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LaTeX Rant

This will probably not make sense to a lot of you—but here’s the deal: why does anybody use LaTeX?

[rant /on]

In my line of work I tend to work with two types of documents the vast majority of the time: Microsoft Word (.doc & .docx), and LaTeX.

I will be the first to admit that Microsoft Word is not perfect—but it is a lot closer to perfection than that disaster that is LaTeX.

The basic fact is that 80% of all LaTeX documents I work on have issues. Granted I pull all the documents into Lyx because the Lyx version of LaTeX has better editing tools than the pure LaTeX, so some of my problems might stem from this conversion, but the fact remains that two-thirds of the time, after receiving the TeX file, I discover that some support file is missing and that I have to contact the original author and ask for some obscure file that is needed in order to make their document work.

The replies to my requests always include an apology and something along the line of “oh sorry, I always forget one.”

The number of times that I have ever had to ask a Word document author to send me a supporting file so that I can actually work with their file: Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Never.

Not once have I ever had to ask the original Word document author to send me a missing file because it’s all there, right there in the original.  There is no opportunity for them to accidentally forget something.

The second problem with LaTeX files is that they are very unforgiving – and if they are not encoded just right, things go wrong later and half the document can appear smashed inside a table cell because… well, I’ve never quite understood the why.  It just happens.

As I understand it there are two basic arguments in favor of using LaTeX: First, it’s better at handling equations than Word. That’s probably true, but I rarely see equations in my fields of work that couldn’t be handled by Word’s built in equation editor. I’ve actually had to convert a couple LaTeX files to Word (usually via brute force since the two programs don’t really get along) and retyping the equations were a snap in Word.

The second argument centers on some kind of typesetting thing where all those things are not WYSIWYG—rather it’s all coded in some kind of external “style” file, or something. I’ve never really understood it. LaTeX files are littered with things that seem to identify different parts of the document—how this is easier in LaTeX than in a carefully planned Word template is beyond me.  I think it’s easier to select “Heading” from a drop down menu than type whatever the command is to elicit a heading style surrounding the key words. I actually think it is harder to work with LaTeX files and create all the supporting crap than it is to just do it in Word.

I’ve never actually read a book on how to use Microsoft Word: I find it, for the most part, intuitive and easy. Control-B (on Mac, Command-B) and it’s Bold. Done. Easy. Once or twice a year I might use the built-in help system to figure out how to do something I rarely do—and after pointing me the way, I’m able to finish doing whatever it is I need to do.

That’s not to say that Word is perfect. I would guess that one in every 50 or 60 documents, created in Word for Windows, will cause my Word for Mac to crash—but I’ve always been able to fix the problem but copying the entire document into a new document—a crude, fast, and effective fix that has worked 100% of the time that I’ve needed to employ it.

Now that I’ve gotten this off my chest [rant /off]; back to LaTeX.

I’ll probably need to visit the funny farm by the time I’m done.

Just warning you.

5 comments to LaTeX Rant

  • I had never heard of LaTex until now. At first, I thought you were going to talk about latex. Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with documents of any kind except very rarely.

  • LaTeX sounds like a clunky 1983 era word processing program.

    Get used to it if you’re going to be working for some sort of government agency or one that works closely with a government.

  • My sympathies on having to work with both Word and LaTeX. My double sympathies if you use Word 2008 on the Mac.

    My first (non-food service) job in Germany was in the early ’90s with a science publisher which had just set up in-house typesetting (with Quark XPress) and imagesetting. We considered LaTeX to be the Roach Motel of data formats… your data gets in but it never gets back out. We could import various variants of Word into Quark with few problems, but LaTeX could only be imported after converting to plain text. The equations had to reset by hand, and of course, the wonks who used LaTeX always had lots of equations, and always complained that we ruined them.

    That was the least fun part of the job. The most fun was falsifying scientific data in PhotoShop. (“Is that a data point or a speck of dust? Looks like dust to me!”)

  • starman1695 – documents are my life right now… and in the future.

    Cynical Queer – Governments don’t use LaTeX–as far as I know most governments use Microsoft Office. The only major exception that I am aware of, in the US, is the legal profession which still uses WordPerfect. LaTeX is a specialty software for segments of academia.

    PapaScott – I don’t actually mind Word for Mac ’08. I switch between it and Office 2007 on Windows pretty smoothly. My biggest trip-up, to be honest, is the switching between US and German keyboards. I usually have a ton of typos the first 30 minutes and then my fingers start to remember which keyboard they are on and my error rate drops like a rock.

    The wonks who use LaTeX seem to think that its the perfect typesetting software — I suspect that modern typesetters detest LaTeX almost as much as I do.

  • I had to use LaTeX at university since word processors at the time just weren’t up to the sort of documents I had to work with (I did degrees in linguistics and artificial intelligence, both of which require some weird characters and formula-type entries). I like the theory of it, basically that one focusses on the content and not the layout. However, I always found that one focussed on the coding more than the content and then ended up with a layout that looked rotten anyway!

    Funnily enough, a couple of days ago, I was wondering if anyone still used LaTeX these days since word processors have moved on so far… Thanks for answering that for me! 🙂