# The LaTeX fetish (Or: Don’t write in LaTeX! It’s just for typesetting)

It’s that time of year when students are signing up for study skills classes. One of the skills that science students are likely to be encouraged to develop is the use of LaTeX. Other people may come to LaTeX for other reasons: people who want to typeset their own books; people who’ve heard that LaTeX may have something to do with Digital Humanities; etc. I’ve written this essay as a sort of pre-introduction to LaTeX. It won’t teach you how to use it (I’m not qualified!), but it will try to give non-users a clear understanding of what LaTeX is really for, which may help them to make their minds up about whether the effort of learning it (not to mention simply getting it to work) is really going to be worthwhile. Why such a long essay? Because many of those who evangelise for the use of LaTeX fetishise it to the extent of spreading misinformation about its true benefits and I want to clear some of that up.

## 1. What is LaTeX?

According to its own website, LaTeX (pronounced ‘lay-tech’) is ‘a high-quality typesetting system’ and ‘the de facto standard for the communication and publication of scientific documents.’ (LaTeX Project n.d., para. 1) I’m not going to argue with that.

Commercial typesetting of books, magazines, etc is typically done using WYSIWYG applications for desktop publishing, such as InDesign, Scribus, or the now-discontinued PageMaker. LaTeX works differently: you set it to work on a file containing text interspersed with code (i.e. markup), and it spits out a Postscript file that another program can convert into a PDF (some variants will generate PDFs directly). If you’ve spent any time reading (a) papers from computer science conferences, (b) open access preprints of scientific articles on arXiv.org, or (c) documentation for R packages, you will be familiar with the look of those PDFs: the titles (but not the headings) are centred, the first line of each paragraph is indented, the lines of type are justified, the margins are usually generous unless a double-column layout is used, the word-spacing is elegant, and everything is (typically) printed in this weird, old-fashioned-looking typeface called Computer Modern.

Technically, LaTeX is built on top of TeX: ‘a special-purpose programming language that is the centerpiece of a typesetting system that produces publication quality mathematics (and surrounding text)’ (TeX Users Group, n.d., para. 8). TeX was created in the late 1970s by the legendary computer scientist, Donald Knuth, who was disappointed by his publisher’s standards of typesetting. Its early adopters were mathematicians, who appreciated its provision of mathematical symbols unavailable on the typewriter as well as the beauty that its typesetting algorithms gave to mathematical formulae. In the early 1980s, another distinguished computer scientist, Leslie Lamport, extended TeX to produce LaTeX (it is the first two letters of his surname that provide the ‘La’ in ‘LaTeX’). Lamport did this by creating TeX macros: that is, programs that write TeX code for you, behind the scenes. Very few people try to write documents directly in TeX. It’s too hard. Writing in LaTeX is easier. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea.

## 2. A fetish for LaTeX

Many scientists and mathematicians write articles in LaTeX form: as they type the words and punctuation marks of the text that the reader will encounter, they intersperse them with bits of code that instruct the computer on how to typeset the text. The computer interprets these bits of code as instructions such as ‘style this bit of text as a chapter title’ or ‘insert an ellipsis here’. The result is (ideally) a nice-looking PDF that can be submitted to a journal for review; if the journal accepts the article, then the author or authors can upload more-or-less the same PDF to an Open Access repository and send the LaTeX source code to the journal itself, which will typeset it again. LaTeX users often produce other documents using LaTeX too: their PhD theses, conference handouts, and CVs, for example. Perhaps this is just because, having mastered a particular technology for some particular purpose, one may just as well employ it for every other purpose that it can be made to serve. But there may be more positive reasons too. LaTeX-typeset documents are, as I’ve hinted above, for the most part fairly easy to recognise. A LaTeX-formatted CV is the CV of a LaTeX user, and a LaTeX user is to be taken seriously within LaTeX-using academic disciplines. Etc.

Although LaTeX places fewer obstacles in the writer’s way than TeX does, the fact that people write prose in either of them is anomalous. LaTeX is a typesetting system and a markup language. Typesetting systems are not customarily used for writing in, and while markup languages such as XML and HTML often are, this is generally recognised as a bad idea. It has been quite reasonably asserted that ‘making humans edit XML is sadistic’ (Django Project n.d., para. 10), for example, and while it was at one time suggested that the online journal Digital Humanities Quarterly would require all submissions to be in XML (and a unique variety of XML was created specifically for the purpose), it now additionally accepts submissions in the file formats used by popular word processing packages (see DHQ 2016, para. 10). The requirement to use the wikitext markup language when authoring or editing Wikipedia articles has been recognised by the Wikimedia Foundation as a barrier to participation, though its efforts for reform were stymied by the ever-diminishing community of committed Wikipedia volunteers, amongst whom ‘it’s not a fringe opinion that making editing easier is a waste of time’ (Simonite 2013, para. 22). I write this blog using the slightly simplified version of HTML required by WordPress’s ‘plain text’ editor – though every time an essay gets beyond a certain length, I start to wish that I didn’t. Markup’s great for machines to read and write, but for humans, not so much – and this is well understood by the creators of word processors such as Microsoft Word and LibreOffice Writer, both of which store text in XML form, but neither of which ever makes the user deal with the actual XML.

Despite this, much writing is done in LaTeX. What I call the ‘LaTeX fetish’ is the conviction that there is something about LaTeX that makes it good for writing in. As we shall see, arguments in favour of writing in LaTeX are unpersuasive on a rational level: LaTeX is in fact quite bad for writing in (although it could be worse, i.e. it could be TeX). This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t use LaTeX at all, but it does mean that people probably ought to stop recommending it as a writing tool.

## 3. The case for writing in LaTeX

LaTeX is better for writing in than TeX, but that isn’t saying much. Some enthusiasts will say a lot more, however, implying – or stating outright – that writing in LaTeX is somehow better not only than writing in TeX but than writing with the use of a word processor. The blog for the ShareLaTeX online editing software for example gives the following advice to PhD students: ‘Your thesis could be the longest and most complicated document you’ll ever write, which is why it’s such a good idea to use LaTeX instead of a common word processor.’ (ShareLaTeX 2013, para. 1) A fuller argument is presented by the LaTeX Project itself:

LaTeX is not a word processor! Instead, LaTeX encourages authors not to worry too much about the appearance of their documents but to concentrate on getting the right content. For example, consider this document:

Cartesian closed categories and the price of eggs
Jane Doe
September 1994

Hello world!

To produce this in most typesetting or word-processing systems, the author would have to decide what layout to use, so would select (say) 18pt Times Roman for the title, 12pt Times Italic for the name, and so on. This has two results: authors wasting their time with designs; and a lot of badly designed documents!

LaTeX is based on the idea that it is better to leave document design to document designers, and to let authors get on with writing documents. So, in LaTeX you would input this document as:

\documentclass{article} \title{Cartesian closed categories and the price of eggs} \author{Jane Doe} \date{September 1994} \begin{document} \maketitle Hello world! \end{document}

(LaTeX Project n.d., paras 2-6)

The above is a fairly standard explanation of why people should use LaTeX instead of a word processor, and I’ve seen versions or partial statements of the same argument many times. As of the time of writing, the Wikipedia page on LaTeX, for example, says this: ‘LaTeX follows the design philosophy of separating presentation from content, so that authors can focus on the content of what they are writing without attending simultaneously to its visual appearance.’ (Wikipedia 2016, para. 7) In a presentation entitled ‘Writing papers the right way’, staff at the MIT Research Science Institute follow the question ‘Why LaTeX?’ with the unequivocal answer, ‘Presentation shouldn’t get in the way of content’, and then explain this point with a series of comparisons between word processors and LaTex – comparisons each of which sees LaTeX emerges as the winner:

• With a word processor, you spend valuable time agonizing over what font size to make the section headings.
With LaTeX, you just tell it to start a new section.
• With a word processor, changing the formatting means you have to change each instance individually.
With LaTeX, you just redefine the relevant commands.
• With a word processor, you have to carefully match any provided templates.
With LaTeX, you can be sure you’ve fit the template, and switch templates easily.

