The Joy of TeX
A few months ago, after growing fed-up with the never-ending search for a worthwhile word processor, I took the LaTeX plunge. LaTeX (pronounced Lay-Tech; the X is a chi) works basically like HTML and CSS work only the result is papers and not websites. What’s great is that you can do all your writing in plain text files, and just like how you use special HTML tags to markup your document structure in HTML, you use LaTeX markup to denote sections, subsections, quotations, bold text, italics, etc. in LaTeX. Then you pick a document style (sorta like choosing a CSS in web design) and LaTeX turns your plain text file into a beautifully formated PDF file for you. The idea is that, as a writer, you get to focus on writing and document structure and not worry about formatting and styling: distinct processes that word processors conflate.
I’ve been aware of LaTeX for awhile, but the somewhat steep learning curve scared me away. I’d tried out the more WYSIWYG oriented LaTeX apps like LyX though they never felt right. One of my bosses happens to be an economist and long-time LaTeX user though and he convinced Brian (coworker and fellow Soc grad student) and me to go for it anyway. There are frustrating habits you have to break (for example, “smart quotes” don’t work so you have to use two left quotes an then two right quotes to get quotations - also, things like & and $ are special characters to LaTeX so you have to preceed them with a \ or else they’ll screw everything up), but it turns out that actually writing in plain text is one of the things I like most about LaTeX. For example:
- A paragraph in LaTeX is marked by a blank line (or multiple blank lines) between chunks of text. In other words, a single return with no blank line still counts as one paragraph. Instead of putting all your paragraphs into a single line - like word processors force you to do - you can break up your paragraph into “sub-sections” for writing purposes into separate lines. This only shows for you the writer - the end product is a full, normal paragraph - but this for some reason has really seemed to help me organize my paragraphs.
- Start any line with a % and it becomes a comment. Comments are something you get really used to in any other computer language, but word processors don’t really do this. The “commenting” feature in Word, for example, is big, bulky and annoying: little sticky notes off to the side of your page that are hard to format and edit. On the other hand, if I want to, say, delete a sentence but I’m not totally sure yet, just put a % before it. Or, if I want to make notes to myself throughout the document, like “Hey, don’t forget to add something about X here,” I can just throw in a quick comment that’ll be visible to me when I’m writing but ignored in the final product.
- Because your documents are plain text files they’re small, and because LaTeX is both old and open-source, you know that in 20 or 30 years you’ll still be able to use it. (This article, including the comments, by Mac-turned-Linux user Mark Pilgrim got me thinking about these issues.)
- And, speaking of learning curves that are worth it, I’ve had to learn Vi for my new job and, since Vi (well, Vim) has LaTeX syntax coloring, I can store the LaTeX files for all the papers I’m working on our University server (which is fast, secure and gets backed up) and edit my files right off the server (which has LaTeX installed, of course) from any computer with internet access through a Terminal window. I’ve tried to explain to several people how cool this really is, but people don’t seem to get it. But now that my MacBook is on it’s way to Apple for repair and I’m stuck computer-less, this is a huge advantage of the switch to the LaTeX/Vi combo: I can do my work anywhere and not have to worry about syncing files or installing the right applications. (Well, short of making sure any Windows computer has PuTTY installed.) As far as web work goes, this is also a huge advantage. I kinda help maintain some areas on our dept. webpage and it’s so easy to do it all through a terminal window, vi and plain HTML - while there’s a learning curve to all of this, there’s a pretty significant learning curve to Dreamweaver as well, not to mention that it lacks the huge advantage of working from any machine anywhere. Part of my old job was helping our faculty and grad students with their web pages and the time I spent troubleshooting Dreamweaver problems was ridiculous…