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: