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Word processors are ditching equation editors in favour of LaTeX (nature.com)
286 points by goerz 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 216 comments



While LaTeX makes a good language for writing maths, I always feel I want to add it is an awful system for accessibility. The PDFs / outputs created by other systems like Microsoft Word are much more accessible.

For blind users, LaTeX Tables come out as an unreadable mess. The large-scale use of Latex to generate PDFs makes academia extremely unfriendly to anyone who needs accessible documents.


Editing LaTeX documents is actually far more accessible, since they're all plain text. Every formatting instruction in a LaTex document is just text, while Word and PDF documents have non-text markup like bold, underline, italic, etc, which is WYSIWYG (with the emphasis being on "see" -- you must be able to see to be aware of the markup).


There are aspects of it which are extremely annoying to use, however - for example including and resizing an image could be a 10-20 minute googling session. Setting margins, headers, and footers not only requires including and invoking some package in exactly the right way, but actually choosing which package to use for the job as well. These are just a few examples, the list goes on and on.

LaTeX produces great looking documents, but I find it a giant pain to use.


When formatting a large document, those costs are amortized. In addition, many changes are set-it-and-forget-it. Once you set the right dimensions for an image, table, header text size, or margins, table of contents layout, bibliography style, etc., you wont have to mess with them again.

In a word processor, an image size can be changed by inadvertently clicking on something, the style of a text selection can be changed by moving the mouse scroll wheel on the font drop-down menu, page numbering may not refresh when working on a large document, inserting a figure may screw up table or image numbering, etc. You have to be constantly checking your multi page document to make sure everything is still ok.

As a teacher, my heuristic is simple: if I'm authoring a document that is less than 3 pages, I use Word. Otherwise, I use LaTeX.

For example, I write exams and syllabi in LaTeX. Quizzes, assignments and handouts in Word. It has worked well for me for a decade.


In MS Word, an inadvertent click won't change an image size. You have to click and drag. And inserting a figure certainly doesn't screw up table numbering.


> You have to click and drag.

Or type a letter, or open the document on a different computer, or set margins, paragraph size, printer, whatever.

But yes, just clicking an image won't change it.


Just because this is the way that most word processors currently work, does not mean it needs to be this way. You could imagine a word processor where the default mode was to edit content only, and editing structure/layout was hidden behind a second button or something.


LyX is, for me, the perfect word processor. It doesn't have those flaws. The only reason I use Word instead is because it makes collaboration and sharing with colleagues extremely simple.


I'm actually curious what you're doing that causes this. Basically all my figures are \begin{figure}[ht] and everything works out fine. Yeah sizing can sometimes be odd but I save it for the end (I use \includegraphics[width=0.x\textwidth] and adjust x. I get it in 2 or 3 attempts). I only invoke graphicx. I use \FloatBarrier frequently but that's trivial. I use jpg, jpeg, png, and pdf images almost exclusively (wish gif worked and wished mp4 would save into the pdf). I do also invoke tikz and pgfplots when I'm making vectorized plots and graphs (I know this is "advanced"), but I'm not writing tikz pictures in most documents. I do all my homework, papers, presentations, etc (PhD student) in LaTex. Been using it for almost a decade now and I've only faced placement problems when I was just starting and didn't know about [ht] (or [h!]).

I'm not sure what you find difficult about margins. You define them in document class. It is literally top, bottom, left, right, or height, width. Or you use the template that a publication is giving you. Are you doing something more complicated? If so, I can't imagine this is common.

Headers and footers? I never use headers. But I use footnotes (\footnote{this is all you need}).

Honestly I'm curious what issues you face. I'd gladly lend a hand (LaTeX is far from trivial) and I'd like to learn from others. But I'm honestly confused at the complaints. There's plenty of things to complain about LaTeX, but these aren't the challenges I face.


Yes, this is the same way that I use LaTeX, and have been using it for almost as long as you. However, when you first started out, how long did it take you to figure out this stuff? My original comment was in response to the “accessibility” of LaTeX, and honestly I don’t think it’s that accessible.

As for margins, I’ve had issues where changing the margins makes the page numbering “fall off” the page, and as for headers and footers, asserting that you “don’t need” them is not a valid option for many people producing documents.

Also to be clear, I’m not saying LaTeX is impossible or even hard to use, I’m complaining that certain tasks in it should be so much easier than they are.


And also tables are a major pain in Latex. Also that it does not separate physical and logical formatting of text. Asciidoc is what I prefer now, as it is semantically equivalent to XML DocBook, which I find is a better designed system than Latex.


DocBook is not a typesetting system, but I agree it's almost ideal to compose a highly structured document.


Word and PDF also support semantics readable by assistive technologies. With a LaTeX file, the user has to go through the raw code, often character by character.


Don't most people consume the document by reading say the pdf that is ultimately output at the end?


Yes, but I was responding to a post that wasn't about "most people." For people who use a screen reader because they have a visual impairment, a PDF is better than a raw LaTeX file if the PDF has been produced in a way that includes document semantics. My understanding is PDFs produced by LaTeX converters do not include such semantics, the code is only meant for printers, so also having the raw LaTeX file available is better than not having it.


>Editing LaTeX documents is actually far more accessible, since they're all plain text.

The conclusion doesn't follow from the premise.

Who said "editing plain text" is more accessible (in the accessibility for people with impairments sense) than a dedicated editor that can help them with assistive technologies?

>with the emphasis being on "see" -- you must be able to see to be aware of the markup

Not anymore than you must be able to see to edit a text document. The markup can be read back to the user (and is , e.g. "bold emphasized words end bold".


One trick I found that makes things WAY easier is by breaking sections of a paper into different tex files. You can share them on github and each collaborator works on their part. You don't end up with collisions and it works beautifully. I honestly believe LaTeX is easier to collaborate with than Word or even Google Docs.

Disclaimer: I'm mostly a nix user and so doing anything Word generally ends up as a pain for me, but I understand it isn't for most others.


Agreed. Having all the usual versioning tools at your fingertips handily beats Google Docs and Office 365 for collaborative paper writing.

One thing that I find useful is to have semantic line breaks in the source. That is, instead of using automatic or static word wrap, introduce line breaks at the end of sentences or clauses. This makes it somewhat more convenient to look at diffs.


I break on sentence end in HTML as well


Last time i edited some latex document, i ended up in dependancy hell with diffrent packages excluding one another or distorting the results of elements used by other packages. Has that become better?


For example if you use

  \usepackage[spanish]{babel}
to change the hyphenation tables, it also change a lot of things. For example it makes < and > active characters, so they can be used as a special kind of quotes. This breaks other packages like xypic that expect that < and > are normal characters to recognize the arrows.


Yes, now most people use online services that run on a standard platform with the dependencies already sorted out.


I've been using LaTeX for almost a decade and never faced this problem. Always done ```sudo <insert package manager and options> texlive-full``` and been good. Only dependency issues I've faced are forgetting to copy a cls file (which are downloaded).


I have run into that problem, but only when merging Latex documents with different packages. If you find something that's really difficult and requires a lot of packages, ask why other users haven't made it easy already - maybe it's not a good design.


Here are some thoughts on this topic, together with software designed to help make LaTeX more accessible, by a blind mathematician.

http://latex-access.sourceforge.net/

The software is designed to work with the LaTeX source, rather than with the ensuing PDFs. From what I can tell, it's not very complete -- but it certainly suggests to me that LaTeX provides a platform which can be built upon.


Given the academic world we are in, there are people making heroic efforts to make latex more accessible, and I don't want to discount that work.

However, none of these systems work well, and I think it'd an unsolvable problem due to the fundamental foundation of TeX, which is actually a text rewriting system, so when using packages there never is a nice semantic description of the page. The only thing to do is to rewrite every package in another language, which describes semantically how to latex should be interpreted.


Since you seem knowledgeable about the topic, could I ask --

What would an ideal solution look like? Say I have a complicated equation. How could I present it (in any format) so that a blind person could read it, and understand it as easily as possible?


Currently, the best practical option is do it in latex, but ensure the raw latex file is available as well as a pdf.


My question is more hypothetical than practical: what would an ideal solution look like? I literally have no idea.


As a developer I know this is bad, but I’m not familiar with accessibility tools. Surely this is a result of the compilation of the TeX source, right? In theory it seems like a text-based format would be more amenable to processing by screen readers and the like.

What can authors do to make their documents more accessible? Distribute the source? Stick to some formatting guidelines?


The best thing authors can do is distribute their latex.

In fact, concretely, upload your paper to arxiv which will demand the latex source of your paper.


In my academic mathematician life the path was clear: write a paper, place on the arXiv then submit. However I have sets of notes I'd like to put out there (some day), but are in much too fluid of a condition to commit to the arXiv.


I haven’t seen it lately, but there was a time where it was common for latex systems to not use space characters and instead add extra spacing after the last character in every word, because apparently that looked better ...


I hate the banal lack of imagination that goes into producing documents that look the same as dead tree documents have looked for the last 100 years, even though few people actually print them out any more.

This isn’t the 1980’s. We have better technology.

Given source code there’s no reason the document couldn’t be made available in a variety of formats, including more accessible formats than PDF.

But we stick to avatistic document representations because that’s what everyone has always done.


> documents that look the same as dead tree documents have looked for the last 100 years

In many cases we are talking about documents written using brand-new notation never used in print, but only on chalkboards or scribbled on scratch paper (by the author).

It just happens that LaTeX is a more expressive and precise tool for expressing arbitrary semi-structured 2-dimmensional symbolic formulas than available alternatives.


What better technology do you have in mind? HTML? Because as much as I like it, I find myself converting HTML to PDF every now and then so I can annotate, paginate, and yes, print it. PDF isn't perfect, but the art of typesetting is informed by much more than the physical properties of paper. Reducing communication to a static artifact divided into page-sized chunks is a useful feature for scholarly writing. Being able to produce physical copies of a document that you can give away for free, even if most people will read the document on an electronic device requiring a power source, is a feature. Writing static content that really takes advantage of the web's unique features [1] is hard!

[1] https://meltingasphalt.com/interactive/going-critical/


I’d prefer a format that automatically adjusted things like page and font size to whatever I’m reading on, whether that’s reactive HTML or an ebook format.

And some e-readers do support two column layouts, although it only makes sense if you have a wide screen.

I hate having to pan and scan a PDF file on my phone, and the fixed pagination only makes sense when printed. Even on most desktop screens a letter/a4 page is too long.


I'd like those features too, but unfortunately for reference material I find annotation and pagination more important. Annotation is broken in HTML/EPUB because there's no way to make my annotations portable across devices without vendor lock-in. Pagination is broken because HTML documents rarely contain paragraph numbers or other useful pinpoints, and browsers aren't as good as PDF readers at keeping track of your position in a long document. These are solvable problems, but until they are solved I find HTML unusable for anything that takes more than 15 minutes to read. I suspect that most people who consider PDF obsolete rarely spend that much time on a single document.


