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In My Opinion:
     LaTeX isn't for everyone but it could be for you (with responses)

Andy Roberts

Abstract

This article by Andrew Roberts appeared last summer in OSNews.com. While the merits of LaTeX Andy points out are familiar to most PracTeX Journal readers, the follow-on comments from readers pointed out some of LaTeX's (and TeX's) weaknesses. Weigh in with your comments by clicking the "Comment on this article" link below.

This article is reprinted with permission from the author, Andrew Roberts, and from OSNews.com.

Andy Roberts' article

Comments on the article by OSNews readers

Comment on this article


Anyone who has used Microsoft Word for a reasonable amount of time will recognise my very own Andy's Laws on Word:

  1. Likelihood of a crash is directly proportional to the importance of a document.
  2. Likelihood of a crash is inversely proportional to the time left before its deadline.
  3. Likelihood of a crash is directly proportional to the duration since you last saved.
  4. Likelihood of you throwing your computer out of the window is directly proportional to the number of times Clippy pops up.
  5. That's enough laws for now...

In all seriousness, I've written many words in large documents using Microsoft Word. Nowadays, I can use OpenOffice because it's come a long way and really is a decent product (the current v2 beta is very good). However, ever since my never-ending woes with Word during my degree, when I started my PhD, I decided to go and try out LaTeX. Actually, that's not quite true, I wanted to submit a paper to a journal and it only accepted LaTeX documents. The deadline was the same day as I found out about the call for papers. I jumped straight into the deep-end with both feet. Needless to say, I had a hard time of it and wasn't LaTeX's best fan that day. (Lesson: don't try to learn something new in a rush!)

Undeterred, I stuck with LaTeX and realised that it wasn't so hard after all. There was a learning curve, but for the typical documents that I often wrote, there was very little to learn. I'm very glad I persevered because I wouldn't want to use any thing else for my papers/reports any more. I'm not the only one who's glad to move away from the WYSIWYG world [http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/wp.html]. This article will not be a tutorial for how to use LaTeX, instead an overview of its benefits and why I think it trumps what word processors have to offer.

What is LaTeX?

In 1978, Donald Knuth [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Knuth] - arguably one of the most famous and well respected computer scientists - embarked on a project to create a typesetting system, called Tex (pronounced 'tech'), after being disappointed with the quality of his acclaimed The Art of Programming series. Around 10 years later, he froze the language after originally anticipating spending a single year! Tex gave extremely fine-grained control of document layout. However, the vast flexibility meant it was complex, so by the mid-80s Leslie Lamport created a set of macros that abstracted away many of the complexities. This allowed for a simpler approach for creating documents, where content and style were separate. This extension became LaTeX (pronounced 'lay-tech').

LaTeX is essentially a markup language. Content is written in plain text and can be annotated with various 'commands' that describe how certain elements should be displayed. The LaTeX interpreter reads in a LaTeX marked-up file, renders the content into a document and dumps it a new file. Therefore, it's not an interactive system that is the de-facto method for document creation nowadays.

Separation of content and style

Not the most obvious advantage, possibly because a lot of Word users don't understand why this so beneficial. When producing your LaTeX document, you are concentrating on the content itself. You introduce structure explicitly by telling LaTeX when a new section begins, for example, but you don't then faff around trying to decide how the section headers should look. That's done later.

This is opposed to the average Word user, who will immediately highlight a given section header and apply formatting to it: maybe a larger font, maybe underline, etc. The point is that this will then have to be applied to every header manually. LaTeX is better as it uses a document style. This defines how different elements within your document should look (like Cascading Style Sheets defining styles in HTML pages). If you fancy a change, you only change the style definitions once, then the presentation of the document will be updated automatically. This also ensures a consistent looking document (you wouldn't believe how many stylistically inconsistent Word docs I've read!)

Word does in fact have a similar Styles feature. However, because it's optional, people don't often know it exists. LaTeX forces you to declare the document semantics (this is a Good Thing!), which is why you can rely on it to produce a consistent looking document.

