Writing a paper with Scribble

:: Scribble, tutorial, by Ben Greenman

This post explains how to get started using Scribble to write a research paper.

This post was written using Racket 7.1 and Scribble 1.29

Writing about research is always difficult, but a compile-to-LaTeX tool can make the task easier. If your research code is written in the same language as the paper, then:

  • the paper can import definitions from the research, keeping a single point of control;
  • the language’s functional abstractions can help manage the writing;
  • the language’s drawing and/or plotting libraries can replace TikZ;
  • and you can write unit tests to validate the claims made in the paper.

Scribble, the Racket documentation tool, comes with a to-LaTeX compiler and a scribble/acmart library tailored to the new ACM paper format. I have been a pretty happy user of these tools. In the interest of attracting more happy users, this post presents a short “getting started” guide and links to some larger examples.

For a Scribble tutorial, see the links in: Building a Website with Scribble

Getting started with scribble/acmart

The first line of a scribble/acmart document sets the formatting options (similar to a LaTeX file using acmart.cls). For example, the GPCE 2018 call for papers asks for anonymized sigplan-format submissions with line numbers and 10 point font. The proper Scribble incantation is:

#lang scribble/acmart @sigplan @anonymous @review @10pt

Next, you may want to import some definitions. If we have a file references.rkt (see below for a definition), we can import it as follows:


The third main ingredient is the title and author information:

@(define neu (affiliation #:institution "Northeastern University"))
@(define anon (email "anon@anon.net"))

@title{Writing a paper with Scribble}
@author[#:affiliation neu #:email anon]{Ben Greenman}

@; optional: set the author names in the page headers
@elem[#:style "Sshortauthors"]{B. Greenman}

The paper is now ready to be written. You can forge ahead with a new section and start adding content to the same file; alternatively, you can organize the writing across different modules. In this post, we will use the main document as an outline and import content from other modules:


Finally, the main page is a good place to generate the bibliography. Assuming this document imports a file like the references.rkt below, this expression inserts a bibliography titled “References”:

@generate-bibliography[#:sec-title "References"]

To build the document, invoke scribble on the command-line with the --pdf or --latex options:

$ raco scribble --pdf FILE.scrbl

If all goes well, this command generates a FILE.pdf with properly-linked cross references.

Auxiliary Files

If you save the code above to a file example.scrbl and save the files below in the same directory, then you should be able to build an example.pdf.

These files are available in a slightly different format at this link:


#lang racket/base

  ~cite citet generate-bibliography


(define-cite ~cite citet generate-bibliography
  #:style author+date-square-bracket-style)

(define icfp "ICFP")

(define fbf-icfp-2009
    #:title "Scribble: Closing the Book on Ad Hoc Documentation Tools"
    #:author (authors "Matthew Flatt" "Eli Barzilay" "Robert Bruce Findler")
    #:location (proceedings-location icfp #:pages '(109 120))
    #:date 2017))


#lang scribble/acmart

A simple Scribble document.


#lang scribble/acmart

@; start with `title` instead of `section`, because importing via
@;  `include-section` shifts all title/section/subsections down one level

Scribble creates a connection between a stand-alone document and the artifact
it describes@~cite[fbf-icfp-2009].

Q. How to debug Scribble error messages?

If something goes wrong building a Scribble document, Racket is usually able to give a helpful error message.

As a compile-time example, adding @ foo to a document produces the message unexpected whitespace after @ and you can either delete the whitespace or change the @ to @"@" for a literal @-sign.

As a run-time example, adding @(+ 2 2) produces this message:

not valid in document body (need a pre-part for decode) in: 4

One fix is to convert 4 to a string, as in @~a[(+ 2 2)].

But if something goes wrong when Scribble renders a generated document to PDF, the default error output is not likely to help. For example, adding @elem[#:style "oops"] to a document produces a giant message:

$ raco scribble --pdf FILE.scrbl
[[ ... 84K of output ... ]]
Output written on example.pdf (1 page, 277876 bytes).
PDF statistics:
 53 PDF objects out of 1000 (max. 8388607)
 37 compressed objects within 1 object stream
 7 named destinations out of 1000 (max. 500000)
 36877 words of extra memory for PDF output out of 42996 (max. 10000000)

run-pdflatex: got error exit code
  [[ ... 17 more lines ... ]]

The best way to debug these messages is to ignore them and use a LaTeX compiler directly. For the “oops” mistake, LaTeX stops at the undefined control sequence — giving a hint about how to find the problem:

$ raco scribble --latex FILE.scrbl
$ pdflatex FILE.tex
[[ ... 12KB of output ... ]]
! Undefined control sequence.
l.549 \oops

Q. How to add a LaTeX style file?

To add extra LaTeX code to the final document, create a new file and include it with the ++style command-line flag. This copies the contents of the style file into the generated document (the copy appears near the top of the generated code).