Agreed. For anything complicated, I’ll always download the pdf. I don’t really find it burdensome pan and zoom a pdf, even on mobile. It seems to work a lot better than publishers attempts at producing web versions of papers, which I find generally useless.


> reactive HTML or an ebook format

Genuine question but can you think of a website that uses reactive HTML properly and mind sharing it? I find that most websites seem to just put a maximum width on a page and call it a day.


Everybody should be writing and sharing org-mode files.


Generally I find myself wishing more webpages acted like a static document than the other way around. It's always guaranteed I can scroll and zoom in a PDF, which guarantees it's readable even if they layout is not the best.


I utterly despise the layout of academic papers. They’re garbage. Two column layouts have no place in the digital age.

Academic papers should have rich media. High resolution images and video.

Bah hum bug!


Strange, I find the compressed width of two columns perfect for mobile phones.


Really?

I find myself scrolling down then up, down then up. I also have to manually control the zoom so text fills my screen width. Then I had to scroll left and right. And when I want to scroll vertically I have to be careful to not screw up my horizontal position. It’s super frustrating.

I don’t think a single blog in the world uses a two column view. If it were an actually useful format for sharing information digitally then it would be more prevalent.


> I don't think a single blog in the world…

Well, yeah, you don't typically print blogs. Remember that academic publications are still printed, and columnar presentation can be very useful for annotation.


Double tap the text column and it auto-fits. When you reach the end give it a big ol’ swipe from the opposite corner and it will pull the other column into view.

At least in iOS...


I also find it easier to read on physical paper. Honestly I read faster when things are two column (speed readers will tell you why)


> because that's what everyone has always done

And we still print them out. People still prefer to read on paper. This doesn't change no matter how much the digital revolution wages on.


Couldn't that be fixed though? Would be a shame to have to give up on the Tex language because pdftex is out of date.


I suppose new development would happen as part of luatex. It would be really nice if latex could compile to more accessible documents!


Yet another reason to upload your (La)TeX source as well rather than only the pdf output.


We need a program to extract an accessible representation from PDFs produced by LaTeX.


Check out Mathpix snipping tool https://mathpix.com (disclaimer: I’m a founder)


I work in disability services and I can add a (perhaps slightly less biased) take that MathPix really is the real deal!


How does MathPix compare to EquatIO?


EquatIO is a MathpixOCR customer.


Cool! But how do you make money off of it? I understand MathPix is a company.


Snip is currently free. We charge companies for MathpixOCR API. We will probably charge heavy users of Snip in the future, so we can keep Snip free for light and medium usage.


On the Mac, the Equation Service or LaTeXit (?) included the source in the PDF so that it remained editable. Maybe the source would be easier to parse, especially if no macros were used.


How hard would it be to do some kind of OCR (maybe combined with machine learning) to “scan” anything that looks like a table into a more accessible format? It seems like there’s a lot of room for ML to improve various aspects of screen readers and other assistive technology.


I claim such a solution would be morally wrong (I am not going to comment on whether such a solution would be good in practice or not) because latex largely throws away the data it has on the table structure and this solution tries to piece it together again. I claim a morally better solution is to have latex not throw away the information it had, but I concede it’s often harder to modify something big and old and complex than to produce something new which is supposed to always work.


Reconstructing content and formatting from a PDF through OCR, machine learning, etc. may not be the best possible solution. But it would still make more information accessible to more people. So I must vehemently disagree that it would be morally wrong.


Can you elaborate on the moral principles you're employing here?


I assumed your parent was using 'morally' as it is sometimes used in mathematics: https://math.stackexchange.com/questions/1434043/sources-of-...


Morally wrong? What the actual f. The proposed is a perfectly reasonable and decoupled solution that would solve the problem for troves of existing, unstructured paper documents, too. In fact, it likely already exists.


Tabula does this. There are Python and R wrappers.

-Java: https://tabula.technology

-Python: https://github.com/chezou/tabula-py

-R: https://github.com/ropensci/tabulizer


Abbyy Finereader does an excellent job


Quite the contrary: A blind friend of mine studied math. He got scripts and exercises as latex source code from his professors and read them on his braille display.


Yes, getting the latex source is fine. However your friend would have been in serious trouble if they then went on to do a PhD, and then couldn't get the latex source to every paper they wanted to read.


LaTeX should be regarded as a legacy technology, not the future.

It's useful because it's a standardized language everyone knows and can be applied across the web, e.g. on many StackExchange sites (at least the TeX subset via MathJax), but it's too limited to be held up as a standard to move toward.

For a discussion of some of its limitations and things that can be improved: [The LATEX3 Project][1] (1999).

Personally, though, my main criticism of LaTeX is that its logic is static and based in plaintext. The future is in interactive documents (e.g., in the direction of [Wolfram's][2]), not statically compiling plaintext to image-like documents.

Of course, credit to where credit is due: LaTeX was a hugely powerful tool that's done a lot of good in the world. It also continues to be useful for many purposes, especially due to its widescale adoption from this bright history. It's a great page for the history books -- but, it's not the future.

[1]: https://www.latex-project.org/help/documentation/ltx3info.pd...

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computable_Document_Format


Traditional, static documents will never go extinct, particularly in fields such as pure mathematics. If LaTeX3 wants to engage this crowd, it'd better offer substantial benefits, a fair amount of backward compatibility, or preferably both. In any event, LaTeX moved on from the original set of macros in 1983 to LaTeX 2.09 (anybody know when?) to LaTeX 2e in 1994... in the intervening quarter of a century LaTeX3 has been a work in progress... Maybe the goals set for the next version are too ambitious (see [1]), but clearly the inertia has been lost, a sign that the project has become fairly stable.