Portability

LaTeX portability comes in multiple ways:

  1. An actual LaTeX file is merely a text file, which is just about the most portable format in computing.
  2. The LaTeX system that processes the text file and produces the finished document has been implemented on just about every mainstream platform you care to mention.
  3. The default output file format for LaTeX is DVI [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DVI_%28TeX%29] (which stands for device independent). This was around well before PDF was dreamed up and the high quality files can be viewed via software viewers or printed out. DVI is an open standard, so once again, readers are extremely portable and exist on most operating systems. Admittedly, DVI is hardly ubiquitous and nowadays it's often bypassed in favour for PDF (or it's very simple to convert to other formats like PS or HTML)
Flexibility

You can get LaTeX to do just about anything you can think of! Over the years, an overwhelming selection of packages to extend its potential and macros that can simplify complex tasks have come into being, most of which are freely available on CTAN. For example, LaTeX's main users are within academia and research institutions and they benefit hugely thanks to the Bibtex package that provides bibliography management - I pity my Word-using colleagues who suffer by actually manually word-processing their bibliographies (unless they've shelled out for a program like Endnote). There are other crazy packages that you can install which allow you to typeset music scores, chessboards and cross-words! CTAN [http://www.ctan.org] is the main repository of these resources. Most are well documented and as you can imagine, with LaTeX being around for so long, the number of extensions is vast. The chances are, if you're struggling to do a task, someone will have undoubtedly written a package to solve it easily!

Control

Even with simple documents, you can quickly become frustrated by Word's rather unintelligent interference. The hours that are wasted trying to position that image which you know will fit at the bottom of the page, but Word refuses to put it there! How many can relate to this experience? You have your 30 page document with text, tables and images. You just spent the evening getting it formatted nicely - all your figures in the right place and then you notice that one of your paragraphs isn't clear enough. You add one sentence, which then pushes an image on to the next page, leaving a massive gap at the bottom of that page where your image once was. This then daisy-chains down, knocking other tables and images out of place all the way to the end of your document! It's a real laugh. Fortunately, LaTeX is much more clever in this respect and positions your images and tables with a lot of common sense. So, if you want your image to appear at the bottom of a given page, it'll stay there!

Whilst LaTeX makes decent typesetting decisions for you, if you want to, you can have total control over the presentation of your document.

Quality

It's difficult to disagree that the output from LaTeX is far superior to what Word can produce. This is emphasised greatest when it comes to documents with high mathematical content, which is a major strength for LaTeX. It also has much better kerning, hyphenation and justification algorithms that simply make the output far more professional than what any word processor. Its algorithms for laying out text are more sophisticated and extremely fine-grained. For example, the accuracy is so high because it uses a measurement known as a scaled point which translates as 100th of the wavelength of natural light!

LaTeX works with the concept of niceness (well, I suppose technically it's badness - which it works to minimise). LaTeX has a large set of metrics that it evaluates against when generating your document. It experiments with various permutations of parameters and determines the one which gives the "nicest" output. It can take the time to do this because it isn't interactive. Word processors don't have the computational resources available (yet) to carry out the equivalent calculations and still remain interactive. Also, many people forget that typesetting is actually a professional skill - people train for years to learn how to layout publications. Yet, as soon as you open a word processor, you go about committing typesetting sins [http://www.poynton.com/notes/typesetting/index.html] all the way. Typesetters know for example that its easier to read sentences that are approximately 66 characters wide. Have a look in your books and count the letters! Also, why do newspapers and magazines have narrow columns? But, the default layout of a word processor gives an average of 100 characters per line. I suppose many people don't mind, but you would notice if you read a lot of large documents.

A quick example. I took a document that I had used previously to demonstrate document structure in LaTeX. I used the same text and loaded it into Word and applied the equivalent styles. I've used default settings throughout. Word didn't have a style for abstracts, so I put the title in bold. View the LaTeX output to the Word output. The styles that Word uses aren't great. You could manipulate the default styles in Word to make it look more reasonable, but I've never been bothered because even if I could get it to match LaTeX stylistically, I still have to use Word, which I'd rather avoid!

LaTeX has been used regularly typeset entire books. Word processors simply aren't good enough for that job - they are used by the authors to write the content and these files are then imported into professional typesetting software. Ok, that's not strictly true - you could typeset a book in Word, just like you could drive a car with your feet - it's not a good idea though!

