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Summary:

The vast majority of us use word-processors to fulfill all of our document-preparation needs. It has become the standard in writing our letters, resumes, novels, reports and theses, and most of us have not seen the need to explore alternatives. Indeed, many of us are not […]

The vast majority of us use word-processors to fulfill all of our document-preparation needs. It has become the standard in writing our letters, resumes, novels, reports and theses, and most of us have not seen the need to explore alternatives. Indeed, many of us are not even aware that there are alternatives (other than the typewriter!) to the word-processor.

Enter LaTeX: not a word-processor, but a typesetting system designed to produce beautiful, professional documents that are superior to word-processor documents in many ways. (Technically, a program called TeX is actually the typesetting system; LaTeX is a macro package that makes TeX a bit easier to use. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be using these terms rather interchangeably.) Many of you have probably not heard of it, but it isn’t a new piece of software — it has been around since 1984, but has thus far been relegated to mostly mathematicians and other academics making use of its powerful ability to typeset complex formulas.

In this article I’d like to provide a brief introduction to what LaTeX is, its advantages over word-processors, and how to get started using LaTeX on OSX.

But what the heck is LaTeX, and how is it different from word-processors? LaTeX software essentially takes a raw text-file and compiles it into a typeset document. The text-file is comprised of the content of the document structured by a markup language that specifies information about the document: what kind of document it is (e.g., article, book), what is a header, footer, title, bibliography citation, what text is italicized, bolded, etc. (If you are familiar with HTML you’ll note that a LaTeX file looks much like an HTML file.) LaTeX takes all of this information and spits out a lovely, elegant document (as, e.g., a pdf file), structured exactly as you specify.

The philosophy of LaTeX is essentially the following: the system itself handles the presentation of the document (the look of the fonts, margins, section headers, etc.) , allowing the writer to concentrate on the content and structure of the document. The writer does what she does best — writes — and LaTeX handles the rest.

So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of using LaTeX over word-processors? Let’s briefly list its pros and cons:

Pros:

  • The primary advantage of LaTeX is that it allows the writer to concentrate on the content of his document, rather than messing with fonts, title pages, bibliography pages, headers and other nonsense that detracts from her writing. Word-processors, with all of their bells and whistles, still make us do all of the work. While some word-processors can automate some of these tasks (e.g., the creation of tables of contents), these features aren’t oft-used by the ordinary user, and are not as deeply integrated into the software as they are in LaTeX.
  • LaTeX files, unlike word-processor files are truly portable. You don’t need expensive word-processing programs to view a LaTeX-produced document, and you don’t need to worry about backwards-compatibility for older versions your software. Raw LaTeX documents are simple text files: any computer can read and edit a text file, and they are much smaller than .rtf or .doc files (Although, with gigabytes of hard drive space, this may be less of a concern nowadays). Compiled LaTeX documents are pdf files (or dvi files, depending on how you compile your document), which, of course, any free pdf-viewer can open. The additional advantage of pdf files is that any viewer will see the document exactly as you intended it to look — its appearance is not vulnerable to the whim of a viewer’s particular word-processing program.
  • Finally, LaTeX produces beautiful, professional-looking documents — much nicer than the average user will create on a word-processor. (Note: You may want to check out this article for an even more impassioned rant on the virtues of LaTeX vs. the evils of Word Processors. Many of these points are distilled from this article.)

Cons:

  • Despite it’s advantages, I don’t think that LaTeX will be appealing to many (if not most) users. Why? There is a learning curve. While the average user can probably open up a word-processor they’ve never used before and manage to produce a basic document in very little time, the same user will need to sit down for a good hour or so to learn the basics of LaTeX. You basically have to learn a markup language — much like HTML — in order to create LaTeX documents. This is either much too intimidating, or simply too much of a bother to be appealing to most people. And, even when a user dedicates the couple of hours to get the basics of LaTeX down, he can easily get frustrated trying to do what is quite simple to do in a word-processor (e.g., it took me several hours of tearing my hair out to figure out how insert a bit of vertical space into a document — which I could have done in a few seconds with the ENTER key in Word).
  • It’s not appropriate for some types of documents. While LaTeX is ideal for reports, books, letters and articles, it is a bit too robust of a program to want to, for example, make up a simple note or grocery list (although I would argue that a simple text-editor — rather than a word-processor — would be better for such a task). And documents with a complicated layout (e.g., a magazine), probably would be better suited to programs made specifically for that purpose.

