Testing a new writing workflow with LaTeX

 

Me: “I’ve been playing with Latex recently”

PhD Supervisor: *Spits out coffee* “What?”

Talking about word processors might be boring, but it’s a necessity. Every inch of productivity you can gain from a better user interfaces (UI), a more productive workflow, or simply having less distractions will show over the course a PhD, or even a journal article. I’m sure many of you, like myself, have spent hours playing around with formatting, or found that Word has too many features that clog up your screen that you simply do not need. While writing my post on the White House swimming pool, I was wondering, is Microsoft Word the best out there?

It is easy to understand the reasoning behind Word’s dominance: compatible with most office workers, easy sharing between computers, and generally, any alternatives are poorly advertised. But with lack of competition comes stagnation. Which is why the .Gov.Uk team have been working on moving the civil service to open document formats, and even to a new government version of Libre Office, GovOffice, or to Google Apps to save money. But these offerings are just more of the same. What if I wanted something different?

Enter LaTeX

On my searches I came across a document writing, system, called LaTeX. As opposed to word processors, your writing is in plain text, and headings, bold font, and the general structure of the document is denoted in Markup. It’s been around for atleast 30 years. But it’s use has generally been kept within the academic disciplines of science, mathematics, and computer science due to it’s excellent presentation of equations, which Word doesn’t handle as well. The LaTeX website defines itself as a “document preparation system for high-quality typesetting. It is most often used for medium-to-large technical or scientific documents but it can be used for almost any form of publishing.”

Basically, in LaTeX writing goes first, formatting comes later. Sounds productively proficient. In fact, you don’t need to worry about formatting at all, as plenty of publishers post their preferred templates online.

As a test of a platform/software’s use and popularity, I’d normally use a Google Trends. However, in this instance, seeing who is Googling “latex” might bring up some… unwanted results. Why are so many people in Germany Googling it anyway? If the LaTeX subreddit is of any measure (it probably isn’t), it would suggest that LaTeX is somewhat growing in popularity.

Some online discussions about LaTeX are almost cultish in nature. A mental image of a group of scientists in lab coats saying “may I introduce you to our Lord and Saviour LaTeX”. But overall the community is extremely welcoming (see again, cult), and LaTeX is excellently documented. But I was wondering if this was a case of “it’s good because I use it” or it’s good because it’s good.

 

Growth of the /r/LaTeX subreddit

 

Testing & Evaluation

Installing LaTeX is the easy part. However, the learning curve is steep, and I found that to be quite jarring. Especially so when you’re part way through a document and you have to quickly look up how to make a new heading. So while the simplicity is nice… (which I could just get from a notepad, I suppose) the complexity completely ruins all the potential benefits for the average politics student. While I can see the fun in having a computer science student having to set their documents using code… when you’re trying to wriggle around concepts of political representation at the same time, it’s less good.

The argument in its effectiveness really boils down to a similar argument that can be found between QWERTY and DVORAK layouts on keyboards. That is while the established QWERTY (designed so typewriters wouldn’t jam up) keyboard is less efficient compared to that of its DVORAK (designed for speed of typing) kin, the time investment to swap over, in most cases, isn’t worthwhile.

When writing this blog, I found (subjective & anecdotally) that LaTeX made no difference to me. In terms of productivity at-least. However, I really did end up missing the spellchecking of Word, and yes, even that over complex UI. It seems the final result is stick to what you know, if the time investment isn’t worth while. Although, it’s worth mentioning that LaTeX has a multitude of different editors, some of which even allow for online collaboration, but my experience is only based on TeXworks. So some may come with features I was missing out on (for example easy image embedding). But I have been told TeXworks is a good representation of LeTex on the whole.

In the end, LaTex simply isn’t what I wanted it to be. And that’s OK, it’s a system for another purpose, and it’s main advantages is probably for those who want to export a beautifully formatted PDF effortlessly (which you can copy and paste from Word into LaTex for). To conclude, while LaTeX isn’t what I was hoping for, in the future I’m going to have some rad looking documents.

 

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