Output

As mentioned, the default output is a DVI file. DVI was a clever little standard but unfortunately didn't take-off. It takes little effort to convert your document into a Postscript or PDF file (in fact, you can just use the 'pdflatex' command instead of normal 'latex' if you only ever want to create PDFs). There's no need to buy additional software such as Adobe Acrobat like you need to do to convert a Word document into PDF. (At least OpenOffice has its 'Export to PDF' functionality!)

Scalability

In my personal experience, using Word for documents with more than 20 pages has not been a pleasant experience. Obviously, that could be my own bad luck, but that is also the impression I've got from other users too.

With LaTeX, I've never found such problems. Additionally, you are free to split up large documents into smaller chunks and then let LaTeX combine them altogether later (like one chapter per file). It can also create tables of content, indexes and bibliographies easily, even on multi-file projects.

Stability

One of the reasons why perhaps so many people struggle with Word when creating large documents, is because it is prone to crashes. 'Document recovery' is now a high ranking feature of Word. I'm sure people would prefer if MS would just make their software more stable! (NB stability issues are not necessarily generalisable, so I'm speaking from personal experience, and of my friends and colleagues - I do not know of a single user who hasn't lost work to Word, but that's not to say that such people don't exist.)

Because LaTeX is so mature - and developed by extremely clever programmers - bugs are negligible [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TeX#Quality]. And even if it were buggy, then there is no risk of you ever losing your original source text. Where as with Word, almost any tool within its integrated environment is capable of corrupting your file if it causes a crash.

Oh, you don't need to worry about macro viruses either!

Cost

Well, this is one area where LaTeX wins hands down, since it is free! As with most open source software, the phrase "you get what you pay for" doesn't hold true. You get an extremely mature system, that is still years ahead of its competition.

What about spell checking?

It's a good point. This is not a deficiency of LaTeX, because it just processes the words you give it. However, within your text-editor, you do not get fancy lines highlighting your spelling errors or bad grammar as you type, like you get with Word, yet it's a feature users have come to expect when writing documents.

For starters, I do not really care for a grammar checker and anyone who actually relies on it when using Word would be better off buying a book (or looking at writing style guides [http://www.comp.leeds.ac.uk/andyr/misc/index.html]) than taking the useless advice it provides.

Secondly, the 'auto-correct' feature - whilst looking like a good idea - is not beneficial in the long run. Sure, it corrects the common typos that we all make. However, the problem in my opinion is that it means we don't learn from our mistakes, e.g., you will continue to type 'teh' instead of 'the' because Word will sort it out for you. Having said that, if that's your thing, then you can easily configure any decent text editor to perform the same task. (You could, if you really wanted to, use your favourite word processor as your text editor - but then you back to square one on the stability issue.)

And so on to spelling. The great thing here is that you have a choice! Aspell and Ispell are the most popular spell checkers I know of (both open source). These will check any text file you care to feed it and you can easily configure a decent editor to integrate its functionality from within the editor itself. How to get your text editor to utilise these programs is obviously dependent on your editor of choice. Some, like Kate, interface external spell-checking programs without any effort. I personally use (g)vim which can be configured [http://www.comp.leeds.ac.uk/andyr/misc/vim/spell.html] to use spell-checkers like Ispell.

C'mon, be fair!

Ok, I am obviously biased here. However, I am someone who uses both systems. It's perhaps not really fair to compare LaTeX and Word, because they are different types of system, which are suited to different jobs. However, for as long as people are using Word within academia and research institutions, I feel I should enlighten them and let them know what they are missing out on.

Sure, Word can be extended using its in-built scripting language. It also has document management features to help with large documents. As already mentioned, it has styles that can ensure manageable and consistent presentation. Yet very few people seem to take advantage of them. This is especially worsened by UI improvements that mean Word will hide features that you do not use, which makes it more difficult to remember what Word can actually do.

Word may have the advantage of a GUI which is good for beginners. It reduces the cognitive load as it's a case of recognition versus recall. If people really want a GUI, then there are ones that act as a front-end to LaTeX [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaTeX#Frontends]. It's not a WYSIWYG editor, because what you see on screen is not what you will get when you print it out. Instead, you have What-You-See-Is-What-You-Mean editors that still hold to the ideals of LaTeX by keeping content and style separate. However, they are environments that allow a more visual approach to your content, which is handy for producing complex equations, for example, but will pass your content to LaTeX for producing the final document. Lyx [http://www.lyx.org] is the best example and was originally developed by Matthias Ettrich (yep, that's right, the same guy who founded the KDE project). You can also get LaTeX editors, which are like normal text-editors, in that you see all the raw LaTeX commands, but they come with additional features that help with creating that file, like table wizards, symbol databases, etc.

