LaTeX as a word processor?

Good article here at The Productive Student giving five reasons why students should use \LaTeX as their word processor and not Microsoft Word:

1. Never worry about formatting again.
2. It looks way better. [By the way: Very nice article on LaTeX’s typesetting at that link.]
3. It won’t crash: LaTeX is basically a plain text file. You can edit it anywhere, in any text editor, and it basically can’t crash on you. File size is very small which makes it very portable.
4. It’s great for displaying equations, which is why it’s the leading standard among sciencitifc scholars.
5. It fits in with the workflow of a student and allows you to do one thing well: Write.

The writer also shares some of his practices for writing papers (not necessarily math or science papers) with \LaTeX, stressing \LaTeX‘s ability to handle bibliographic data as the “killer feature”.

\LaTeX was not designed to be a word processor, so there are some downsides for using \LaTeX for word processing. Graphics are not easy to handle, if you are going to include any in your document. Some basic formatting tasks like footers and margin settings are tricky to manipulate. And above all, there is a fairly formidable learning curve to \LaTeX, not the least of which is the fact that you have to install things yourself (something a surprisingly large number of students don’t know how to do) and use a text editor. (We forget that text editors are essentially an alien world to students who are raised on GUI’s for everything.) And for collaborative projects, Word’s ability to insert comments and track changes in a document is really essential.

Still, I think most college students can learn \LaTeX if they put their minds to it, and the fact that it’s free and portable and “future-proof” is awfully appealing in a world where this year’s version of Word can’t be trusted to interoperate with last year’s.

Finally, I think there’s a lot to be said for something the article brings up as well: You should use a text editor to write content, and a word processor to format it. Type it up in a basic editor or Google Docs, and then import it into your favorite proprietary program(s) to make it look nice. Separating content from form will save a lot of people headaches and improve their writing as well.

[h/t AcademHack]


Filed under GTD, Higher ed, LaTeX, Profhacks, Study hacks

6 responses to “LaTeX as a word processor?

  1. Pingback: Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e22v5

  2. It strikes me that XeTeX is much easier to use than many other flavours of LaTeX, especially if you were wanting to use OpenType and TrueType fonts. I’ve looked into LaTeX but for my primary page layout purposes (sermons) WordPerfect, which gives excellent control over the page, especially compared to Word, does the trick. As soon as LaTeX becomes truly user-friendly, I’ll give it another whirl. Or if you can give me a simple/straightforward tutorial.

    Having read my fair share of mathematics journals, I’m not particularly taken by the default TeX font. It’s very functional, but not that aesthetically pleasing.

  3. Meant to say as well that XeTeX, or at least the setup in that article, is only for Macheads. Sadly, I’m not one yet.

  4. XeTeX is completely cross-platform and runs on Windows, Linux or Mac. The fontspect package is to access fonts on Mac OS but this doesn’t mean you can use XeTeX only on a Mac!

  5. It seems so tempting… yet I have very partial control of TeX, and near mastery of MSWord… and learning something new is hard…

    if space issues mattered more… or the non-crashy bit mattered more… but at this point, they don’t matter enough to make me seriously consider this.

    Still, a fascinating idea.


  6. @jonathan: You could always try taking one document a week that you would normally do in Word, and then do in in \LaTeX instead.

    For me, here’s how I decide what tool to use for a writing task:
    – If it has math in it: \LaTeX.
    – If it has a considerable amount of graphics in it: Pages. (\LaTeX will do graphics just fine, but it’s easier in Pages; but Pages doesn’t have an equation editor and it’s too hard to paste \LaTeX-ed math into it.)
    – If it will involve commenting and tracking changes: Word. (However, Pages is getting better and better at this.)

    If none of the above, then pick whatever I feel like at the time. There are days when I really want to do everything in \LaTeX and others where the sight of the editor makes me tired.

    And still, more and more frequently these days I begin with writing and editing content in a text editor like TextMate, and then pasting the content into one of the above tools. (Although TextMate itself makes for a very nice \LaTeX development environment.)

    The important thing is that these are all different tools, and each one of them outshines the other in different cases. So be fluent in all of them and develop a trusted system for choosing the right tool.