(RSI Staff 2015, slide 5)

Sound terrible, those word processors, don’t they? And that LaTeX, it sounds great, doesn’t it? Now, I’ll be honest with you. I took these sorts of arguments at face value for a while, and I more-or-less repeated them as part of a published discussion of academic literacy practices:

While it was difficult to change the appearance of letters typed on old-style mechanical typewriters, popular computer operating systems are distributed with a range of digital fonts, giving millions of people access both to modern typefaces such as Helvetica, Gill Sans and Calibri, and to centuries-old typefaces such as those of the Garamond family. Such opportunities can be viewed as a distraction, which is why many scientists reject word processors in favour of LaTeX: a document markup language that encourages the user to forget about what the text is going to look like and concentrate instead on its conceptual structure.

(Allington and Hewings 2012, p. 53)

So this is – officially – why LaTeX is good for writing in. Word processors make you ‘worry too much about the appearance of [your] documents’, which is ‘a distraction’, but writing in LaTeX enables you to ‘focus on the content of what [you] are writing without attending simultaneously to its visual appearance’, usefully ‘forget[ting] about what the text is going to look like and concentrat[ing] instead on its conceptual structure’. Everybody says so. Even me. (My co-author’s innocent, btw: I wrote that paragraph.)

## 4. The case critiqued

So convinced was I that this was why scientists wrote in LaTeX that I even had a go at writing a LaTeX paper of my own (it never got finished; there was a lesson there). What I eventually realised was that while the argument is (as noted above) widely repeated, it is also wrong. Let’s have a look at that example again. Seriously, anyone who believes that making people type this…

\documentclass{article} \title{Cartesian closed categories and the price of eggs} \author{Jane Doe} \date{September 1994} \begin{document} \maketitle Hello world! \end{document}

Cartesian closed categories and the price of eggs
Jane Doe
September 1994

Hello world!

…amounts to ‘let[ting] authors get on with writing documents’ has (at best) a slightly unconventional understanding of the words ‘let’, or ‘writing’, or possibly ‘get on with’. Do any LaTeX users really believe that this is why they use LaTeX? Perhaps a parallel can be drawn with the ‘discursive mantras’ that Matt Hills argues to be prevalent among fans of cult television shows such as Doctor Who. These mantras – standard arguments trotted out again and again by fans – are, in Hills’s analysis, ‘defensive mechanisms designed to render the fan’s affective relationship meaningful in a rational sense, i.e. to… legitimate the fans’ love of “their” programme’ (Hills 2002, p. 67). Try reading ‘fan’ as ‘committed user’ and ‘[television] programme’ as ‘[computer] program’. But it’s more than that. The argument is used in persuading new generations of academic writers – students especially – to take up LaTeX.

So let’s take a still closer look at the full LaTeX Project argument quoted above:

1. To produce this in most typesetting or word-processing systems, the author would have to decide what layout to use, so would select (say) 18pt Times Roman for the title, 12pt Times Italic for the name, and so on.
2. In most typesetting systems – yes, arguably. That’s the point of them. But most people who do their writing on computers don’t do it using typesetting systems. They do it using word-processors such as Word, Writer, or Pages. And these have default settings that are (for the most part) allowed to stand. That is why there are so many documents in 12pt Times New Roman (formerly the default font on Word, the market leader among word processors) and 12pt Calibri (currently the default font on the same word processor). If you want to go messing with the font and the margins on your word processor, you can. But you are not made to. And there’s certainly no need for a conscious decision about it before starting to write. It is thus completely false to suggest that one ‘would have to’ select a typeface, font size, etc in order to produce the example document above in a word processor. One would simply have to type ‘Cartesian closed categories and the price of eggs’, etc – which is a lot more intuitive than typing \title{Cartesian closed categories and the price of eggs} (not to mention \documentclass{article}), as in LaTeX one must. Of course, typing the words ‘Cartesian closed categories and the price of eggs’ won’t produce a nicely formatted title, as \title{Cartesian closed categories and the price of eggs} will (once LaTeX has worked its magic) – but there’s a way around this which is just as effective as the LaTeX way and much less obtrusive (we’ll come to it shortly)

3. This has two results: authors wasting their time with designs…
4. Authors have many ways of prevaricating, including messing around with designs. There’s no reason to suppose that authors who use word processors would prevaricate less if they didn’t use word processors. They might prevaricate by perfecting their LaTeX setups. I know a number of academic authors who seem to spend considerable amounts of time doing that. I shan’t say that this is worse, but is it really better? Until there’s empirical evidence that LaTeX authors prevaricate less than other authors, the above is a baseless assertion, expected to be taken on faith

5. …and a lot of badly designed documents!
6. Well, maybe. But there are other ways around that problem. For example, the last three universities I have taught at all have formal specifications for the formatting of student work – formal specifications that closely resemble the default settings on popular word processors. When it comes to stopping people from creating documents in purple 28pt Comic Sans, teaching them all to use LaTeX is a lot less efficient than stating that you will refuse to read anything that doesn’t match the style guide. (Teaching them to use word processors properly might also help.)

7. LaTeX is based on the idea that it is better to leave document design to document designers, and to let authors get on with writing documents.
8. Think about this for a moment. If ‘How can we let authors get on with writing documents?’ is the question, can LaTeX really be the answer? LaTeX does less to prevent authors from getting on with writing documents than TeX does. But if neither of the two existed, and you had to come up with something, right now, in 2016 – would it really be a markup language?

The MIT Research Science Institute argument isn’t much better. If you look at the three comparisons carefully, what’s actually being contrasted is not LaTeX and word processors, but the effective use of LaTeX and the naive misuse of word processors: all three things that the Research Science Institute staff tell their students can be done with the wonderful LaTeX can in fact be done perfectly well with a modern word processor. I’ll get to the details in the following section, but for now it is enough to observe that people who don’t know how to use a particular tool very well are being told to throw that tool away and learn to use an entirely new one on the grounds that it will enable them to do things that they could have done at least as well with the old one – which is (when you think about it) a little peculiar if the aim is really to help people with their writing, and not (heaven forbid!) simply to evangelise for a community’s preferred way of doing things. The really important thing to teach students is the importance of writing in a structured way and using the features of whichever tool they are using in order to facilitate that, but instead we have LaTeX evangelism and the false implication that word processors don’t facilitate structured writing at all. Someone who indicates section headings in a word processor by emboldening them or enlarging the font size is not using that word processor correctly and will be unable to take advantage of its full range of features, e.g. Microsoft Word’s Outline view, LibreOffice Writer’s Navigator, or the automatically generated tables of contents that both will create at the touch of a button. Comparing good use of LaTeX with poor use of word processors is unfair; the most that can really be said is that you are more likely to be introduced to LaTeX in a class taught by someone who really knows how to use it, and more likely to be introduced to a word processor by playing around with it or under the informal instruction of someone who doesn’t understand it very well, and that, for this reason, the number of people who use LaTeX but don’t use its document-structuring features is probably close to zero while the number of people who use word processors and don’t is enormous.

In sum, the case for writing in LaTeX is more than a little weak. TeX solved a genuine problem for scientists and mathematicians, but it made writing the prose that surrounded their mathematical formulae rather hard; LaTeX partially mitigated that problem at a time when few other reliable computer typesetting systems existed and none were designed specifically for academic use; TeX had behind it perhaps the biggest name in computer science since von Neumann; TeX and LaTeX were already-existing, already-working examples of free software at exactly the time that the free software movement started to kick off and evangelise; things developed from there. None of these was a bad reason for certain academic communities to adopt TeX and LaTeX in the 1980s. But none of them has anything to do with any supposed advantages of LaTeX as a writing medium – and the fact that most people use word processors badly is neither here nor there.

## 5. The case against writing in LaTeX

To cut to the chase, LaTeX documents are very hard to read until typeset, which is inefficient for both writing and editing. This is a point that programmers ought to understand: if the readability of code is important, then so is the readability of text. LaTeX documents can yield beautifully readable PDFs once typeset, but the experience of editing them might politely be described as sub-optimal.

LaTeX is, as already noted, a markup language. Markup consists of text spattered with code. The code gets in the way of the content. Reading marked up text requires interpreting or filtering out the markup in order to reconstruct the actual text in your head. This is not an advantage when writing or editing prose. I’ll show you what I mean.