As with any long-term speculation, many years from now people may very well get rid of the TeX ecosystem altogether. During our lifetimes, though, I'm skeptical of seeing major changes in (pure) mathematics publishing. As unixhero pointed out, jupyter notebooks and the like will gain further adoption, and the applied math crowd, scientists and engineers will occasionally rant about having to choose between notebooks and LaTeX... c'est la vie!

[1] https://tex.stackexchange.com/a/986/43202


It is not the plaintext nature of LaTeX that limits it.

It is the stacking of macro's on top of macro's and the fact that there is no 'looking back'. Any kind of 'look back' functionality requires a second pass and the .aux file.

I think something like HTML / CSS would make a lot more sense. Essentially, we already have this atm (you have a document file, and a document type).

An alternative would be some extension of markdown with a separate file for display logic. I fear it would be hard to get that extensible enough though.


I think XML DocBook already is a better substitute for LaTeX, for most uses.


>Personally, though, my main criticism of LaTeX is that its logic is static and based in plaintext.

Literally the best feature. Universal, easy to manage with text editors, text processing tools, version control, etc. The future should be going back to this, imo.

>The future is in interactive documents (e.g., in the direction of [Wolfram's][2]), not statically compiling plaintext to image-like documents.

Jesus I hope not. Text is and forever will be the superlative format for information - images and videos can be brilliant for aiding the understanding of new ideas, but they are awful as a reference. You can search text, you can't search for images or within a video. And those are not problems to be solved - things should just simply be in text.


LaTeX is precisely good because it outputs PDFs that are relatively simple to parse and display. Any document format that doubles as code has its share of problems - how are you going to print it, how does it fare on low-power devices. Postscript can be used to solve differential equations, yet it is not used anymore..

Sure, there is a space for interactive documents, but LaTeX doesn't even try to compete there.

And honestly, I love plaintext way more that any WYSIWYG format. If proprietary Wolfram stuff is the future, then I don't like the future.


I suspect that a lot of people'll feel like you.

I still hear about people who prefer slide rules (over calculators), or derivative tables (over symbolic calculators), or steam tables (over CAD), or cameras with film (over digital), or dumb phones (over smart phones), etc.. These people just love the tools that they've known; it's part of their workflow, and they wouldn't be happy with a change even if there were some utilitarian motivation for it.

And I'm sure we can find people who'll say that the slide rule will never go away. And maybe, to some extent, they're right?

Which is to say, I don't think everyone's going to give up the old stuff. I suspect that many people will allow the world pass them by. And I don't know if they're necessarily wrong, to live the way that they want. Just how I suspect this'll play out.


I grew up in the age of electronic calculators (graduated high school in 2004), and I think all high school students today should be forced to learn with slide rules, with handheld electronic calculators banned from classroom use for students aged 5–20.

The assignments given to high school students requiring high-precision calculations that cannot be done efficiently without a handheld electronic calculator are almost universally a pedagogically worthless waste of time. Most problems would benefit from being conceptually more interesting / more involved, but using simpler numbers.

Slide rules are much better tools than handheld calculators for giving students an intuitive understanding of the relevant mathematical functions, as well as learning about place value, numerical precision, .... The students who use slide rules are getting a better education, and wasting less of their time.

For high school work, the 2–3 digits of precision provided by a slide rule are entirely adequate, and with just a bit of practice they are very fast and effective practical tools, not appreciably slower than handheld calculators for basic use.

Any computation too demanding for a slide rule (e.g. physical simulations, statistical analysis, plotting complicated mathematical functions, ...) should be typed on a full-sized keyboard in a proper programming environment.

I also think younger students (3rd–8th grade) should be working with freeform counting boards, like the ones used in Ancient Greece/Rome and medieval Europe. IMO these are better preparation for algorithmic thinking than doing arithmetic using pen and paper. (Students should continue using pen and paper; just not exclusively.)

* * *

Smart phones are definitely a double-edged sword. They offer many wonderful conveniences, but they are also extremely addictive and are in practice also doing incredible damage to people’s a ability to concentrate, do creative work, maintain healthy face-to-face social relationships, get enough sleep, etc.


That's a great point about slide rules and precision. I wish more people understood it. I am sick of seeing statistics where n < 100 reported to 4 significant figures.


Agreed. My HS aged son does well in all of his math classes but is entirely dependent on his calculator to solve any given problem. I worry he will struggle as he reaches college level math since he hasn't ever internalized what the calculator is doing. He simply plugs in the numbers and gets an answer.


> These people just love the tools that they've known; it's part of their workflow, and they wouldn't be happy with a change even if there were some utilitarian motivation for it.

This is a pretty patronising way to talk about people who use feature phones and LaTeX. Newer, more powerful tools are not necessarily better. Just look at the web technology that HN runs on!


> Just look at the web technology that HN runs on!

Honestly, I'd prefer a version of HN that had some more modern features. It's the community that makes this place worthwhile.

I sometimes wonder if the folks behind HN keep the retro style to make that point about growing a community. This is, perhaps they're trying to say that a business's value isn't just in the technology, but also in the human capital? Or not to over-engineer a product when the current solution works?


I much prefer the user experience of HN to any other web forum. Everything loads instantly, everything has a URI, there are no extraneous distractions. I think the people behind HN just share my aesthetic preferences; they're not intentionally creating something they see as substandard.


I find the modern web insufferable. Personally, I prefer the style of hacker news. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to the rest of the bloated, vapid web. I like that some designer hasn’t gotten ahold of the style sheet and replaced all the content with whitespace.


It is not about the age of a tool.

