight replacement for amsthm?

Pandoc doesn’t provide native support for amsthm (and I wonder if there will ever be). You can still have the same thing in Pandoc Markdown:


Man is a rational animal.

However, everything in between \begin and \end will be treated as raw LaTeX, and the expressiveness of Markdown is lost there. More importantly, this is purely a LaTeX-specific thing, so there’s no way for Pandoc to convert this to HTML or any other format (unless you have a filter that does the trick). Consequently, I tend to write all definitions / theorems (lemmas, claims, corollaries, propositions…) in simple Markdown:

**Definition 1.** *Man is a rational animal.*

It does have some advantages over amsthm:

  • Using amsthm, you cannot see the numbering of each theorem (definition, etc.) in the text editor (well, you can’t without a dedicated plugin at least). This is inconvenient when you need to refer to a prior one later. By numbering them explicitly, you can clearly see these ordinals in the Markdown source.
  • It is perfectly valid Markdown, so it converts to any format as you wish (HTML, for example).

This also has some drawbacks compared to using amsthm, though:

  • It doesn’t have theorem counters. You need to number things explicitly, manually. (Clearly you can’t have implicit numbering and explicit numbering at the same time, so here’s the trade-off.)
  • It doesn’t have automatic formatting. That is, you could possibly get the style for a certain entry (plain, definition, remark) wrong.
  • Semantically, they are not recognized as theorems, just normal text paragraphs. This is problematic if you want to prevent definitions and theorems from being indented, since there’s no way for LaTeX to tell them from a normal text.

(Probably) The best solution is to write a filter that (conventionally) converts any plain text like Definition 1 (and Lemma 2, Theorem 3, etc.) in the beginning of a paragraph to proper Markdown (for HTML target) or corresponding amsthm block (for LaTeX target). Even better, it should be able to do cross-references accordingly (Remember Lemma 10.42? Let’s put an anchored link on that!). This is yet to be done, but would be very helpful to someone who does a lot of theorems and proofs thus wants to avoid the kludge of mixing raw LaTeX with semantically evident Markdown.