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
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:
(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…
…instead of this…
Cartesian closed categories and the price of eggs
…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:
- 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.
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 (not to mention ), 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 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)
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
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.)
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 (), while the section heading is inside a pair of curly brackets identified as containing the section heading (). 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 and , 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 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 . Never mind boilerplate code like or at the start of your document – running into something along the lines of 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 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:
- 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.
- Write using Word or LibreOffice, then use Pandoc to convert the resulting files into LaTeX files 
- 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:
- There’s already somebody whose job it is to do that
- 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?
- 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[:]
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.
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.
Allington, D and Hewings, A (2012). ‘Writing in English‘. In: Allington, D. and Mayor, B. (eds.) Communicating in English: talk, text, technology. London: Routledge. pp. 47-76.
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
If given the choice, I choose not to use Microsoft Word. My experience with the program over many decades now has been that, despite its almost complete dominance of the word-processing sphere, Word is a program that does not handle long-form scholarly writing well. It is, like its kin in the MS Office Suite family, a program designed with businesspeople in mind: people writing letters and reports, making presentations, processing financial data, and communicating within a rather narrow band of kinds of documents. While this is all well and good, and probably covers a significant proportion of the electronic documents out there, it has not met my needs as a reliable program for typesetting long papers, dealing with footnotes and bibliographic information, handling images, captions, tables, and cross-references, and doing this all in a flexible, intelligent, and, not least of all, aesthetically pleasing manner.
Most importantly, I hate wrangling with software that I am forced to use not because it is designed for what I am doing or is the best fit for my needs, but because it enjoys an inexplicably huge market share, and, also presumably, because people in the humanities are not, by and large, writing their own software to meet their needs. I watched many colleagues in graduate school pulling their hair out towards the end of their Ph.D.s because Word would continually crash while they were putting the finishing touches on a 60-page chapter, or as they tried to generate a table of contents, or when they finally were attempting to put all their completed chapters into one long document. I myself had moved away from Word before I began my postgrad; all of this, plus my continual frustration with Word while working a job, convinced me that I would only use it to typeset my dissertation if I absolutely had to.
Fortunately, one of the best and most useful things I learned in college was a markup language called LaTeX. LaTeX and its variants were designed with the needs of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers in mind — TeX is particularly excellent at handling mathematical expressions, equations, tables, figures, and the like — and was pretty much the unofficial standard mode of typesetting at MIT. Every problem set I ever received during my undergraduate years had been formatted in TeX (or a variant thereof), and, like pretty much anyone with some exposure to the hard sciences, I quickly began to be able to recognize TeXed documents when I encountered them. (The default Computer Modern font is the first dead giveaway; although TeX is highly customizable in the fonts department; read on.)
And, like many MIT undergrads (at least in the nineties), I learned to use LaTeX to typeset my own documents: at first particularly term papers, because of the powerful bibliographic-handling powers of its counterpart, BibTeX, but also letters, meeting agendas and lists, short writing assignments, and, eventually, my resume. Like HTML, TeX is a markup language that gives instructions for how to format text; it’s not coding per se, but style-guiding. It is incredibly powerful, highly customizable, pretty easy to get the hang of in its most basic form, and unsurpassed in creating documents of beauty and simplicity.
Over the years, I have tried to convince other humanists who may never have encountered LaTeX that they should consider learning it; and I have rejoiced when I have run across others in history and allied fields who also use TeX to do their writing and typesetting. (Philologists, linguists, and people who deal with a lot of non-Roman alphabets tend to be familiar with LaTeX. And, of course, apostate scientists and engineers like me and a few of my colleagues.) This post is an attempt to enumerate as well as understand in greater depth my reasons for doing my own work in LaTeX, and to perhaps convince others that learning an unfamiliar markup language is worth their while. In the process, I also want to consider some of the benefits and challenges of using TeX typesetting in the humanities, and discuss why it is that more of my colleagues in history remain unfamiliar with it, despite its enormous strengths for anyone working on long manuscripts with lots of complex bibliographic information.