LaTeX vs. WYSIWYG is more like a plain text programming language vs. a graphical one.

The more general the more complex a problem, the more likely plain text solutions win over solutions that might be more convenient in specialized cases.


It's always fascinating how people stick with LaTeX instead of the alternatives that passed LaTeX by over a decade ago. At the very least use XeLaTeX, which was "what if LaTeX, but it actually understood unicode, and the fact that maybe people want more than just English".

The future isn't LaTeX. It's the much better, native unicode, normal font using, flavours of TeX, like XeLaTeX or LuaTex.


The bigger selling point for XeLaTeX, in my opinion, was "what if a mortal could change the font?" and "if we make that easy, let's go the whole way and use OpenType files itself, not some LaTeX specific auxiliary metrics files that need to be generated".


As the original author of the ucharclasses package: absolutely.


LaTeX3[1] is quite actively developed at GitHub[2] these days. So the release is not that far as many think.

[1] https://www.latex-project.org/latex3/

[2] https://github.com/latex3/latex3


> statically compiling plaintext to image-like documents

I thought that it was common to compile LaTeX into postscript.


Agreed. The future is more within Juøyter Notebooks being shared.


You mean like cdrom replaced books? Anyhow, i usually put my math in as latex in my notebooks.


Don't know what you mean buddy. But have a look at Jupyter Notebooks


"the future is more complexity" is how we arrived to the modern web.


Could you explain that a bit?

For example, are you implying that the modern web is somehow too complex? Or/and are you implying that we should've stuck to some simpler alternative than the modern web? And if so, what might that alternative have been?

I don't mean to put words in your mouth, just trying to figure out what you meant.


The usual argument in the anti-Chrome threads, which I agree with, is that it's very hard or even impossible to create a new browser and maintain it because of how many features exist and must be supported. Even Microsoft failed.

But, I'm sorry, I have nothing to propose on how to simplify the web. And it would also be offtopic here in this thread... :-) I just believe that adding complexity is most of the time a bad idea.


Ohh that's actually a good point! And I'd liken LaTeX to Chrome in that regard. This is, like Microsoft Internet Explorer before it, people have to use it and work with it because it's the standard that everyone has -- not because it's necessarily the best.

You're right, the broader issue of ingrained standards creating cultural inertia is a big topic that's probably too much to address here.


Reducing LaTeX to the look of the equations it produces clearly misses the point. I use LaTeX because it just formats everything correctly. Inserting figures or tables in word can be one of the most frustrating tasks I can do. Every little change can potentially break the format. Have you ever tried to add a table in word in a double column document? It is madness. The caption system for figures and tables is a joke, too.

With LaTeX your references get updated when you add new figures or tables without having to think about it. The same holds for the references. The formatting of sections and titles is kept (the only way to change the format is that you really want to).

In the Word-templates for papers of conferences there are always so many rules about the formatting. Most of the people never satisfies all those rules, even if they started with the template. I blame word for that, because there is no way to enforce a template (take care of the references, captions, etc.). The last year I just stopped sending word documents to the conferences I go, and instead created an equivalent latex template for them (one of them got even officially accepted). I prefer to invest a few days in making a good LaTeX template than loosing much more days fighting against the Word-nonsense.

It is true that LaTeX requires some time to learn, but it definitely compensates for the time you can loose using word.


> It is true that LaTeX requires some time to learn, but it definitely compensates for the time you can loose using word.

Yes but with LaTeX (or anything else that requires signifcant time to learn) you have to make a noticeable investment of your time upfront. If you already use and know Word you may be aware of its shortcomings but it can still be difficult to justify spending the time required to learning something else.

Especially because while you know that your current system (in this case Word) is annoying, you also know that it works. In the sense that you are able to produce whatever it is that you are using it for. Even though you might also recognize that the result could be better.

With switching to anything new, you don't know

- How much time it will take for you to learn it and become effective in using it.

- If it will solve the problems that what you are currently using has.

- That it won't have other problems instead.

And I think to a lot of people the perceived risk outweighs the potential gain. Especially for people who are working a full time job, have a family etc.

Furthermore, a Word document can be edited by "anyone". If you collaborate with someone else on something, switching to LaTeX means that either they have to learn it too, or they will have to tell you what changes to make and then you must do the editing.

Also, not every document is worth typing out in LaTeX.

I used LaTeX for a couple of years. It has some benefits but I rarely use it myself any longer. Most of my documents I write in Google Docs or in Markdown. Sometimes I use Markdown with a sprinkle of LaTeX and run it through pandoc to produce a pretty PDF with some formulas without having to use almost any LaTeX at all except for in a few select places in the document. For some documents I use Adobe InDesign.

Even one of my best friends who used to be a hardcore proponent of using LaTeX for everything I don't think he's using it that much any longer. Not to the extent he used to back when we were in the university.

In summary, the time cost is a hard sell and it's not given that the time spent learning it will actually be worth it.


I have the exact opposite experience with LaTeX. Looking at a few example documents and trying them out will get nearly anyone started on writing LaTeX documents. For very sophisticated effects (tables, complicated graphics that interacts with the text in a nontrivial way, etc) the time investment is much more substantial but those same effects are just as difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with Word or other WYSIWYG editors. Automatic referencing, bibliography maintenance are quite unique to LaTeX and are easy to use. Tables may be hard but some specialized tools (like Lyx) might help.

Word documents can be edited by people who have access to an appropriate version of Word (I do not, admittedly by choice) but the documents themselves are binary (ok, xml) mess, whereas LaTeX ones are greppable, searcheable, etc. They also 'age' much better. I can still LaTeX most documents from 20 years ago (sometimes with minor changes).