Here is a screenshot of some text marked up as LaTeX. The text is taken with slight adaptations from an article I published this June. In the screenshot, I’m editing it using the version of Emacs that comes with OS X, which is my usual text editor when I’m working on a Mac:

You’ll note (click for a full size image) that the title is inside a pair of curly brackets identified as containing the title (\title{The IF community}), while the section heading is inside a pair of curly brackets identified as containing the section heading (\section{A past that it could not transcend}). That is the nature of markup. What the markup is doing is good – unambiguously identifying the section heading as a section heading will help us later (e.g. when the designer wants to apply some particular style to all the section headings) – but doing it through markup (as opposed to doing it in some other way) is disruptive of the text for human readers (including editors and the original author): looking at the screenshot, we see the text mixed up with a lot of symbols that are not part of the text, and it is up to us to figure out what words and punctuation marks the eventual reader will see. That is a distraction from figuring out whether those words and punctuation marks are the right ones for the writer’s purpose. No matter how accustomed you are to the markup language in question, it’s an unnecessary cognitive burden. This is a particular issue with regard to the BibLaTeX markup for automatically generating citations and bibliography, because that markup doesn’t at all resemble the text that it will generate in the finished product.

By the way, one of the words in the screenshot is not right. It’s a typing error that I deliberately inserted. I know where it is because I put it there, but looking for it is hurting my eyes.

The following is a screenshot of the same text being edited with LibreOffice Writer. The same typing error is present, but this time you may find it easier to spot (I should add that the spellchecker didn’t; again, click for the full-sized image):

Spoiler: it’s ‘devotes’ (for ‘devotees’). Maybe you spotted it here, maybe you didn’t, maybe you spotted it in the markup – but I think you’ll agree that looking for it in a document sans markup was an easier mental task. I should point out that the citations and bibliography were automatically generated (with Zotero), but in such a way as to appear on screen in their final (easily readable) form: where the LaTeX version of the text has \parencite[see][]{bennett_2002} and \printbibliography, the LibreOffice version has ‘(see Bennett 2002)’ and the actual bibliography.

I’d also like to point out that the title and section heading are no less unambiguously identified as such in this document than they are in the LaTeX document above. At the time when I took the screenshot, the cursor was on the same line as the title – though you can’t see this in the screenshot itself. If you look in the top left of the screen (just underneath the Zotero buttons), you’ll see the word ‘Title’ in a dropdown menu box. By using that dropdown menu, I told LibreOffice that the line on which my cursor was placed at the time contained the title, and in the same way I told it that ‘A past that it could not transcend’ was a top level heading (‘Heading 1’, equivalent to the HTML H1 tag). Just like LaTeX, LibreOffice infers that text following a heading but not designated as anything else is body text belonging to that heading (although one can also explicitly designate text as body text using the dropdown menu just mentioned). Move the cursor from one line to another and the label in the dropdown menu box changes, telling you what the text on that line has been designated as. If you want to change the style of headings or of body text throughout the document, you edit the styles and then the word processor will apply the changes automatically to the actual text. You can also save edited styles as a template, then load them into any document you want, restyling that document to match the template. And of course you can share the template with other users so that everybody’s documents are styled consistently.

So, pace the LaTeX Project’s claims, I didn’t ‘have to decide what layout to use’, nor to choose a typeface, a font size, or a font style. LibreOffice does that for you once it knows what to style as a title, what to style as a heading, etc. And pace MIT Research Science Institute staff claims, I didn’t have to ‘spend valuable time agonizing over what font size to make the section headings’ – I just designated certain bits of text as section headings, and LibreOffice handled the font size. And whatever the Research Science Institute staff may want students to believe, ‘changing the formatting [doesn’t mean] you have to change each instance individually’ – just as you can ‘redefine the relevant commands’ in LaTeX, you can redefine the relevant styles in LibreOffice (though for this screenshot, I’ve stuck with the defaults, as I usually do). Moreover, you don’t ‘have to carefully match any provided templates’, because you can switch templates just as easily in LibreOffice as in LaTeX. And you can do all these things in Word as well. Actually this might be a good time to look back at the above-quoted comparisons between word processors and LaTeX, because we have now seen that they are all false: essentially LaTeX propaganda.

But back to the editing process. Okay, there’s a less eye-watering way to proof-read a LaTeX document than scouring the markup itself. This is to typeset the marked up file, open and read the resulting PDF, look for anything that needs to be changed, edit the marked up file accordingly, typeset it again, rinse and repeat.

If you’re a programmer, that probably makes sense to you by analogy with the code-compile-debug cycle. But that isn’t how most people want to write. Most of us would rather have a piece of paper or a screen that is covered in the words and punctuation marks that are actually going to appear in the finished piece than a screen covered in markup like \parencite[see][]{bennett_2002}. Never mind boilerplate code like \documentclass{article} or \begin{document} at the start of your document – running into something along the lines of \parencite[706]{lena_peterson_2008} in the middle of a paragraph and having to mentally parse it into ‘(Lena and Peterson 2008, p. 706)’ interrupts your train of thought and makes it harder to do what you really need to be doing: reading your punctuated words back to yourself to make sure that they ‘sound’ like what you really wanted to say and don’t have any mistakes in them.

Being able to edit the document that you’re looking at (as opposed to what is in effect the source code to the document you’re looking at) should be taken for granted. In the interests of producing fluent prose and avoiding errors, it’s obviously better to edit a document that has ‘…’ where an ellipsis is intended than a document that has \ldots in the same places.

## 6. So what is LaTeX good for?

Science researchers are the biggest users of LaTeX. There are also some researchers who use LaTeX (or some variant thereof) despite working in the humanities. These people are not using LaTeX simply because it’s the thing to do: they’re going the opposite way from the herd. As a result, they are perhaps more likely to have reflected deeply on the real advantages of LaTeX – as opposed to imagined advantages, such as those pushed by the LaTeX evangelists above.

As far as I can tell, they choose LaTeX for the opposite reason to the stereotypical one about focusing on content and forgetting about design. For example, one argues that ‘The computer should allow an ordinary writer to produce a polished typeset page, but Word makes this extremely difficult to achieve.’ (Goldstone n.d., para. 7) This reverses the above-quoted arguments for writing in LaTeX: that is, such authors use LaTeX (or variants thereof) because they do not believe ‘that it is better to leave document design to document designers’: in fact, they are using it precisely because they want to have a go at being designers (which is in turn because they ‘worry… about the appearance of their documents’).

This is what LaTeX is good for: not helping people to compose text, but helping them to make it look nice. If that is important to you, go ahead and give it a look.

## 7. LaTeX: a typesetting tool, not a writing tool

As an author, I want to ‘get on with writing documents’, but sometimes I have reason to play at being a designer, and on those occasions I want to think about design.

LaTeX provides one set of options for those occasions. Desktop publishing packages such as InDesign provide others. Actually, they provide a somewhat wider set. Perhaps unnecessarily wide when it comes to typical academic document types such as conference and lecture handouts. Forget all that nonsense about LaTeX being somehow better for writing in than a word processor: it isn’t. But it is better than a word processor for typesetting. And its use requires fewer aesthetic choices and less design expertise than a desktop publishing package, so it’s likely to save you some time in that regard (and give you fewer opportunities to mess up) provided that the kind of document that you want to typeset is the kind of document that people generally use LaTeX for typesetting. The advantages of LaTeX for academics inhere in its having been set up to produce reasonable-looking documents of the kinds that academics most frequently like to self-publish. Outside of its comfort zone, it’s not a lot of use: TeX can be used for almost anything, but the macros that extend TeX to make LaTeX have for the most part been created with fairly scholarly uses in mind. I didn’t use it to typeset the public report from the Valuing Electronic Music project, for example, because that was a public report and I didn’t want it to look like a conference paper.

Here are the PDFs generated by the above LaTeX file (on the left) and by LibreOffice’s ‘Export as PDF’ facility (on the right). I didn’t alter any default settings for either of them (except by enabling smart quotes in LibreOffice). The LaTeX version includes a date as well as section and page numbers automatically because this is default behaviour for LaTeX articles; you can easily do that on most word processors too but it’s not the default on this one so I chose not to have it done here.

I think you’ll probably agree that the LaTeX version looks better than the word processor export version. Whether it looks sufficiently better to justify the additional effort is a judgement call that you’ll have to make for yourself.

## 8. If we don’t write in LaTeX, how can we make use of the typesetting goodness of TeX?

The obvious approach would be to write your document in some other format, then – when it’s finished – go through it, or have somebody else go through it for you, marking it up. That’s how I created the LaTeX version of the sample paragraph above, for example: the article I published was not written in LaTeX, but I thought I’d have a go at LaTeXifying it for the purposes of this essay. But markup languages are often better used by computers than by people, and these days you can save time by getting your computer to do your LaTeX markup for you. So just because your work is going to be typeset with LaTeX doesn’t mean that you will have to author it in LaTeX.