There are a host of reasons — technical, aesthetic, psychological, educational, and practical — for choosing LaTeX as your typesetting environment. Here are my main justifications for why I have chosen and stuck with TeX, and why I think it’s worth considering, even if you’ve never heard of such a thing before.
LaTeX is Open Source.
Because LaTeX is an open-source means of typesetting, it is both free to you, and supported by a vibrant community of users who are constantly improving and adding to its functionality. You do not have to buy LaTeX, or any programs associated with it. This is particularly good news for graduate students: no more having to shell out tons of money to Microsoft just to write your seminar papers, for LaTeX is free. It works on all the major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, Unix/Linux), and, what is more, has very user-friendly standard installs of the TeX distribution for each of these environments. I run TeXLive on MacOS. If you’re working in Windows, you’ll probably want to get a perl interpreter (why perl does not come packaged with Windows is completely beyond me!); beyond that, a standard Windows install and package manager like MikTeX is all you’ll need.
The TeX user community at tug.org and beyond is an incredible resource as well. When you run into problems — and you will — you will almost always be able to solve them with a quick web search for your issue and a perusal of the bulletin boards and blogs devoted to LaTeX and fixing common problems. Chances are, someone else has run into the same problem you are having, and has posted how to solve it, or had their question answered by an expert on a message board. There is no LaTeX problem I have ever run into that I couldn’t solve in pretty short order by consulting the web. I have never even had to create a new posting about an issue — everything has always been solved before me, or I have found enough guidance out there to solve the problem myself.
LaTeX is designed for scholarly writing, and handles everything you can throw at it intelligently and with aplomb.
Whether you are producing a cover letter, a C.V., an article, a manual, a seminar paper, a dissertation, a book manuscript, or just about anything else you can think of, LaTeX has a package or a style for it. It is the original “there’s an app for that.” Need to change your style of page numbering midway through a document, or reset a counter for figures, notes, or pages? Easy. Want to play around with how all your headings are displayed? No problem. Want to product an incredibly long and complicated document with chapters, headings and subheadings, a title page, hundreds of footnotes, a bibliography, a list of archives consulted, a table of contents, and more? LaTeX was born to do it. As the woman who did the prechecks on my dissertation at the UW grad school said to me, “There’s nothing LaTeX can’t do.” “I agree!” I responded, knowing at that moment that everything was going to be just fine.
It is true: LaTeX has been able to handle everything I have thrown at it, and to do it in an elegant fashion, both technically and aesthetically. What is more, each time I have tried to do something new, I have learned something useful, enjoyed the process of figuring it out, and felt extremely proud of the results. Contrast this with how you tend to feel when you’re trying to get Word to stop forcing a page break when all the white space says it shouldn’t, or something else particularly frustrating that you’ve encountered in your tangles with that program. No contest there.
LaTeX allows you to write from your sources, and build highly modular documents.
When you’re working on a writing project that’s more than a couple of pages, you usually have bits and scraps that you want to hang on to, but that you’re not sure you want to appear in the final version. When you work in a word processor like Word, you usually have to cut and paste these onto a separate page at the end of the document, or into a new document altogether. This can be a huge pain in the butt, since it usually means scrolling around to different parts of your document, or switching back and forth between two documents, to find and grab the thoughts, ideas, notes, or other structuring information that you’re using as a writer, but which shouldn’t appear in the version the reader sees.
Separating editing and processing through a program like LaTeX means you can hang on to your work in the raw source, but have it not display in the typeset output. You can simply comment out the words by placing a “%” at the beginning of the line, sentence, paragraph, quotation, or note-to-self you don’t want to reader to see, and POOF! it’s gone, visible only to you as the source editor. This allows you to write in an incredibly modular way if you so desire, moving things around, commenting them out or putting them back in as your project evolves and as the argument demands. Everything is in one place: no more “excerpts” or “notes” files lying around, muddying the waters. It’s all in the source, ready to be brought to light.