As a disclaimer, I am one of those people who uses (La)TeX for everything. I know TeX intimately to the point that I messed with the source code several times and wrote tens of thousands of TeX macros (this is not an exaggeration). I may be biased but I still feel that learning LaTeX is well worth the modest effort it takes to start writing LaTeX documents. And the typesetting TeX is capable of is still unsurpassed.


> Word documents can be edited by people who have access to an appropriate version of Word ... LaTeX ones are greppable, searcheable, etc. They also 'age' much better. I can still LaTeX most documents from 20 years ago

I really value the fact that LaTeX is free software, but as a matter of practical reality, are old LaTeX documents really more accessible than Word documents? There is plenty of free software with (imperfect) support for Word these days. I recently opened a bunch of Word documents that were more than 20 years old, and I'm sure I didn't get a pixel-perfect reproduction of the original document, but as someone without a strong grasp of the LaTeX package ecosystem, I imagine compiling old LaTeX documents would have been more difficult than just installing LibreOffice or uploading the document to Google Docs.


Agreed. The first time I used LaTeX to write a few documents I spent less time learning it than formatting the 90-page Word document that eventually made me decide to check out LaTeX in the first place.

I never regretted it, nowadays I avoid Word when possible and go for org-mode documents mixed with LaTeX. That gives me all the features and control but with less typing.


As a fellow frequent tex user, I'm curious at the macros you've written. I've found that I've written very few. I believe it is literally one for multi line commenting, breaking up slides in beamer (like 2x2, 3x2, whatever), and dumb things like section titles for homeworks. Do you have anything that you find particularly useful?


I have written a lot of style files (in plain TeX, I am actually a quite passive LaTeX user) for things like handouts and tests I use in my teaching, including my side job as a flight instructor. Some specialized typesetting tasks, like multicolumn dictionary typesetting (was another side project) took a lot of macro writing, as well. I have also written a number of parsers in TeX for pretty-printing code (I use another great Knuth's invention, literate programming, quite a bit). I am addicted to TeX, I can see it now :)


> Automatic referencing, bibliography maintenance are quite unique to LaTeX and are easy to use.

I find that much easier to do in Word. Instead of wrangling with conflicting packages, documented for programmers not users, having to compile multiple times to get the references to actually render correctly, etc in Word I can simply define my references in a structured way and they work perfectly without surprises.


Well, although I personally use LaTeX for almost everything I write (I also use markdown for simple things sometimes), It is clear for me that (1) not everyone who has to write documents has the time to learn LaTeX and (2) that there are some documents for which you can use whatever text editor you can find.

My comment was targeted mostly at the academic writing, where things like references, placing of figures and tables, and formatting are relevant. I really think that formatting documents is kind of a solved problem, and it slightly annoys me when I hear people complaining about the headaches they have when formatting their papers in word.

At the end the problem is that _word_-like porgrams is all that is taught at school and so, LaTeX looks super complex and frightening to a lot of people, even when it actually is very simple in its essence. Maybe the most complicated thing in LaTeX is to start a document, because you basically have to configure how it will look and what packages you will use. Then it is all about \section, \ref and \cite. At the beginning this is certainly a bit confusing, but solutions like Overleaf, which offers different templates at a click distance, are good ways to overcome this problem. I personally don't use it, and prefer the vimtex plugin plus a lot of snippets (certainly not for the beginners).

But just to clarify again, it is clear to me that not everyone have the time to learn it, nor is it always the best tool for a given task.


> Furthermore, a Word document can be edited by "anyone".

All of the people that I have met that could correctly insert an image in a word document were able to learn VBA at some point. I am yet to meet somebody that can maintain a document with multi-paragraph lists, I certainly can't.


>Inserting figures or tables in word can be one of the most frustrating tasks I can do. Every little change can potentially break the format. Have you ever tried to add a table in word in a double column document? It is madness. The caption system for figures and tables is a joke, too.

OTOH, if all you want is a simple table, doing that in LaTeX is horrible, and I'll take Word over it any day. One of the many reasons I fell in love with Org Mode is because of the ease with which you can manipulate tables. Since then, I do all my editing in Org and export to LaTeX.


It is not about the table, but the placing of the table. If you want a table that spans both columns in a double column document, it is annoying to do it in word, while in LaTeX it is as easy as \begin{table*}. Creating a content of a table is something different, and there are multiple approaches. I normally need result from python scripts, so I just export my results to latex format with pandas.


The ability to have your simulation code automatically update the data and figures in the manuscript is hugely valuable.

Another neat trick is a latex package called Catchfilebetweentags. This let’s you have a text file with named data fields that you can insert into your document, like when you want to state a parameter that was used in a paragraph. Generating that text file as an artifact of the rest of the data processing means, e.g., that parameters my paper says I used are the ones that I actually used.


Use minipages. I completely understand where you're coming from. But once I started using minipages I found that it is a great way to hack around almost all of these weird and uncommon placement issues.


>so I just export my results to latex format with pandas.

In other words, you don't do it by hand. I too rely on a tool to create my tables, which was my point. Doing it by hand is painful.


So is LaTeX worth mastering? It depends on the researcher: how often do you use equations, how much is fine-grained control do you need over a document, and how much time do you have to devote to learning a new language?

But I use LaTeX mainly because the resulting documents simply look better, and I imagine that’s a major selling point for many.


> But I use LaTeX mainly because the resulting documents simply look better, and I imagine that’s a major selling point for many.

I've encountered a real rabbit hole here, and I'm not sure what to do about it. The naive view is that LaTeX does typesetting the best way. If you want better typesetting, use LaTeX, and if you're using LaTeX, you're done.