Here is a range of options for getting your text marked up automatically:

1. Write using AbiWord, Scrivener, Emacs Org-mode, or Texts. AbiWord (available for Windows and Linux), Scrivener (available for Windows and Mac), and Org-mode (available for just about anything if you can put up with Emacs) can export your work as a LaTeX file; Org-mode and Texts (available for Windows and Mac) can additionally typeset it with LaTeX if you have a working LaTeX installation. You can also use AbiWord to open a file that you wrote using another word processor, then export it as LaTeX. I haven’t used AbiWord for a long time and I haven’t yet tested Texts, but I can vouch for Org-mode. Note that the version of Org-mode that comes with the version of Emacs that comes with Mac OS X won’t do this: you’ll need a newer version.
2. Write using Word or LibreOffice, then use Pandoc to convert the resulting files into LaTeX files [1]
3. Write in Markdown using any text editor at all and use Pandoc to convert your Markdown files into LaTeX files (yes, Markdown is a markup language, but it’s one that was designed to be simple and human-readable; also note that while Texts is a word processor, it saves everything as Markdown). Also: Pandoc’s citeproc extension provides Markdown with a more intuitive citation markup syntax than BibLaTeX, and because knitr works with Markdown, this option also enables you to embed automatically generated tables etc if you use R. You might want to check out Kieran Healy’s detailed guide to this general approach.

Not all of these options are equal, all rely on your structuring your text properly, and it still helps to have some knowledge of LaTeX (especially if you want to do something like embedding mathematical formulae). But the fact is that they exist because writing in LaTeX isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. LaTeX was invented so that nobody would have to write prose in TeX, which is too hard for ordinary mortals. The above were created so that nobody would have to write prose in LaTeX – which is not too hard for ordinary mortals, but still a fairly bad idea.

## 9. Typesetting your own book

You may be thinking of using LaTeX to typeset a book that you are not self-publishing. Academic publishers expect this sort of thing from scientists and may also put up with it from humanities researchers. It’s what Knuth invented TeX for in the first place. But here are three things to consider before trying to persuade your publisher to let you typeset your book yourself:

1. There’s already somebody whose job it is to do that
2. If you’re so keen on doing other people’s jobs for them, then maybe you’d also like to pick up the physical copies from the printers, transport them to the publisher’s warehouse (hey, they might let you drive the forklift yourself!), do the marketing using your own telephone, and deliver copies to customers and retailers in your own car. Wait – why stop there? Why not insist on operating the printing and binding machinery yourself? In fact, why not buy a mechanical hand press and print and bind the copies at home, like Virginia and Leonard Woolf?
3. Even if you only typeset your book and don’t bother with the rest of the above, Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage still says you’re wasting your time.

Not put off yet? Okay, maybe typesetting your own book is going to give you personal satisfaction, or maybe the typography of your book needs to have some particular look that nobody else in the world but you can provide. Fine; it’s not like it’s going to do any harm. (If it were ever to become standard practice for book publishing outside science monographs, then that would be another matter. All book designers would become unemployed, and most books would end up either looking awful or looking pretty much the same as one another. Not good.)

## 10. A brief warning about the endless inconvenience of anything that has anything to do with LaTeX

As we have seen, there are few good reasons for writing in LaTeX but some good reasons for typesetting in LaTeX. I have not yet touched upon the technical problems involved. If you’re not currently a LaTeX user but are still thinking of using LaTeX for typographic purposes, you really need to know what you’re letting yourself in for. Before wrapping up this essay, I shall make a few observations for the benefit of people in that position.

Free and open source software has a strong tendency towards being difficult to install and get up and running. TeX and LaTeX are no exception. Also, if you want to do anything really wild and crazy – like using a typeface other than Computer Modern – then plain vanilla TeX and LaTeX won’t do. (Please: you do want to use typefaces other than Computer Modern. Computer Modern is not some sort of universal, all-purpose typeface. It’s just the digital version of the typeface that happened to have been used for the first edition of the book whose second edition Knuth created TeX in order to typeset, and it really isn’t suited to some of the uses to which I’ve seen it put, especially in slide presentations.) And anything other than vanilla TeX and LaTeX is really, really difficult to install. So difficult that most people seem to give up on installing individual packages and instead install the whole of something called TeX Live. Tex Live wraps up almost everything that a TeX or LaTeX user could ever possibly want into a single, handy download. A single, handy unbelievably large download that takes up over two gigabytes on disk: to be exact, 2.4 gigabytes for the Mac version, MacTeX. For comparison, LibreOffice takes up about one and a half gigabytes of disk space on a Windows or Linux machine, and less than one gigabyte on a Mac. And LibreOffice is a word processor, a spreadsheet, a slideshow presentation program, a drawing package, and a database, all in one. LaTeX is just a typesetting program. This is nuts – especially if you’re using old or cheap hardware. And even if you decide to weigh your hard drive down with TeX Live, you still have a lot of work to do in getting things to work properly, and almost nothing ever seems to be clearly explained. Sometimes it feels as if getting LaTeX to work has become a sort of hazing ritual through which the pledge must suffer alone.

Here is an entirely typical wail of despair from somebody trying to get LaTeX to work correctly with BibLaTeX and Biber (two programs included in TeX Live that supplement LaTeX as an alternative to BibTeX, also included in TeX Live, or to BibLaTeX plus BibTeX – confused already? Just you wait!):

‘I get “There were undefined references” errors and [I] can’t fix it after two days of trying. I have tried switching editors from Sublime Text 3 to TeXStudio on a Mac, then trying both on a PC. I am willing to try anything at this point. …

I have read about doing a compilation trick but I’m not sure how to do this in either SublimeText or TexStudio. … I have run into many problems and taken many detours that led to other problems. I’m at a loss. Can someone please give me a few hints or keywords I can search for to fix these problems, or a complete solution? I can’t even get a minimum working example up. I will install anything.

(user2205916 2014, paras 1 & 9)

Every time somebody new tries to get started with LaTeX, that person is set up for hours or even days of this kind of thing – plus a lifetime of fiddling with TeX and LaTeX’s quirks – even if (like this user) that person employs relatively ‘user friendly’ graphical applications such as TeXstudio rather than trying to cope with Emacs or vi and the command line. This particular user has been driven to such distraction that he or she has not only changed LaTeX editor programs but changed computers in the vain hope of getting anything to work. Now the response. The accepted answer carefully outlines a solution and then explains the underlying problem as follows:

it is possible to set up TeXstudio in alternative ways to achieve the same effect. The key is that you have to ensure that the[re] is a sequence[:]

• LaTeX
• Biber
• LaTeX

which can be done ‘by hand’ (as I have) or can be automated in various ways. Note that the same general idea applies whatever editor is used: this is a feature of LaTeX and not of the editor.

(Wright 2014, paras 3-5)

Well, how silly of the would-be LaTeX user not to have realised that the only way to get LaTeX running properly with Biber was to run it twice, once before and once after! Now note the grateful response to this (unusually clear) answer: ‘The detail of your answer will be very helpful to other neophytes like myself. Other answers assume a level of computer/LaTeX literacy not all have.’

It’s a typical story. Set foot on the path of LaTeX, and sooner or later you’ll be tearing your hair out. You have been warned.

## Footnotes

1. Converting an .odt file with a Zotero-generated bibliography to LaTeX with Pandoc is slightly more difficult than it sounds. In my experience, the best way to achieve it is to open your .odt file in LibreOffice and save it as a .docx file (which turns all the Zotero references and the bibliography into ordinary text), then use Pandoc initially to convert the .docx file to a Markdown file and then to convert the resultant Markdown file to a LaTeX file.