This is particularly useful as a writing aid, especially when I am starting a new piece of writing. Often, I like to get all my quotes and sources in one place, and use them to build my argument. But, as I’m writing, I want to see how everything is displaying, and how long the finished document is, without those quotes and sources being included in the word or page count. If you input all your quotes and evidence, and comment it out, you can write around your sources and then add them in as you decide which ones are best for your argument. No more searching around for that quotation — it’s right there!
The ability to comment out parts of your source document is also quite useful when you’re playing with formatting. It means you can save one setting that you like on a commented-out line, replacing it with a line that calls for a different kind of formatting, but which you could always toggle-off and toggle back on if you want to switch back to the way it was before. Handy for the document preamble, especially if you write good comments about what each different setting will do.
The separation of editing and processing is also good if you want to collaborate on documents using a versioning control system. Google Docs can do this to some extent, but there’s nothing like a good old reliable CVS for really making sure that you’re not overwriting someone else’s work. Of course, the chances of finding someone in the humanities who knows what the heck I’m taking about here is so small that this point is pretty unimportant in the whole scheme of things. Still. It’s the truth.
BibTeX is the most powerful, customizable, and robust bibliographic management tool out there.
Probably the main reason I have stuck with LaTeX throughout graduate school, despite at least one professor’s complaints about not being able to “track changes” in a Word document to give me feedback, is not LaTeX itself, but its allied bibliographic management protocol, BibTeX. I have used many kinds of bibliographic software that are standard in academia — EndNote, RefWorks, and the honestly pretty awesome Zotero — but I have yet to find one that would make me switch from BibTeX. BibTeX is incredibly robust and flexible, handles cross-references and other complicated aspects of your database queries impeccably, and integrates seamlessly with LaTeX. It has at least one great GUI frontend, BibDesk, and the option of letting you really fool around in the raw DB text if you so desire. What should convince historians that LaTeX/BibTeX is for them is actually a slightly newer implementation of BibTeX called biblatex and its counterpart engine biber, particularly the historian style, which hews to Chicago/Turabian and — the thing I’ve not found in any other bibliography management system — handles archival sources absolutely perfectly. You can generate bibliographies that automatically separate unpublished and published sources, that generate a list of archival abbreviations for your reader, and that exclude certain types of sources you might not want to appear in your final list of references. Its power is unmatched in my experience, and it was completely critical in making my footnotes and bibliography a relative breeze when it came down to the wire.
LaTeX is a thing of beauty, and produces things of beauty.
Using LaTeX is an aesthetic experience on two levels. It is an elegant program in its design, implementation, and functionality; and the documents it produces are themselves extremely aesthetically pleasing. If you care about fonts, kerning, and proper text handling, LaTeX is definitely for you. But LaTeX is also for you if you like your software to work reliably and intelligently. It is not bloated or over-engineered. It is infinitely customizable with packages, styles, fonts, and other add-ons. It works beautifully; and when it doesn’t work, you as a user are able to fix it.
The difference again stems from the separation of editing and processing. Word is processing your text on the fly as you edit: it can’t see the whole you imagine, and it is making its adjustments based on the immediate surroundings, and what it can imagine you want to do is limited by that (hence its often hideous output). Because in LaTeX you edit your text, then process it, the compiler has a look at everything before it decides how it’s going to lay everything out. As a result, its “instincts” about how to format text, images, references, notes, and everything else are usually more correct (or better designed) than Word’s, which are situational, rather than holistic.
Why not Word?
My reasons for sticking to LaTeX have almost as much to do with my dissatisfactions with Word as they do the joys of working to master LaTeX. This is not to say that I will never use Word, or that I don’t know how to do all the things I’ve described above using Word — Word can do them, and will, albeit in an incredibly glitchy and frustrating way which drives me bonkers — it’s just that, if given the choice, I prefer to work in a typesetting environment that makes me feel like I am mastering something useful and well designed, rather than banging my head against a wall repeatedly for little reward. Does this sound familiar to you? It doesn’t have to be that way.