This turns out not to be true, which is upsetting to those of us ingrained in the LaTeX ecosystem and used to thinking of it as the best way. The first thing you're likely to learn is that you need the microtype package. Without this package, kerning is not as good as it could be. (Which raises the question - if LaTeX is the final form of a typesetting language, why not do it right by default?)

But the problems don't end there. Modern OTF / TTF fonts have a lot of typesetting information that isn't fully retained if you convert the fonts to use with LaTeX. So if you want modern font support, you can't use LaTeX at all, you switch to XeTeX!

At this point you realize that the microtype package you previously learned was crucial isn't compatible with XeTeX, so you can't use it.

So it's a Catch-22. LaTeX is for people who are obsessed with perfect typesetting. But perfect typesetting can't be achieved (currently, to the best of my knowledge) in any TeX family language.


LuaTeX seems to be the best for overall typesetting quality. You can get proper rendering of modern fonts.

IMO the underlying issue is that TeX can’t really be parsed by anything other than Tex because it’s too full of macros that change the language. I think a better language would generate a well-defined AST, and different tools could compete to render it well.


What makes LuaTeX better than XeTeX, as far as typography is concerned?


Much better microtype support


> But perfect typesetting can't be achieved (currently, to the best of my knowledge) in any TeX family language.

What is/are the alternatives? Word? Apple Pages? LibreOffice? Markdown-via-pandoc? DocBook? FrameMaker (Windows only)? Other?

Out of the box, what gives better PDF/paper output better than something that is TeX-based?


The standard tool for professional typesetting and book design – Adobe InDesign.


InDesign is great, but how do you typeset equations in it? Genuine question, as I’ve searched far and wide for a viable solution. The best I have so far is ”create in another software and insert as an image”, which is unsatisfactory.


> Adobe InDesign.

I've always seen ID as a graphical design tool and not as a manuscript authoring/publishing tool.

Sure, you can plop a bunch of text in there, but it seems to be that it is very structure-free when it comes to layout, whereas the stuff I mentioned is more line-oriented, and therefore more focused on text. Does it have things like footnote/reference tracking? Spell- and grammar-checking?


It's not a manuscript authoring tool, but I thought we were talking about alternatives for 'perfect typesetting.' I don't think there's any tool that is ideal for both authoring and typesetting, but since we do have this special word 'manuscript' to describe a work that hasn't been typeset yet, maybe it is useful to continue thinking of authoring as a separate task (at least if you aspire to perfection), rather than something that needs to be done at the same time, using the same tools, as typesetting.


Hasn't QuarkXPress been regaining market share due to Adobe's licensing policies? How does that hold up?


Isn't QuarkXPress, like InDesign, more graphical design-focused and not so much manuscript authoring/publishing-focused?


That is my understanding, too, but my understanding of this subthread was about achieving the best possible results in general, rather than just in the subset of manuscript authoring tooling.


Markdown filtered through pandoc to PDF looks as great as native LaTeX, but is overwhelmingly nicer to work with in source form.

I should note that the reason it looks great is that pandoc translates to LaTeX on the way there; and you can embed LaTeX in the markdown where needed.

EDIT: I see that many others below have already said it. But it was worth repeating.


The problem with Markdown is its embarrassingly poor support for highly structured documents. Something as simple as writing a multi-level list interspersed with complete paragraphs is a nightmare to do in Markdown. Tables and images aren't a big improvement over LaTeX and require special syntax to scale and position.

I'd rather use Word for simple documents so I can enjoy drag and drop and graphical image positioning and scaling and easy tables and leave LaTeX for complex documents. Markdown is the worst of both worlds.

However, I could see myself using the much superior Asciidoc (vs Markdown) instead of LaTeX, but unfortunately, the worse-is-better philosophy is still alive and has made Markdown the defacto simple markup language, and tool support for Asciidoc is as poor as LaTeX, so I just go directly to LaTeX instead.


AsciiDoc is essentially XML DocBook with a simpler syntax. It has enough structural constructs for large documents. Also DocBook was designed as master format, and is easily render-able into various outputs forms like for printing and for web pages.


I’ve found writing in markdown and converting to other formats to be a very frustrating experience. It only works well for exceptionally simple documents. But as soon as you want something even slightly complicated it falls apart. Side-by-side figures, multi paragraph lists, footnotes, and numbered bibliographies are all trivial in latex and are a huge pain, if not close to impossible with markdown. I’ve wasted huge amounts of time on this.

On the flip, the latex syntax for super simple documents isn’t really onerous (especially if your editor fortifies the different elements). So I just end up using latex for everything.


I'll echo other comments and say that using pandoc to convert from markdown to latex is the best solution I've found. Actually I've written myself a wrapper over it that extends markdown with asciimath (which lets you input math the way you would in a calculator) and improves support for embedding latex directly.

The project: https://github.com/corollari/caoutchouc

Documentation & Rationale: https://caoutchouc.io/


Markdown has about the same feature set of Microsoft's WordPad (the bulit in RTF editor in Windows). If the document you're writing can be structured with simple Markdown, why not just use an RTF editor and enjoy WYSIWYG, graphical image resizing and positioning, and great portability?

I have tried to see the use case for Markdown for a long time but have been unable to do so. And yes, pandoc understands RTF.


I think the best use case for Markdown is when you specifically want 'not too rich text' – for example, I like the way it's used on Stack Exchange. It needs to be combined with another tool, like a web application, to take care of layout.


I use it because I can easily insert Latex into it for math. I also use it to generate automated reports (e.g. update this document you made last year with new data).