## References

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DHQ (2016) ‘DHQ submission guidelines’. Accessed on 11 Sep 2016 from http://digitalhumanities.org:8081/dhq/submissions/index.html
Django Project (n.d.) ‘The Django template language | Django documentation | Django’. Accessed on 11 Sep 2016 from https://docs.djangoproject.com/ja/1.9/ref/templates/language/
Goldstone, A. (n.d.) ‘Producing digital documents’. Accessed on 3 Sep 2016 from https://andrewgoldstone.com/tex/
Hills, M (2002). Fan cultures. London / New York: Routledge.
LaTeX Project (n.d.) ‘An introduction to LaTeX’. Accessed on 3 Sep 2016 from https://www.latex-project.org/about/
RSI Staff (2015) ‘Introduction to LaTeX: writing papers the right way’. Slide presentation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Research Science Institute. Accessed 12 Sep 2016 from http://web.mit.edu/rsi/www/pdfs/new-latex.pdf
ShareLaTeX (2013) ‘How to write a thesis in LaTeX pt 1 – basic structure’. Accessed on 12 Sep 2016 from https://www.sharelatex.com/blog/2013/08/02/thesis-series-pt1.html
Simonite, Tom (2013) ‘The decline of Wikipedia’. MIT Technology Review, 22 Oct. Accessed on 11 Sep 2016 from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/520446/the-decline-of-wikipedia/
TeX Users Group (n.d.) ‘History of TeX – TeX Users Group’. Accessed on 9 Sep 2016 from https://www.tug.org/whatis.html
user2205916 (2014) ‘Biblatex, Biber, and LaTeX: citations undefined’. Stack Exchange, 12 Jan. Accessed on 10 Sep 2016 from http://tex.stackexchange.com/questions/153647/biblatex-biber-and-latex-citations-undefined
Wikipedia (2016) ‘LaTeX’. Accessed on 10 Sep 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=LaTeX&oldid=736123000
Wright, Joseph (2014). Answer to ‘Biblatex, Biber, and LaTeX: citations undefined’. Stack Exchange, 12 Jan. Accessed on 10 Sep 2016 from http://tex.stackexchange.com/questions/153647/biblatex-biber-and-latex-citations-undefined

## 19 thoughts on “The LaTeX fetish (Or: Don’t write in LaTeX! It’s just for typesetting)”

1. John Eddie Kerr says:

Dear Daniel
I enjoyed reading your article even though I must admit that I do have RALF : Recently Acquired LaTeX Fetish. At least we both agree that the end result does look better.

On the issue of LaTeX eliminating a lot of time wasted formating the pages I would say that there is a little bit of truth on both sides of the argument. I know that I have spent time setting up my preamble to obtain the results that I want. Sometimes I have to go to a website to look up the code that I need for a function (stuff that can be just a click of an icon in any word processor). For me it is worth it, I enjoy doing it. For a student who may have a deadline to meet for handing in assignments this can be a problem. As much as I praise LaTeX, I do caution young people that three days or less before an assignment is due is not the time to start learning LaTeX. This is something to do before the school year starts. The good news is that the learning curve has been flattened out thanks to the great LaTeX how-to videos on YouTube.

I find that the new LaTeX text editors both on-line and the software we download can be just as easy to use as any word processor. Yes LaTeX does consume a lot more room on a hard disk but it is not an issue. I have installed LaTeX Live on a Raspberry Pi with an eight gig SD card and still had lots of room to work with files. Today sixteen to thirty two gig SD cards are very inexpensive. For those of you reading this who are looking for a good note taking software that will export to LaTeX or HTML or Markdown check out the Zim Desktop Wiki.

Computer technology has displaced many jobs, I use to work for Kodak. I left Kodak to take a two year course to become a library technician. Within ten years computer technology did the same thing to library jobs that digital photography did to Kodak. I am still employed in library work part-time but my wife who is a highly skilled pre-press graphic artist, has had to leave the industry.

It is not all bad. At one time, book publishers had all of the power. But not anymore as anyone can produce a good looking book using LaTeX. As a law librarian, I see this as a good thing. (The environmental benefits of digital photography are huge, it had to happen)

My first Linux distro was Red Hat 5.0. I looked at LaTeX then and I liked it but was not to happy about the learning curve and my relative low need to use it. Three years ago I took on the task of creating a poster to display at a law library conference and it rekindled my appreciation for LaTeX and now I wish that I had kept on with it. Today I use LaTeX to publish a newsletter and other documents for the library. Yes, it is worth the effort to learn it, and use it, but we must remember that we do not have to learn all of it, just what we need to know for the task at hand.

Best wishes
John Kerr
Guelph, Ontario

1. Hi John

Thanks for your comment! What you’re using LaTeX for is exactly what it’s best for: publishing documents. What I regard as a problem is that it’s evangelised as a tool for writing them. I like LaTeX a lot; I just think it’s important to be clear to students both about its real advantages and disadvantages and about the alternatives that exist. It produces beautiful PDFs, but that isn’t important for everybody, and what are usually sold as the advantages of writing in LaTeX are in reality the advantages of structured writing more generally.

In my opinion, it’s the latter that we really need to be teaching, e.g. introducing the importance of having a hierarchy of headings, and explaining that this is how we do it in Word and this is how we do it in LaTeX, etc. Also, anyone considering working with LaTeX should know that using LaTeX doesn’t have to mean writing in LaTeX: one can e.g. write in Markdown and then convert to LaTeX with Pandoc (and this gives the option of simultaneously converting to HTML and publishing to the web). Or one can use Scrivener, Texts, Abiword, or Org-mode – all of which will export to LaTeX at the touch of a button.

On the size of TeX Live: that didn’t bother me until I decided to install a relatively minimal Linux setup in order to keep as much disk space as possible free for data (some of my datasets are quite large). I carefully reviewed the size of each package before installing it, and realised that TeX Live would be the largest of all by a considerable margin. That struck me as wrong: I only needed XeTeX and XeLaTeX, which are quite small. So I tried to install just those. While I did eventually manage it, it took a long time and was very frustrating – and what was most frustrating was that when I looked for help online, the advice I found basically amounted to ‘install TeX Live; everybody else does’.

On computer technology displacing jobs: there’s a lot more of that coming, but you’re right, it’s not all bad. The point I was making above is that if one is publishing a book with a conventional publisher (and not self-publishing it), then by typesetting it oneself in one’s spare time, one is directly taking work away from someone who would have been paid to do it. And that doesn’t really matter if only a handful of us do it, but it would matter if everybody did.

I’m sorry about what happened to your wife’s job – and about the skills that are disappearing in that industry (skills that were and still are in many cases an important part of their possessors’ identities).

Best wishes

Daniel

2. Nina Tsun says:

Hi Daniel,
I don’t get it. Why are people who do not want to use Latex so aggressive about it? Using words like “fetish” etc. I do not see where this is any less being an “evangelist”?

Some of the things you claim in your article are not true. I do not know if that is because you did not know about it or if you choose not to mention it?
For example, the settings you use in your emacs for writing code… damn they hurt my eyes!
You do not have to type in lime green with black background… you can choose whichever style and syntax-highlighting you want! Additionally, there are tons of different editors you can use. Simple ones like gedit or notepad, all-purpose ones like Atom or Notepad++, or specialised editors like Lyx.

You can write external style files for Latex which you can share and use in different files! (And work together with others using Git, for example.)

It is a very individual thing if you find something intuitive or not.
For me it feels much more intuitive to write \title{This is a headline} then to push a button, a hotkey or let a program “magically” turn something into a headline because it is sure I really wanted to have one now. This has nothing to do with being “a fan” or having a “fetish”. It is another way of thinking. My brain works that way, it is not my fault!

I am a student and I came to Latex because Microsoft Word and Excel made me cringe. The Libre Office alternatives were even worse.
We had to learn how to use it for writing our reports in chemistry, biophysics etc.. Used it for almost 2 years on a regular basis and I can say for myself that I can produce anything I need with the Office products. But at what price? Learning it was a pain, working with it feels like a fight. I fight with a program to make it understand what I want. Crashes, freezes, broken files and let me not start on the subject “should science be published with proprietary software?”.

So I looked for an alternative and I found a book about Latex in our universities library. Yes, it has a steep learning curve. Yes, I do (still – after almost two years again) need longer for some things than I would need with Office.
But I will happily keep on spending half an hour longer with every task (although I got the impression that Latex is faster when working on big files). Because I do not feel exhausted or stressed after working with Latex. It does not make me angry and I always know exactly why and what is happening.

And now I use it for diagrams and tables and plots and poetry. I use it for stuff no one ever sees.
It showed me the world of open source. I recently started learning R and Markdown additionally. And yes, I would recommend EVERYONE to give it a try! You should not try to scare people off from using it. Let them experience it on their own – some will like it and some won’t. There is nothing rational about it, just personal taste.

You make it look like almost everyone who chose to use Latex could do better if they would just learn how to properly use a word processor. I say people are different and for some Latex fits their thought process better. This is not a competition…

(I apologize for my bad English.)

