posted by Andy Roberts on Mon 6th Jun 2005 18:19 UTC
IconAnyone who has used Microsoft Word for a reasonable amount of time will recognise my very own Andy's Laws on Word:

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

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

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

What is Latex?

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

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

Separation of content and style

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

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

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

Table of contents
  1. LaTeX, Page 1/4"
  2. LaTeX, Page 2/4"
  3. LaTeX, Page 3/4"
  4. LaTeX, Page 4/4"
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