You are not a cubicle drone: you have a choice in how you typeset your work, and you can choose to use software that was designed for you, rather than without your needs in mind.
My main complaint about Word is that it’s a program designed almost entirely for business people: writers of reports, memoranda, letters, and other short-form documents that do not require the kind of complicated typesetting that scholarly writing consistently demands. And when you work in Word, you feel this constantly: this program was not designed for me and my needs. It makes you feel like you’re at war with your software, constantly trying to force it to do things they way you want it to, and constantly being stymied by its endless layers of supposedly helpful settings that put abstraction barrier after abstraction barrier between you and your work. It is technically true that Word can do all the stuff we as historians want it to do; but I ask you, does it do all of this smoothly, uncomplainingly, and with minimal frustration to you? If your experience has been anything like mine, the answer is a resounding “no.” Oh, you want that text to flow around this image in a sensible manner? Oh, you’d like me to position this page break in a place that doesn’t create enormous amounts of white space? Oh, you’d like to play with your styles and formatting without screwing up the whole document? Sorry, that will cost you several hours of annoyance. Please, read on.
When you work in LaTeX, you are working in an environment that was designed with the needs of scholars in mind. Once you get the hang of TeX, you will understand just how poor a fit Word is for the kind of work you do. You will realize that you can do more, more easily, more robustly, more powerfully, and with a smaller kilobyte footprint than you could possibly do in Word. And when things break, you’ll learn how to fix them.
Wrangling with LaTeX is more rewarding than wrangling with Word.
Okay, I’ve been painting TeX as this masterpiece, when the reality is that nothing is perfect: you will definitely experience frustrations with LaTeX, just as you will with any software. (I promise you that at some point you will have a serious breakdown over margins or document layout, something you think about almost never in Word.) But I want to suggest that your experiences wrangling with LaTeX to get something to display the way you want it to will be rewarding to you in ways that they can never be in Word. (And I promise you also that you will solve your margin problem, possibly with something as simple as a quick web search or a helpful message-board posting or, more involvedly, learning a bit about a new package, and you will feel so good about having done so that you will take yourself out for ice cream thereafter and try to explain to your friends why you’re so happy. Finally, I promise you that they will think you are insane.)
As I’ve been writing this post, wanting to make this argument about the comparative rewards of troubleshooting in TeX versus Word, I have been asking myself, is this really true? Don’t you learn things when you figure out how to do something in Word too? Aren’t those tricks useful later on? To be sure, the more you use any software or tool, the more familiar you are with its workings, and the better you get at bending them to your will as a user. You asymptotically approach mastery. This happens in Word, just as it does in LaTeX.
The difference is something I haven’t been able to articulate well thus far, partly because I don’t want to simply fall back on an argument that is in form equivalent to “it’s better to know how your car works at least on some level than to treat it as a black box.” (I believe this, but I’m not sure it’s sufficient, and I don’t think everyone feels this way.) But it has something to do with the level at which you’re interacting with the program: in the case of Word, the surface, where what is possible is limited by what the software designers imagined you might want to do, and is therefore premised on assumptions about who users are, which I think is pretty clear (businesspeople, admin assistants, writers of reports and memos). When you work in LaTeX, you are working more on the inside of things, and what you can change and modify to meet your needs is enlarged. More options are open to you because you participate in the design of the program, in a way.
I’m still not satisfied with this answer, and I hope commenters will help me sort out what I am trying to get at here; but I will say this: When I get something to work in Word, I feel frustration at the existence of the problem, anger and my inability to find out what is causing it, exhaustion with my inability to solve it elegantly, boredom at my attempts to work around it, and relief when it’s finally sorted. When I get something to work in LaTeX, I feel confusion, a desire to know what’s happening, interest and a desire to solve the problem, enlarged knowledge once I’ve figured it out, and pride in my resulting handiwork. Two very different experiences. I’ll leave it at that for now.
Why not LaTeX?