1. Hi Nina

Thanks very much for your comment (and don’t worry about your English, which is great). I am a little confused, though: you state that ‘[s]ome of the things [I] claim in [my] article are not true’, but the example you provide is ‘the settings [I] use in Emacs for writing code’. Those settings are my personal preference, so they’re not true or false. Perhaps you meant that I was suggesting that LaTeX is a poor writing and editing medium because it looks weird (and exaggerating the weirdness with my Emacs setup)? That’s not the point I was trying to make.

The problem with using a markup language such as LaTeX or XML as a writing and editing medium is that any text that has been marked up will be less readable than the same text without markup, because it has been marked up. LaTeX is a poor writing and editing medium because it is a poor reading medium, and it is a poor reading medium because it consists not of plain text but of plain text littered with bits of code such as \ldots and \parencite. The less code there is, the closer the text will be to genuine plain text, and the more readable it will be. That’s why we have minimal markup languages like Markdown (which – as I point out in my article – can be converted into LaTeX). But even plain text is less readable than typeset text, which is why LaTeX – and all other typesetting systems, including WYSIWYG typesetting systems – came into existence in the first place. This is not just a matter of opinion, by the way. If LaTeX was good for reading, we wouldn’t typeset it at all, we’d just publish the raw LaTeX files.

While a word processor such as Word or LibreOffice won’t typeset text as well as a typesetting package will, that isn’t its purpose. Its purpose is to give text some of the readability of a typeset text even while you’re writing it, for example by indicating emphasised text by displaying it in italic type (i.e. like this) rather than by wrapping it in markup (i.e. like \emph{this}). This is better for writing and editing, because it’s better for reading.

Now to your question about why I put my case so strongly (‘fetish’, etc). This is because it’s not just a matter of individual preference: there is social pressure involved. Every year, students are encouraged to use LaTeX with arguments backed up by statements that are literally untrue. I go over the most common of these arguments in section 3 above, and show that they are untrue in section 4. The result of all that duplicitous persuasion is a tremendous amount of wasted time. You say that you personally feel that it is more intuitive to type \title{} than to press a button. I can’t argue with that, because your feelings are yours alone. But you also say that even after learning LaTeX for two years, it can take you half an hour longer with every task. That’s not a great recommendation.

Now, if people want to do things in a time-consuming way because they find it more enjoyable, then that’s their own business: we all have our quirks. But if they’re going to try to persuade other people, e.g. students, to do it on false grounds, e.g. that ‘[w]ith a word processor, you spend valuable time agonizing over what font size to make the section headings’, then I think somebody ought to take a stand. There really are better things that students could be doing than learning to use a typesetting package. Unless they’re graphic design students, that is… but graphic design students are unlikely to have much use for LaTeX because it’s nothing like as powerful a design tool as the industry standard, InDesign.

Lastly, I think it’s great that you’re learning R and Markdown (in which case, I guess you know about knitr and Pandoc, which together remove any necessity to write in LaTeX even if you’re going to be using it for typesetting). But there are many other possible introductions to programming and open source than LaTeX – and some of them are much more directly useful (e.g. R itself).

So of course you have a right to use LaTeX for writing in, especially if you enjoy it. As I said, we all have our quirks! For example, I write code in Emacs, which you (and most people) clearly don’t like. We’re all different, and many things are subjective. But I want people to think twice before accepting – or passing on – the idea that there are objective advantages to writing in LaTeX, because – on the evidence – there aren’t.

Best wishes

Daniel

3. Paul Falzer says:

As you point out, there are two audiences for LaTeX. The more enthusiastic audience seems to be comprised of physical scientists who are drawn to its ability to assist their composition and editing of formulas and equations. Documents also include ordinary language, and herein lies the rub. Too many documents have what I call “the look of LaTeX” – an ugly typeface, awkward spacing, and heading fonts that are out of proportion with the text. Moreover, they feature what, I am sorry to say, is plainly poor writing. Because LaTeX is not a good editing platform, I wonder whether it hides or actually encourages bad grammar, poor sentence construction, and errors of expression and reasoning.

I suspect that most users of, call it, “editing” software are either using what is at hand or what they are expected to use. At my workplace, copies of MS Office are on every agency-provided computer; employees can purchase a copy of Office Professional Plus for their personal use for all of \$10.00. That’s a great deal for us, but an even better deal for a behemoth that wants to keep the office software market in its corner. How can Corel, the current owner of WordPerfect, compete? If there is a competition, it is between products that take entirely different approaches to the task. One is structured into objects and containers, like a relational database. The other is a type stream that you use somewhat like you regulate the water that comes out of a faucet. I doubt that many users of these products understood the difference when they made the commitment or when the product was selected for them.

The appeal of LaTeX is that it seems on the surface to be an ideal combination of both: It is a type-stream product that applies hierarchical structure in the background. The problem, as you point out, is that by default it does a poor job of both. I endorse your idea of composing and editing with a word processing program, then importing the text into a dedicated typsetting or desktop publishing program that you have learned to use skillfully. The difficulty here is that the LaTeX shops that are set-up mainly around academic departments and disciplines seem to value conformity above all; the camaraderie they exhibit is based on a mythology that all they need to do is put their fingers on the keyboard and the rest will take care of itself.

1. Excellent points, especially this:

The difficulty here is that the LaTeX shops that are set-up mainly around academic departments and disciplines seem to value conformity above all

What is behind that phenomenon, I suspect, is a fear that the technical expertise embodied by those ‘LaTeX shops’ would be devalued if it were admitted that there is no particular advantage to writing in LaTeX. From this, the need for conformity arises: to reproduce the demand for LaTeX expertise, there must be new LaTeX learners. And so learning to use LaTeX comes to be treated as an integral part of becoming a scientist.

Hence all the false claims about the inferiority of word processors, I think. The idea of writing in LaTeX for purely social reasons doesn’t seem very attractive.

4. Okey Kokey says:

Try setting formulae in Word or most any other Wordprocessor. Latex can be used for literary works but afaik that was never its prime design intention. The article is interesting but it comes over simply as a wordy case of someone who has found it difficult to get to grips with Latex.and chosen to write about why they cannot use it!
The *really difficult* thing about TeX/Latex is setting diagrams. The GUI-type packages help, tikz, for example, but even they need a considerable investment in time and require a certain standard of mathematics.
It takes effort to understand and use Latex to a decent standard and it is not the easiest of tasks. But what it does is amazing and well worth the investment – if you need what it has to offer.

1. The article is interesting but it comes over simply as a wordy case of someone who has found it difficult to get to grips with Latex.and chosen to write about why they cannot use it!

And your comment comes over simply as a hasty case of someone who couldn’t be bothered to read my article but has chosen to reply anyway. (Sorry to be snarky, but you weren’t exactly polite.) I can and do use LaTeX. The article is about why people should stop advertising LaTeX to students with false claims.

Try setting formulae in Word or most any other Wordprocessor. Latex can be used for literary works but afaik that was never its prime design intention.

Stop right there – that’s exactly what I said! The second half of the title is ‘Don’t write in LaTeX! It’s just for typesetting.’

Of course LaTeX is good for setting formulae. It’s just not very good for writing or editing text – which is an issue not just for ‘literary works’ but also for conference papers, journal articles, student assignments, etc. Paul put it well in his comment above: ‘The more enthusiastic audience [for LaTeX] seems to be comprised of physical scientists who are drawn to its ability to assist their composition and editing of formulas and equations. Documents also include ordinary language, and herein lies the rub.’

If people want to write prose in LaTeX, then of course that’s their own business. But using false arguments to persuade students that LaTeX is better for writing prose in than a word processor is wrong – both for the reason that using false arguments to persuade people of things is always wrong and for the additional reason that most students find writing really hard and need to spend time learning to write better, rather than wasting time learning to typeset their writing (whether with LaTeX or with anything else). Do people really use false arguments to persuade students that LaTeX is better for writing in than a word processor? Indeed they do; I quote examples of such false arguments in section 3, and show that they are false in section 4. I’ll re-quote one of them in a moment.

The *really difficult* thing about TeX/Latex is setting diagrams.

Yes. It’s also pointless unless you self-publish, because most publishers don’t want anything to do with the results. And I don’t just mean publishers of humanities and social science journals, but publishers of leading journals in the hard sciences too. This, for example, is the policy at PLOS ONE:

PLOS does not accept vector EPS figures generated in LaTeX. Submit TIFF or EPS figures created in standard software.