Lyx screen

The learning curve

The reason why everyone isn't using LaTeX is because you can't just load up and go, like you can with a word processor. I consider LaTeX analogous to HTML with CSS. You need to put some markup around your text before your browser knows what to do with it - and the same is true with LaTeX. Of course, nowadays, any one can knock up a webpage thanks to, er, Word, and various other visual HTML editors and as a result, they generally look crap [http://www.affordable-removals.co.uk]. So, you need to invest a bit of time in learning some basic commands, but you'll soon realise that it's very simple afterwards. Here's a LaTeX "Hello World!" as an example:

% hello.tex - Hello world LaTeX example

\documentclass{article}

\begin{document}

Hello World!

\end{document}

This that generates the following output. It wasn't that difficult, was it? To continue learning the basics, here are the best places to go:

So who is LaTeX good for?

Quite simply, anyone who is writing non-trivial documents and is tired of being let down by the performance of the current crop of word processors. If you are in academia, you really ought to be using it! Anybody writing anything maths related will not find a richer and better quality system. For example, even WikiPedia use LaTeX for rendering [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texvc] any formulas that appear on their site.

LaTeX isn't for people who are too lazy or dislike change! I personally found the investment paid off because LaTeX allows me to produce my documents at a greater pace. I know that the enterprise will not be interested as Word is so ingrained, even though their business reports would look so much nicer. Their loss! For everyone else, it's time to give it a fair try, just so that you compare and contrast, then decide which does the job best for your needs.

About the author:
Andrew Roberts [http://www.comp.leeds.ac.uk/andyr/] is a computer science graduate from the University of Leeds, UK. He remained at Leeds to study further towards a PhD in Natural Language Processing. He has been using LaTeX for three years and is the author of the Getting to Grips with LaTeX [http://www.andy-roberts.net/writing/latex] series.


Comments from OSNews readers on Andy Roberts' article

[OSNews readers posted over 100 comments on this article, most of them pro-LaTeX. When we contacted Andy Roberts about reprinting his article in The PracTeX Journal he suggested we include some of the less LaTeX-friendly comments. What follows are a few of them. Let us know what you think, pro or con -Ed.]


I personally don't like LaTeX that much. It's good for writing simple papers and theses but it's absolutely ugly to customize properly. You have to add a lot of packages which just appear to have their own syntax and incompatibilities.

Word can be quite good if you really know how to use it (styles, rules ...), of course, the equation editor is still ugly. I wish I could just type in a LaTeX formula and it would convert it into an OLE object (like equation magic lite but less buggy...).

I think LaTeX is good if you stay on the already well-defined paths but it's kinda ugly to customize without going through a lot of rules to learn.

I would like a nice language like tbook (xml dtd much simpler than docbook) and to be able to customize it with a simple css and export to pdf with apache's fop (and not going through LaTeX hacks like tbook is currently doing). Like it's done for the web but with printers in mind.



I've written a lot of documents using LaTeX and I'm afraid the author has overlooked one terrible problem; indeed he even acts like it doesn't exist! In particular, he writes: You add one sentence, which then pushes an image on to the next page, leaving a massive gap at the bottom of that page where your image once was. This then daisy-chains down, knocking other tables and images out of place all the way to the end of your document! It's a real laugh. Fortunately, LaTeX is much more clever in this respect and positions your images and tables with a lot of common sense. So, if you want your image to appear at the bottom of a given page, it'll stay there!

Heh, heh. Not really.

LaTeX is infamous for doing exactly the same thing; in fact it's worse, because its algorithms insist on doing all the thinking for you: so, if you want an image (or a math formula) in a certain spot, good luck getting it there! The choice of vspace is often determined by what goes on two or three pages before (or after) the current page you're on, so changing two pages before can really get you confused. I struggled with this very problem in my dissertation: white space would automagically appear all over the place. It took a long time to get things acceptable (I'm still not happy).

For horizontal spacing issues, however, you have the reverse problem: LaTeX would rather overrun a right margin than leave too much space between words. (The infamous "overfull hbox", whose black slug indicating an error certain styles remove, incidentally, even in draft mode... grrrr) I'm not sure why Knuth thought an overrun was such a better idea than extra whitespace in an hbox, while extra white space was preferable to an overrun in a vbox, but the result in many published papers, and even some books, has been ugly. It certainly does not look professional, but the only way to fix it is to do some really obscure TeXing, or else completely rephrase your wording (the universal fallback I've seen in all LaTeX manuals). This, I think, is the worst problem: your choice of words is necessarily less important than LaTeX's obscure rules. It's the one frustration that unites both beginners and experts: when you're proofing a 260-page document, you have to remember that hyphenated words like "S-polynomial" (for example) won't break across lines, so they need manual hyphenation, and you often won't notice the overfull 2-pt hbox unless you're VERY CAREFUL (or you pay to separate the wheat from the chaff in TeX's output).

Those complaints aside -- for scientific publishing, LaTeX far outclasses anything else. I've never used Word to write a math document; given what I've heard from people (and what I read here) I never will. It was immensely classy of Knuth to make his program freeware.



RE: Has anyone mentionned Prosper yet?

Of course, one can not expect to find all the supported "objects" that PowerPoint supports (like embedded video).

Actually, although you can't do true embedded video, you can make a link that starts an external video app (or any other app for that matter). Not with prosper (which uses the old tex->dvi->ps->pdf route) but with any of the plethora of LaTeX presentation packages that are based on pdflatex (I would recommend beamer).

As to the downsides of LaTeX:

1. It is insanely difficult to get text paragraphs to flow around arbitrarily shaped inserts.

2. As some have already pointed out, LaTeX has its own ideas about what constitutes good typesetting, which may not be the same as your own. With enough experience, it is always possible to get it to do what you want, but many intermediate users get frustrated with this. An excellent resource for solving such problems is

http://www.tex.ac.uk/cgi-bin/texfaq2html?introduction=yes

3. Programming in LaTeX/TeX is almost completely unlike programming in other languages. Another source of frustration for some.

4. For ultra-high-end artistic typesetting (think of Bringhurst's 'Elements of Typographic Style'), LaTeX is probably not the best tool, although with some of the experimental micro-typography additions to pdftex it is 99% of the way there.

Apart from these, I'd say it was pretty perfect :)



Look at the difficulty that [hyphenating] "S-Polynomial" caused. How can anybody possibly claim that LaTeX allows one to concentrate on the meaning and not the layout? So LaTeX fails by its own criteria. Secondly: I agree with [an earlier] quibble over diagram placement. Again, one cannot just concentrate on the substance of one's writing. I used to get a lot of trouble with nested lists. Thirdly: graduates may love or hate LaTeX (you've guessed, I'm a LaTeX-hater and an Emacs-hater); but clerical and secretarial staff always prefer WYSIWYG. Fourthly: where I used to work, we used company macros to deliver a company look and feel for all our documents. These macros evolved in time, with the result that old documents could not be reprocessed. So an ASCII text format does not guarantee lifetime reproducibility.



How can anybody possibly claim that LaTeX allows one to concentrate on the meaning and not the layout?

You know, I kind of half agree with you there. With LaTeX the barriers between "content" and "layout" are a lot more porous than with, say, XML. Although this can sometimes be a source of problems, I think that LaTeX has the balance about right. After all, sometimes the layout is the content, or part of it.

you've guessed, I'm a LaTeX-hater and an Emacs-hater

Yeah, I guessed as much :) Seriously, I have come across a handful of colleagues with similar attitudes - despite being obviously highly intelligent, they refuse to "get" LaTeX and demand that all document preparation be happy-clappy, pointy-clicky. They do seem to be a very tiny minority, though, at least in my line of work. Is this due to some difference in brain structure, some traumatic childhood experience with backslashes, or what?

By the way, how do you feel about GUI front-ends like lyx? Personally, I find these inferior to emacs+AUCTeX+RefTeX as a LaTeX "IDE", but a good fraction of my colleagues and students prefer them. Different strokes, I guess.

but clerical and secretarial staff always prefer WYSIWYG

I'd have to agree with [an earlier comment] that secretarial staff (like the rest of us) are creatures of habit. Feed them LaTeX from the cradle and they'll never look back!


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