Finding a better way

When I left my old job, I turned in my laptop. I’d carried it for the last several years, bringing it back and forth between home and the office every day. Because I could be confident that I’d always have it with me, it was the machine I used for most of what I did, including writing. All of my important files were backed up on my home computer every night, but I still used the work computer whenever I needed to deal with them.

With the work computer returned to the company and no longer available to me, I sat down recently to work on a document from my home PC. This machine has a slightly different version of Microsoft Word on it than the work computer did, so I was a little bit nervous about how it might work out. It turns out that I had good reason to be worried.

Word pretty much destroyed all of the formatting in my document. It mashed all of the indentation, the formatting of block quotes, punctuation, and altered all of the section and subsection headings so that the entire table of contents was useless. Then, to add insult to injury, the program repeated its “improvements” each time I tried to correct them. I hate it when software is so confident it’s smarter than I am that it refuses to let me make decisions, and even worse, when it actively thwarts me in the decisions it pretends to offer.

With my 220 page document ruined, it was suddenly very worth my time to find a better option. Being the sort of obstinate person I am, I went whole-hog, and began experimenting with not just a different word processor, but a whole new paradigm in how I am writing this particular text.

I’d been meaning to teach myself about a tool called LaTeX (pronounced “Lah-Tech”) for quite a while now, and my frustration gave me the impetus to learn. Having now invested more time than I’d ever intended into the project, I’m glad that I’ve done so.

LaTeX is an extension of a tool called TeX, which was designed by a man named Donald Knuth between 1978 and 1989. It is a program to produce typesetting, and a language used to notate the text in order to tell the program what type of information each part of the text represents, so that the program can make good choices about how to typeset it. In spite of being nearly twenty years old (an eternity in software), it is still a product that is so useful as to be the de facto standard for the majority of academic journals, even today.

The beauty of this system, and what sets it apart from Microsoft Word and any other word processor, is that it divorces the content of your text from its presentation. This can make the move to LaTeX a jarring one, and in some ways it was for me. On the other hand, this is a concept I’m very familiar with in software engineering, and it is one that makes a great deal of sense to me.

The important part of any document you write, the part that makes it worth taking the time to write it, is the information it contains. How it gets laid out on the page is just a matter of dressing up your creative output. Programs like Word pride themselves on being WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), but LaTeX eschews this type of obsession with appearance. Instead, it works very hard to be “what you see is what you mean.”

TeX is designed to perform typesetting in a way that makes your text easy to read. You can force it to lay out your text in specific ways if you work at it very hard, but it is remarkably good at making your document readable. When you get down to it, isn’t making what you’ve written easy for people to read the more important thing than making it look the way that seemed prettiest to the author when it was written?

Now, to be certain, LaTeX is not for everybody. As you write your document, you can’t see how it will look when it’s ready to be printed until after you run the LaTeX tool on it, converting it into its printable form. Some people aren’t comfortable not being able to see what their output will look like as they go along.

In addition to this potential issue of preference, using LaTeX also requires that you learn its syntax for notating all of your text. The system is straightforward, but it does mean that it will take you some time, first to learn how LaTeX breaks down and organizes information, and then learning what special commands you have to add to your raw text in order to convey information about what it contains to the software.

I’m very good at learning new formal syntax quickly. I managed to pick up the basics of LaTeX in just a few hours, and I’ve been very happy with the switch. My document, as typeset by LaTeX, is easier to read than it ever was, and I’m back to writing, rather than wrestling with my software. It might not be the right choice for everyone, but if you’re getting sick of fighting with Word, I’d suggest you at least consider giving it a try.

Still, if I ever meet the guy who wrote the snippet of code in Microsoft Word that kept mangling all of my subsection headers, I’m going to beat him like one of those inflatable clowns that stands back up every time you knock it down. It’s been days, and it still makes me angry to think about. Angry enough to have found something better.

-posted by Mark

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4 Responses to Finding a better way

  1. LE says:

    Welcome to the world of smug superiority in typesetting!

  2. Mark says:

    LE,

    Glad to be here, I suppose. I don’t know that I’m entirely convinced that TeX or any of its extended forms is superior for all kinds of typesetting. What I am completely convinced of is that editing all of my files in plain text means that Microsoft Word cannot possibly destroy my hard work. I’m comfortable with that being the point, for the time being.

  3. laikal says:

    You could also consider Markdown as a less painful alternative to TeX. (http://daringfireball.net/projects/markdown/syntax)

  4. Mark says:

    Laikal,

    I took a little while to look over Markdown. It seems like a nice tool, particularly for publishing to the web. However, I find that TeX is much more fully-featured for what I need to do (at the cost of added complexity, to be certain). I don’t plan on publishing my work in HTML when I’m done, so Markdown is targeted at a different application than I have in mind.

    Markdown is, however, something I’ll keep in mind for the future. It certainly looks like it would be something that nearly anybody could pick up in the space of a single hour, if they applied themselves to it. I can’t say the same for TeX, even if I am now finding it pretty easy to use, since I got used to it.

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