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/s/figures#loc-latex

And while it’s possible to convert your LaTeX diagrams into a format that PLOS will accept (and the above-quoted page gives instructions for doing so), it’s much easier to cut out the (as you put it) ‘*really difficult*’ LaTeX stage and create them in ‘standard software’ to begin with. But many people seem to love doing things the really hard way for the sake of it (i.e. even when there’s no advantage beyond personal satisfaction and the kudos that comes from having demonstrated the ability to do something really hard), and I suspect that this has played a role in the spread of LaTeX beyond the sphere for which TeX was originally intended.

It takes effort to understand and use Latex to a decent standard and it is not the easiest of tasks. But what it does is amazing and well worth the investment – if you need what it has to offer.

Sure. I just want its evangelists to be honest about what it really does have to offer. You, for example, were honest about that when you said ‘Try setting formulae in Word or most any other Wordprocessor.’ An example of dishonesty is telling students that ‘[w]ith a word processor, changing the formatting means you have to change each instance individually’, because that is simply not true.

And that’s a real example.

5. Alisdair says:

As an opinion piece it’s a worthwhile point of view and a good read—thank you. As a decisive argument as to why one should not write content using LaTeX I don’t find it particularly persuasive.

How we write is very personal, whether on a keyboard or with a pen. LaTeX, in the end, is simply code for the purposes of creating a final, human readable, output. ‘Readability’ is an issue for the output; as afar as ‘readability of code’ is concerned LaTeX is perfectly functional, especially on a well set up editor.

WISIWYG ‘word processors’ are, in their own ways, just as clunky, and in certain cases very inappropriate and clumsy tools for producing good quality output.

As someone has already stated in their own terms, this ends up being a case of ‘horses for courses’. LaTeX/WISIWYG are not panaceas for writing good content or good output, they are tools for a very complex task. Depending on personality and need one may suit someone very well most of the time, some of the time, or none of the time, but at least there is a choice. We should be free to explore those choices, learn from others, and come to our own conclusions.

Personally, I find LaTeX very satisfying, both to use and to learn. Do I use it for everything? No, but when it comes to providing consistent high quality output, especially in longer documents I hugely prefer it to the WISIWYG alternatives, but that is just me.

One other thing: seeing the .tex extension on a file fills me with joy. It will be almost certain that I will not only be able to open the file, but that I will be able to compile it to produce the output the author intended. Other systems are still fighting like cats in a sack over file formats and standards, and even applications in the same family cannot be guaranteed to make sense of files produced by their ancestors.

1. As an opinion piece it’s a worthwhile point of view and a good read—thank you. As a decisive argument as to why one should not write content using LaTeX I don’t find it particularly persuasive.

Thank you very much. I love polite people.

How we write is very personal, whether on a keyboard or with a pen.

Sure it’s personal. What disappoints me is that LaTeX enthusiasts are willing to feed students misinformation in order to persuade them to learn LaTeX (see examples in my article). That’s not about personal choice, it’s about deception. Maybe the deception is not conscious. Maybe the people running these introduction to LaTeX workshops believe what they’re saying, having heard it years before from the people who introduced them to LaTeX, and so on and so on, and maybe none of these people ever bothered to check whether what they were saying was actually true. Kinda disappointing behaviour given that a lot of them are scientists, I must say.

LaTeX, in the end, is simply code for the purposes of creating a final, human readable, output.

Yup. As I have said, it’s a typesetting package.

‘Readability’ is an issue for the output

But also for the input, because you have to read what you’re writing (or editing) while you’re writing (or editing) it. Text shot through with code is less readable than text. If it wasn’t, people wouldn’t have invested so much energy in creating ways to generate LaTeX from less intrusively marked-up formats such as Markdown and Emacs Org-mode. Heck — if it wasn’t, we’d publish the actual .tex files, rather than the .pdf or .ps files that they compile into.

as far as ‘readability of code’ is concerned LaTeX is perfectly functional, especially on a well set up editor.

Yes — as far as readability of code is concerned. The trouble is the readability of the text when it’s all shot through with code. ‘\parencite[see][]{bennett_2002}’ is less readable than ‘(see Bennett 2002)’, even if you understand the code.

WISIWYG ‘word processors’ are, in their own ways, just as clunky, and in certain cases very inappropriate and clumsy tools for producing good quality output.

Oh yeah — word processors certainly are ‘in certain cases very inappropriate and clumsy tools for producing good quality output.’ But the thing is, they’re not intended for producing good quality output — they’re intended for producing copy that can then be typeset in a separate package if necessary (if what’s being written is a letter, for example, then it’s probably not necessary).

For what it’s worth, I think that word processors could be much better at this task. It would help if they didn’t make it so easy to apply arbitrary formating to arbitrary bits of text, for example, as putting a brake on all that would encourage people to use styles properly.

Depending on personality and need one may suit someone very well most of the time, some of the time, or none of the time, but at least there is a choice. We should be free to explore those choices, learn from others, and come to our own conclusions.

Yes, totally. The trouble is that a lot of people — not you, but people I quote in my article — evangelise LaTeX by disseminating misinformation about word processors. That can’t possibly help people to come to their own conclusions.

6. In the same spirit as your article, I didn’t bother finishing it before offering my opinion — why invest all that effort just to know what I’m talking about? But I did read the first couple of pages, in which you list a bunch of objectionable (to you) attributes of any LaTeX-generated document, ALL of which are incorrect.

I’m fine with using WYSIWYG word processors to write text-only papers and letters and notes to their pals, but I have suffered mightily trying to generate readable documents containing mathematics and/or captioned figures using publisher-mandated word processors. The amount of effort required to use those beasts for anything technical far exceeds the net effort I have invested in LaTeX and other adaptations of TeX, and the results are still unacceptably bad.

I don’t expect anyone who doesn’t know what a command line is to fully grok LaTeX, but if you want to go on a jihad to wipe out LaTeX by convincing neophytes not to use it, perhaps you should eschew the use of “alternative facts” and learn how it actually works & what it can actually do.

1. In the same spirit as your article, I didn’t bother finishing it before offering my opinion — why invest all that effort just to know what I’m talking about?

Had you bothered finishing my article, you would have realised that I do know what I’m talking about.

I don’t expect anyone who doesn’t know what a command line is to fully grok LaTeX, but if you want to go on a jihad to wipe out LaTeX by convincing neophytes not to use it, perhaps you should eschew the use of “alternative facts” and learn how it actually works & what it can actually do.

I did learn how it works and what it can do — and had you read the article, you would have realised that. And I have no intention of wiping out LaTeX, just of helping neophytes to understand what it’s actually for. This might well result in some of them leaving it alone if the thing that it’s actually for turns out to be not that important to them. Or it might result in some of them exploring some of the alternatives that I suggest, e.g. generating LaTeX from text structured in other systems (e.g. with Markdown).

I’m fine with using WYSIWYG word processors to write text-only papers and letters and notes to their pals, but I have suffered mightily trying to generate readable documents containing mathematics and/or captioned figures using publisher-mandated word processors.

You see, this is the problem with commenting on articles that you haven’t actually read. I know that LaTeX is good for typesetting mathematics. In fact, I say so in my article. You know — the one you didn’t read.

My article is written against the false claim that LaTeX is somehow better for writing text than word processors are.

You don’t make that claim. However, many introductions to LaTeX do, and I quote examples of such misinformation in my article.

But hey, have a nice day.

7. Daniel Allington:

Thanks for writing, and creating this post. I originally stopped by to skim it… but I ended up heartily enjoyed reading almost everything on this webpage.

The commenters, and your responses, kept the fire alive.

Thank you, everybody who posted here.

I do have a question

* Who are these people saying you must write regular text in latex?

because honestly, I didn’t even know latex existed until I was pushed to the point of insanity trying to typeset f(x) = pi / 2 into a computer, and I kept google searching “how the fuck do I write equations”.

You almost discouraged me from using latex entirely.

That’s probably why everybody in comments is bashing on you, your post really does come off that way. (so does the title.)

I personally find that any notepad program works best for me when just writing text… because then I can ACTUALLY focus on just the writing.)