To be fair, there are plenty of arguments for not journeying too far down the rabbit hole. The first and most important one is publication: I have not thus far run across a major journal in my field that proclaims on its web site that it will accept manuscripts in TeX. I find this a bit sad, since many journals in the sciences expect to receive documents in LaTeX, and provide TeX stylesheets or templates for those submitting manuscripts, which I think would make the whole process easier for everyone, not least of all the editors and typesetters at those journals. But I have the sinking feeling that most history journals would be a bit befuddled, or annoyed, if I tried to get them to accept my TeX source. There are some okay LaTeX-to-RTF converters, but it is true that this is one major problem that stands in the way of wider adoption of TeX outside the sciences. The DOC’s dominance in the humanities remains unchallenged, and individuals are not going to do it. This is a big structural roadblock that should be an enormous caveat for people considering following my advice in the above paragraphs, and I won’t try to deny its importance.
Alongside the issue of publication is that of collaboration: as I am embarking on a couple of article projects with colleagues, I am realizing that a lot of time with Word is in my future. That’s okay — articles are short, and Word can handle them pretty well — but there’s a nerdy part of me that wishes I could just collaborate with people using a versioning system and the raw TeX source. That is a dream that will certainly remain unfulfilled.
There are other obvious reasons not to move to LaTeX as well: having to learn a markup language that most people in the field have never encountered, working in a text-based environment rather than a GUI (although people who like to work WYSIWYG should consider LyX), having a steep learning curve before you become comfortable with the vagaries of LaTeX, and having people complain when you don’t send them DOCs to track changes on. But, despite these cons, I remain convinced that, for scholars working on large complex manuscripts, LaTeX really is the gold standard.
I harbor no illusions about this, though: the pressures to hew to Word are enormous, and the rewards of doing work in LaTeX are largely personal rather than social. No one in the humanities will pat you on the back for TeXing your dissertation, and there aren’t any prizes to be had for “best TeX source” or “most beautiful manuscript.” (It’s too bad — that’s an award I could really compete for in my field.) Your labors will be largely invisible to your colleagues, and only your friends in the sciences or from back in college will look at the finished product as a masterpiece of markup as well as of scholarship. You will have to be content with the knowledge that you really did a good job, and the satisfaction that comes from that job well done. (And you may impress some scientists down the road at some point. If you tell them, they will be impressed.)
I also will say that I do not think that TeX is good for everything. But what it is good for — typesetting complex and/or lengthy manuscripts, dealing with references, notes, and counters, and other allied challenges of word processing — it really is best for, I think. Even just knowing such things are possible and out there should be enough to get any scholar who works in Word to ask herself whether she really is working in the best possible way.
The rewards of making something.
For me, in the end, the issue comes down to temperament and disposition. I enjoy the challenge of solving a problem when I know that doing so will teach me something that I will use in the future. I also enjoy feeling like the products of my labors are just that, not solely in terms of their intellectual content, but in terms of how they are presented, formatted, and laid out. I want to produce something I can be proud of as both a work of scholarship and a work of the printed word. LaTeX allows me to do that all the time; with Word, those rewards are harder-won.
If you do not garner any satisfaction from making something from scratch, from tinkering and getting something right, from learning a bit about what’s going on inside the black box of your word-processing, LaTeX is probably not for you. But if you like to do things right, and elegantly, and beautifully; if it matters to you how your document is produced; if you take a certain amount of perhaps unspoken pride in the process of crafting your document alongside your words; then you should consider learning LaTeX. It’s one of the most valuable skills I have ever taught myself, and it involves me in a continuous process of learning and developing those skills while I practice my scholarship. Doing the two together is enormously rewarding for me, and I hope others find reasons to do so as well. (I know that I am not alone here!) I hope that this post at the very least opens more people’s eyes to the options that are available to them, so that they do not assume that they have to do everything in Word if they’d prefer not to. Perhaps most importantly, the more humanists who use LaTeX, the more and better tools there will be for us to do our work well.