$ raco scribble ++style style.tex --pdf FILE.scrbl

Here is an example style file.


% add page numbers etc.

% draw a black rectangle near lines that overflow the margin

Another way to add extra LaTeX code is to add a tex-addition style property to the main title. This second approach makes it easy to include more than one file:

#lang scribble/acmart

  (only-in scribble/core make-style)
  (only-in scribble/latex-properties make-tex-addition)]

@(define extra-style-files
   (list (make-tex-addition "style.tex")))

@title[#:style (make-style #f extra-style-files)]{Writing a paper with Scribble}

@; ....

Q. How to make a figure?

Use the scriblib/figure library to add figures to a document.

@require[pict scriblib/figure]
  "fig:fish"  @; figure tag, see `figure-ref`
  @elem{A Standard Fish}  @; figure caption, appears below the content
  @elem{fish = @(standard-fish 90 40)}]  @; content

The content of a figure can be almost anything that would work in the toplevel of the document.

Q. How to include extra files (pictures, LaTeX)?

The ++extra command-line flag names an auxilliary file that Scribble should include when rendering the document. This flag may be supplied more than once.

For example, if a document includes the content of an external LaTeX file:

@elem[#:style "input"]{inline-this.tex}

then make sure to build the document with a command like this:

$ raco scribble ++style style.tex ++extra inline-this.tex FILE.scrbl


% Raw LaTeX allowed here
$\lambda x.\, x$

Q. What about in-line LaTeX?

An element with the 'exact-chars style property renders directly to LaTeX.

@(define (exact . stuff)
   @; the style name "relax" puts a `\relax` no-op in front of the stuff
   (make-element (make-style "relax" '(exact-chars)) stuff))

@exact|{$\lambda x.\, x$}|
@; ==> \relax{$\lambda x.\, x$}

@(define ($ . math-stuff)
   (apply exact (list "$" math-stuff "$")))

@${\lambda x.\, x}
@; ==> \relax{$\lambda x.\, x$}

Creating a #lang for a paper

For a Scribble document that is split across multiple files, it can be helpful to make a #lang that provides a common environment. Instead of starting each file with a require, e.g.:


#lang scribble/acmart
@require["references.rkt" "helper-functions.rkt" scriblib/figure]


files can start with a name that describes their common purpose:


#lang conference-2018-submission


As a bonus, if the language is defined as a package then the Scribble document can use Racket’s dependency management tools:

# to install the paper and interactively install dependencies:
$ cd conference-2018-submission;
$ raco pkg install

# To check that the paper builds with no dependency issues:
$ raco setup --check-pkg-deps conference-2018-submission

# To run all unit tests
$ raco test -c conference-2018-submission

To create a package and language:

  1. Move the Scribble document to a directory with the language name, i.e., conference-2018-submission/
  2. Write a simple info.rkt to configure the package
  3. Create a normal Racket module that exports the common environment
  4. Create a conference-2018-submission/lang/reader.rkt module

Details below. For a full example, visit:


This file defines the basic metadata for a package. For more about info.rkt, see: Tutorial: Creating a Package.

#lang info
(define collection "conference-2018-submission")
(define deps '("base" "scribble-lib" "at-exp-lib"))
(define build-deps '("racket-doc" "scribble-doc"))
(define pkg-desc "Paper for Conference 2018")
(define version "0.1")


This file defines and exports the common environment for every file in our Scribble document. In this example, the common environment is: the scribble/acmart language, the file “references.rkt”, and the scriblib/figure library.

#lang racket/base




This file: (1) tells Racket to use the Scribble reader on #lang conference-2018-submission modules, and (2) wraps the result of such modules in a shape that Scribble expects.

#lang s-exp scribble/base/reader
#:wrapper1 (lambda (t) (cons 'doc (t)))

These documents use the #lang approach to writing a paper with Scribble. Check their main.rkt for example formatting functions and unit tests, and check the .scrbl files to see how the ideas above look in a larger document.

Finally, this repository provides a tool to start a new Scribble document:

Further Reading