I’m glad you mentioned markdown and pandoc =)

On a side note, you don’t have to use wikitext on wikipedia anyway (it’s :

I await your responses of rage,
at those comments in which you engage,
in this war of pro-grams that you wage,
y u so mad, that you wrote a whole page?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Sincerely,
Popcrate

P.S. You might find it interesting that this got caught in the google results: and provided a nice “related articles” link to the reference (because its search-friendly format.)

1. Hi Popcrate

Thanks for writing, and creating this post. I originally stopped by to skim it… but I ended up heartily enjoyed reading almost everything on this webpage.

Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you found the essay (and comments) enjoyable. I’ve argued for years that Open Access isn’t enough: communicating inside and outside the academy requires different voices. So I make a point of writing my blogposts in a less serious tone than my research papers.

Yes, I seem to have touched a nerve!

The commenters, and your responses, kept the fire alive.

That’s certainly true. I often wonder whether I should go back to my old policy of closing posts to comments after a week or so in order to cut down on spam, but then something like this will happen and remind me of the value of feedback.

Even the antagonistic comments are valuable because they provide an opportunity for clarification. That said, there are limits. Last year, one of my posts got a comment from a white nationalist — there’s no point engaging with people like that.

I do have a question

* Who are these people saying you must write regular text in latex?

There are plenty of those. See Section 3 of my essay, above. (Although they don’t say ‘you must’ — they just say that it’s better if you do.)

because honestly, I didn’t even know latex existed until I was pushed to the point of insanity trying to typeset f(x) = pi / 2 into a computer, and I kept google searching “how the fuck do I write equations”.

Yes, that’s what LaTeX is good for: typesetting equations. However, you don’t need LaTeX-the-computer-program for that if you’re publishing to the web. LaTeX-the-computer-program produces .ps or .pdf files for printing out, but if you’re planning to keep things in the digital realm, you might be better off with MathJax or jsMath. These take equations written out in LaTeX-the-markup-language and render them in the browser. Or you can write your equations out in MathML rather than LaTeX-the-markup-language, and the browser will render them by itself. Whichever of these routes you take, the results will look just as good. Also, you don’t need to write the surrounding text in LaTeX-the-markup-language, which is a win.

You almost discouraged me from using latex entirely.

High five! Just kidding. I don’t want people to stop using LaTeX; I want them to think twice before adopting it or recommending others to adopt it. It has advantages but not everybody really needs those advantages, and it also has disadvantages that are not always made clear to newbies.

That’s probably why everybody in comments is bashing on you, your post really does come off that way. (so does the title.)

The title doesn’t say ‘Don’t use LaTeX at all’, it says ‘Don’t write in LaTeX! It’s just for typesetting’. The reason people read ‘Don’t write in LaTeX’ as ‘Don’t use LaTeX’ is that they’ve been conditioned to think of LaTeX as a text-authoring system, which it isn’t.

It’s kinda like if I had spent my entire life turning screws with a chisel and then you said ‘Don’t turn screws with a chisel! It’s just for cutting’ and then I got angry and accused you of being on a jihad against chisels.

I personally find that any notepad program works best for me when just writing text… because then I can ACTUALLY focus on just the writing.

Yes, although it depends on what you mean by a ‘notepad program’. Being able to navigate a complicated document by headings rather than by lines really helps, and so does being able to fold away the text below the headings to reveal the overall structure. You can do this kind of thing in various ways with word processors and decent text editors. I do a lot of writing in Emacs and I recently started writing in RStudio too. I guess you could think of those as notepad programs with bells and whistles. Some of the bells and the whistles are more helpful than others.

Although text editors or ‘notepad programs’ have many things going for them, I must say that, once a text gets beyond a certain length, I weary of reading it in a fixed-width font. And that shouldn’t be surprising, by the way: it’s well known that texts set in fixed-width fonts are less easy to read (unless you’re an OCR program). To get around that problem, you either need to work in a word processor or to write in a text editor but periodically typeset your writing and then read back over it in another window. The latter option turns out to be much more of a faff than the former.

(Note that I said ‘texts set in fixed-width fonts’. Code is obviously far more readable when it’s set in a fixed-width font.)

I’m glad you mentioned markdown and pandoc =)

Glad to have been of help. Btw, one thing that I forgot to mention above is that you can write in Markdown and use embedded LaTeX for the equations, then generate HTML and .pdf versions of your work from the same original. This can be automated with a Makefile.

I await your responses of rage,
at those comments in which you engage,
in this war of pro-grams that you wage,
y u so mad, that you wrote a whole page?

As we used to say, lol.

8. It’s worth mentioning, if you don’t know it, a lovely piece on Josh Parsons’s website, called ‘The LaTeX Cargo Cult’, in which he argues that the routine use of LaTeX by (non-logician) philosophers amounts to little more than an attempt to ape the conventions of the hard sciences and their apparently more solid disciplinary credentials: http://www.joshparsons.net/latex/

1. Thanks very much for the link to that essay – I hadn’t seen it, but it’s so very much to the point, I wish I’d quoted it above. ‘Cargo cult’ is a perfect metaphor for what I’ve called the ‘LaTeX fetish’ – and of course it’s not just philosophers who treat LaTeX in this not-quite-rational way:

Despite the fact that LaTeX is not easy to learn, and has few reasonable applications for philosophers apart from typesetting mathematical logic, it is surprisingly popular, especially among graduate students.

Perhaps it’s not only philosophers who suffer from what Parsons calls ‘philosophical cringe’, and long to associate themselves with more STEMish disciplines. Or perhaps there are a range of reasons, and those introductions to LaTeX that I was ranting about above also play a role: the ones that gloss over all the problems of LaTeX and falsely claim that it helps you structure your writing. I note that they’re mostly aimed at students. And part of it may be just that fiddling with the visual appearance of a document – which LaTeX encourages you to do – serves as a displacement activity for the anxiety of actually writing.

9. Elizabeth Henning says:

Hello, mathematician here, but one of the few renegade ones who agrees with you. Because I have a learning disability, looking at plain-text markup is especially painful for me, so I was forced to resist the LaTeX indoctrination that every serious math student is now subjected to. Even junior- and senior-level math homework is expected to be typeset at many schools.

A few observations about equations: Knuth developed TeX more than twenty years before the Unicode standard, so the horrible concatenations of backslashed commands needed to produce mathematical symbols are now obsolescent because they can be replaced by Unicode literals. Furthermore, using real-time renderers like MathJax eliminates the tedious need to compile every time you want to see what you wrote. Since most mathematicians are still partying like it’s 1989 in this respect, they are ignorant of this as well as the fact that every word processing program in existence can structure documents just as well as LaTeX. There’s really no longer any reason to use LaTeX for anything that isn’t going to be published, but the “professional standard” is so deeply entrenched that anyone who bucks the trend isn’t taken seriously.

1. Hello – and thank you for your witty and well-informed response. It seems to me that any attempt to push back against the LaTeX indoctrination that you describe tends to be interpreted as ‘I am too stupid or lazy to learn to code.’ That is not only unreasonable, but – as your example shows – also discriminatory.

I hope I can make time to pull together all the new things I’ve learnt from comments such as yours. Since publishing the above piece to this blog, I’ve realised that there is even less reason to use LaTeX than I previously thought. As you show, there is in fact no objective need even for mathematicians to write in LaTeX if the writing in question is not going to be published. But as the ‘cargo cult’ essay that Josh shared in his comment shows, there’s no longer any need to use it even when writing for publication – all it really does is to cause inconvenience for the publisher.

Perhaps if enough of us say these things in public, the situation will start to change.

1. Elizabeth Henning says:

Compiling an authoritative resource on reasons not to use LaTeX, together with more usable alternatives for various fields, is an excellent and long-overdue idea.

You are absolutely correct about the accessibility issue, which is one of many reasons mathematicians should switch to HTML-output formats instead of using pdflatex. Some forward-thinking indivdiuals in trendier fields have already cottoned on to this (e.g. the Stacks Project), but it’s nowhere near a field-wide movement. This is somewhat ironic given that (due to LaTeX self-publishing!) mathematicians make extensive use of electronic distribution of their work, especially through the arXiv preprint server.

I should back off a bit on my position above: There actually is a feature of LaTeX which currently has no satisfactory direct equivalent in word processing (or Markdown + MathJax, etc.), namely, the “theorem environment.” But since theorem environments are just specially formatted subsections, there is no reason why someone (like the American Mathematical Society) couldn’t write a LibreOffice plugin or Markdown extension syntax to produce theorem environments. However, nobody is going to do this anytime soon because….well, you know the answer.