[Opinion piece, and therefore subjective ...]
I wrote my textbook, most of my research articles (except joint articles initiated by my collaborators, who tend to use MS Word), most of my research proposals, most of my letters, my CV, and the pages at this web site, in LaTeX. One reason is so I can take advantage of the amazing typesetting capabilities and other features of TeX, along with the convenience features of LaTeX and its modern engines such as pdflatex, xelatex, modern font support, and so forth. I refer to these collectively as LaTeX in what follows.
After looking at the table example elsewhere on this web site, for example, you may wonder Why use LaTeX for anything? It looks complicated.
In fact, there are good reasons for not using LaTeX, and sometimes people who like LaTeX put forward arguments for using it that aren’t convincing. A take-down of some of these arguments can be found in this blog post (make sure you also read through the lively discussion of the article). A piece by another author refers to a ‘LaTeX cargo cult’. One of the most frequently given reasons for using LaTeX is that it focuses you on the content of your document rather than its layout and formatting. However, arguments in favor of LaTeX tend to be based on comparing the effective use of LaTeX with a naive misuse of a word processor. For example, modern word processors support style sheets that one can edit, much like it is possible to change the layout and formatting of a document written in LaTeX by modifying the document style and related definitions. The usual arguments against using LaTeX would seem to make that same mistake in reverse, i.e., effective use of a word processor vs. ineffective use of LaTeX. Effective use of a word processor or LaTeX each requires some learning. Regarding content vs. layout, I admit that in addition to content I have probably spent too much time making my documents look exactly as I want. What made me adopt LaTeX in the first place were the beautifully typeset documents it produces, and the seamless integration of text and math. For some examples, check out the author-generated PDFs of some of my review articles elsewhere on this web site, or some of the templates at overleaf.com.
LaTeX comes with a steeper learning curve than a word processor to get
anything out of it, and tweaking the results to your liking can consume
quite a bit of additional time. If you don’t get a lot of pleasure from the
results it produces, LaTeX is probably not for you.
Tables (see an example) are not super-easy to design in vanilla LaTeX. Not
a problem for small tables. For LaTeX documents that require complex
tables, I use Excel with the excel2latex Visual basic macro, which makes
table design very easy.
Inclusion of figures used to be problematic in old versions of LaTeX, but
on a modern system that should not be an issue. Figure placement can be
tricky, however, especially with a document that has lots of them on every
page, and in particular if the figures are arranged in an irregular fashion or
if text is required to flow around them. For such documents, you probably
want to use a desktop publishing software that gives you fine control over
the layout in a much easier way than what LaTeX et al. have to offer.
Regarding figure placement, I have heard many bad stories from users of
word processors about misplaced or disappearing figures, so this seems to
be more of a general problem.
No WYSIWYG (‘what you see is what you get’). Not a deal breaker
for me, but this might really turn off some people. You have to develop
a source file with LaTeX code, much like a program code, and run it
through a LaTeX engine, before you can view the typeset output. [The
LyX program may offer a suitable compromise for someone who is mainly
worried about the lack of visual markup in the editor, and it also helps
with creating tables in LaTeX.]
BibTeX is a very powerful tool for referencing literature, and it is very
convenient to use, especially in conjunction with a bib database manager
such as JabRef. So far, this is pro-LaTeX. However, if you have to tweak
an existing BibTeX style (bst) file, or create a new one, to the exact
specifications of a publisher, taming the BeaST can be challenging.
Not all scientific publishers support LaTeX as well as you would think.
There is no such problem if you write your stuff with Word. For me,
pandoc is a great tool when the occasional need of converting LaTeX to
Word arises. Details are provided elsewhere on this web site. I hear that
pandoc also does a nice job converting word processor files to LaTeX
There is more that can, and should, be mentioned here, but I also don’t
list everything that I like about LaTeX in the next section.
Equations and in-line math look great, and consistent, in the typeset
results, and the LaTeX code is relatively easy to develop. If you write
a lot of documents containing math, as I do, to me this is the single
most important advantage of LaTeX over pretty much everything else out
Since I spent time learning LaTeX already, using it for web pages (with
the tex4ht machinery) is pretty straightforward. Admittedly, the web site
doesn’t look very sleek, but it is functional and doesn’t take much effort
to maintain and extend.
As noted elsewhere on this web site, TeX/LaTeX comes with a powerful
mechanism for cross referencing pretty much everything, and I have yet
to encounter cases when this mechanism fails. When I wrote my book,
this was very important so I could refer to something like ‘footnote 16 on
page 378’ without having to keep track of the actual footnote number or
the page it appeared on.
As an academic, I need to show university administrators my up-to-date
list of publications on a fairly regular basis, and keeping the publication
list up to date has many other advantages as well. Since I’m using LaTeX
for my formal CV and for this web site, the publication list in the CV and
on-line can both be updated in a matter of seconds (aided by scripts), as
soon as I have added a new publication to my BibTeX database.
For manuscripts that I jointly write with members of my research group,
a former student has developed the texcollab tool, which speeds up the
edit-response cycle considerably.
I use LaTeX also for presentations and posters, so it is very easy to re-use
code for equations or tables, which can be a big time saver.
Over the years, the group members and I have developed templates that make it very convenient to write our research articles. You can download our template on this page. At this point, therefore, it really is true that the focus is on content, not on layout, when working on these articles. I admit, though, that I often need some time to explain the workflow to new group members. This is one of the reasons why I set up this page.
In the end, your decision to adopt LaTeX or not is likely influenced by expectations regarding the learning curve, peer pressure, convenience, and how much you like the results that it produces.
© 2021 – 2022 J. Autschbach.