So, should I use LaTeX? There will be many die-hard LaTeX fans answer with an emphatic “Yes!”, and others who will just as vehemently eschew all things LaTeX. I think, ultimately, that it is much a matter of preference. If you are an academic or other serious writer, I wholeheartedly suggest at least giving LaTeX a try (LaTeX simply has so many advantages when creating long, complex, or reference-laden documents). For the rest of us average joes, who only need to create the occasional letter, resume, or report, I say check it out if it intrigues you (otherwise, it probably won’t be worth the bother).

How does one get started using LaTeX? As far as software goes, you only need to two things to produce LaTeX documents:

  1. The LaTeX typesetting software itself, and
  2. A text-editor

Instead of a text-editor, you may opt to get a complete LaTeX front-end: a piece of software that includes an editor specifically designed for LaTeX (including many LaTeX templates and commands, as well as compiling options, available from a convenient menu). Such a front-end can make LaTeX much easier to use for a newbie.

Below I’ve listed some software to get you started. There is a lot of software out there, so I’m only listing applications that I myself have used and have had success with. All applications listed below are free unless otherwise noted.

LaTeX and LaTeX-Related Applications

i-Installer i-Installer:This doesn’t actually include the software itself, but provides a way to easily download the TeX and LaTeX typesetting system. (Alternatively, if you use Fink, downloading the tetex package is even easier.)
Vim Vim: A great open-source editor that, nonetheless, take a bit of time to learn. I suggest it because, along with the Vim LaTeX Suite package, it becomes a powerful LaTeX-making machine.
TextMate Textmate: A lovely Mac-only text-editor that also comes with powerful LaTeX tools. Highly recommended, but a bit pricey.
TexShop TexShop: A simple LaTeX front-end complete with editor, previewer, and more.
iTeXMac iTexMac: Another LaTeX front-end, similar to TeXShop, but more feature-rich. I used to use this pretty much exclusively, but it’s newest version is a bit too complicated for my tastes.
BibDesk BibDesk: A graphical bibliography manager for LaTeX. A must if you use a lot of external references in your documents.
Excalibur Excalibur: LaTeX spell-checker

All-in-One

I recently discovered MacTeX, which is an all-inclusive package that installs pretty much all of the software you’ll need to get started, including TeX, LaTeX, TexShop, Excalibur and BibDesk. If you’re just starting out with LaTeX, this would be a great choice.

Further Resources:

This article has only scratched the surface of LaTeX and LaTeX in OSX, but I hope it has piqued your curiosity enough to check it out further on your own. Happy TeXing!

  1. I’m a recent convert to LaTex myself (mainly through the magic of TextMate. Love that program), and let me just say: i never want to go back to word processors. If you have anything at all to do with academia, and can get past the learning curve, there really is no other game in town.

    HTML is a great analogy: Think of something like Word as a WYSIWYG editor: sure its easy to use (for the most part) but the end result is invariably ugly, and looks the same as everyone else; there’s no character, no personality. LaTeX is like coding your own HTML: you have infinitely more control and the results can verge on the artistic.

    i not only write my own academic papers, but I also do technical support for a campus full of faculty who i know could really benefit from something like LaTeX. I’m am going to do my best to convert a few along the way. If you deal with any type of long-form document, deal with multiple references, make use of indexes, TOCs, etc, LaTeX is a breath of fresh air

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  2. I was forced to use LaTeX in 11th grade at a summer camp to write a biology paper. At the time, being new to both Linux and LaTeX, and thinking that LaTeX was overkill for biology, I hated it, because the learning curve was so frustrating.

    Now, three years later, I am ready to completely ditch Word. I am sick of watching it bounce in the dock 10 or 11 times before it opens, and I am sick of its slow performance across the board. I have started using LaTeX again to write documents, and it has been such a joy. The finished product looks extremely professional, and it is much easier to concentrate on the content rather than worrying about why Word wants to split your table across two pages!! I urge anyone reading this to give LaTeX a try.

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  3. I have been using LaTeX for quite a while now, with the latest job being my master’s thesis. It works great for focusing on getting content down instead of fiddling with fonts, space adjustments, lists, references, etc.

    One little note in reference to LaTeX: The first version of LaTeX was published untested by the author. He hadn’t tested it live at all. He knew that it would work though … he had mathematically proved it ;-)

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  4. I use great program called LaTeXit. It designed to create equations that you can export as PDFs or image files and import them into presentations or documents. It is the best equation editor i have ever used.

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  5. Just to play the devil’s advocate – professional typesetters and designers these days use WYSIWIG software, such as Quark XPress or InDesign (or even Illustrator) for typesetting and Adobe PDF as an exchange file format…

    I totally agree what a biaché Word is when trying to get your document to look just right, but then that’s what the other design packages are for.

    Word is essentially a word processing application, that attempts to tackle the issue of page layout, whereas the Quark and InDesign are proper page layout applications that allow you to perform text processing.

    I’ve used Quark for so long that even if I’m working on a simple one-page letter, I find it easier (and a whole heap less frustrating!) to do it in Quark than I do in Word =)

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  6. Ah, LaTeX… It’s more than a typesetting system. Like Emacs, it’s a drug. Once you try it, there’s no going back. Sometimes I wish I could feel happy and satisfied with a run of the mill rtf document.

    But no, after LaTeX, no output looks satisfying. Thus marvellous Mac apps, like OmniOutliner, DevonThink, or VoodooPad, seem below par, bereft of a means to export to LaTeX.

    Luckily, TextMate’s MultiMarkdown bundle does a great job of exporting from Markdown to good quality LaTeX – so my quick notes, lists, and memos can be exported straight into average rtf or pdf, whereas longer, more complex and ambitious documents can get the LaTeX treatment they deserve.

    A dvi/pdf viewer I particulary like is TeXniScope – it’s also very good at following source specials, etc.

    Another essential tool is what we can consider the best possible LaTeX environment – Emacs with the AUCTeX, BibTeX and RefTeX modes… But, as you mentioned in the case of Vim, asking a Word/Nisus/Pages/OpenOffice/TextEdit user to learn a) LaTeX, and it’s almost infinite depth and complexity, b) Emacs, and its almost infinite depth and complexity, and 3) AUCTeX, BibTeX and RefTeX and their almost infinite quirks and issues is more likely to cause them a brain tumor rather than increased productivity…

    A possible option is LyX – a GUI front-end which attempts to avoid this complexity by hiding away the TeX source. LyX is brilliant, but, IMHO, not quite successfull – it has its own quirks, so, instead of avoiding the complexity and learnign curve of LaTeX, it adds it’s own…

    Indeed, the steep and lenghty learning curve and the relative complexity are likely to keep LaTeX away from public focus… But remember, once you try it, there’s no going back. Honest.

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  7. For the last 6 quarters I have been switching back and forth between Mellel/Sente and LaTeX/BibDesk (writing papers in APA format), often writing the same paper in both just to compare.

    My programming background makes me like LaTeX, and its output looks really sharp. But I never really felt like it let me “focus on the content” as everyone says it does. My short papers (less than 10 pages) always looked crowded with all of the LaTeX syntax (citations, enumerated lists, etc). When I write in Mellel the document looks clean and distraction free. I set the pararaph style I want and then just get to work.

    I wish that I preferred LaTeX, but Mellel is too excellent for my needs.

    cheers

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  8. I prefer Pages. It too has a bit of a learning curve but it allows me to have great control over the look of my documents. I also find it easier to use than InDesign or Quark. I often use Pages to fix styles of documents I receive from my coworkers that have been badly butchered in MS Word.

    While LaTex has an advantage of being a simple text format, it is just too weird for my tastes.

    Thanks for the article however. A very well done piece. I think it will get some people to give LaTex a try.

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  9. Does it differ much from the old teTeX?
    Maybe just another way of using TeX?

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  10. I was wondering about Pages vs. LaTex, so thanks to nerrad for his comment.

    Can anyone else explain why LaTex would be superiour to Pages for, say, a book project?

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