Asciidoc has richer features than Markdown.


Markdown fits in well with Git.


I feel like

- "how much do WYSIWYG editors frustrate you, and do you already know how to use version control systems",

- "do you want tools to interface with your document without pulling out all of your hair and then some", and

- "do you want to use your own editor"

would also be fitting criteria. I don't meet any of the criteria you cited, but I like being able to spend 5 minutes on modifying a tool's output to be LaTeX so that I can just paste it into my document. (I'm in the infosec business, a common example is entering nmap results). And I like using Vim, so needing to use another editor would be a downside that I don't have with LaTeX. And it works great with version control if you have multiple authors working simultaneously on different sections. It wouldn't be the first time I submit a patch to someone's public repo containing a LaTeX document (in that case, I found a typo in their CV), you can't do that with something like Google Docs (for a typo, a comment works fine, but if you want to propose more than a single line, I guess you're out of luck). For me, there are quite a lot of reasons to use LaTeX.


For equations LaTeX is the best and most comprehensive syntax.

For normal text you can use some other markup that converts to LatTex when needed. Then you can add LaTeX packages or your own styles using LaTeX. LaTeX can be treated as intermediate representation. There are many tools for, graph, table, image editing and drawing that can emit LaTeX/TeX.


other selling points include great look, reproducible, gitable, makes for great boilerplates, etc.


[Me raises his hand.]

Most of my LaTeX usage (and I suck at it, but still stubbornly stuck with it for the last 5 years) is with Beamer, for technical conference presentations. Besides the inimitable typesetting and the quality of text, nothing comes close to how harmoniously you can meld diagrams (using "TikZ"; which, I admit, has a learning curve) with text when you're using LaTeX. The sheer quality is peerless.

(Not to mention all the additional advantages mentioned by others in this thread. I accept the trade-offs, including the time sink.)


LaTeX is one of the most important tools that I properly started using regularly whilst at unviersity.

It's the typesetting tool in CS, and you can get some really beautiful results from it. There's great tooling for IDEs like IntelliJ (https://github.com/Ruben-Sten/TeXiFy-IDEA), it makes managing references (using BibTeX) much less of a chore, there are tons of high-quality packages that do pretty much anything you could think of and there's an excellent community on e.g. TeX.SE to provide support. It's free software, the results are better than Word and it's much less painful to use than an unpredictable WYSIWYG editor.

I've used it in industry to write security audit reports and more recently as part of my dissertation. My only regret is not discovering LaTeX earlier and using it more.


When I saw this headline, I feel really sorry for those millions of non-programmer users. Having used LaTeX for more 10 yrs, I have to say this is one of the worst software in existent. The whole thing is really just a programming language with so many bugs so many broken packages so many idiosyncractic "features" that no one knows why they are the way they are.

Sadly, I still use it because there's no alternative.


I'm really surprised not enough people are making this point.

So bug prone, so many fragile packages, so many weird incantations that must be done if you ever want any flexibility... it absolutely sucks, but then I use it again and again.


PDF document typesetting is the poster child of unsexy software to work on. Everybody wants a replacement but nobody wants to write one.


>Could you use a standard word processor to approximate LaTeX, while obtaining an arguably better experience? Introducing the WordTeX template [for Microsoft Word] .

From the SIGBOVIK 2018 presentation, "WordTeX - a WYSIPCTWOTCG Typesetting Tool" : https://youtu.be/jlX_pThh7z8


Allington often uses Markdown, which he describes as more “lightweight” than LaTeX, because the formatting commands are more straightforward. [...] That said, some journals and conferences don’t accept documents in Markdown format.

Having used LaTeX a lot since I started studying, I nowadays also prefer Markdown because LaTeX often feels like an overkill. There are many great Markdown Editors out there for quick note taking. And when things get more academic, I like to use VSCode with PandocCiter (https://github.com/notZaki/PandocCiter) to manage the sources. Also, it's easy to convert the Markdown docs to LaTeX or Word if needed.


LaTeX feels ultimately like the wrong level of control. I'd either rather be simpler (Markdown) or have more control (CoNTeXt)

CoNText, for those unfamiliar, is a bit more modern...built to really take advantage of PDF features like full color and hyperlinks that LaTeX isn't as good at. Also much better control over figure placement, and is capable of things like sidebars that are somewhere between very fiddly to impossible in LaTeX.


ConText looks pretty good, but the formulas seem rather verbose with

    \placeformula[eqn:famous-emc]
    \startformula
         E = mc^2
    \stopformula
Compared to the quick an dirty latex:

    /[
        E = mc^2
    /]
Granted, with references in latex you'd need something pretty similar

    \begin{equation}\ref{eqn:famoues-emc}
         E = mc^2
    \end{equation}
I must say that the \begin{env} and \end{env} feel better to me that \startenv and \stopenv. Simply because it differentiates the environment name better.


Math isn't really it's strong point - but imagine typesetting something like a textbook.


Thanks for pointing out ConTeXt, I might try it out for my next presentation. The examples in the wiki seem to provide all that I need in a much more concise way that the LaTeX-Beamer package.


It's very powerful. Syntax isn't as nice as LaTeX (although it is much more consistent, since context is mostly developed by a single team instead of being a mass of extension), but you really have much more control (LaTeX floats are the devil incarnate).


18 years ago I was submitting a proof I wrote in word as an undergrad for my Econ grad school application. My dad (engineering prof) saw it, and said: “here’s what I do when I get asked to referee a paper in word.” And he threw it away. He rewrote the proof in Latex and I’m still using that doc as the skeleton for all my work 18 years later.

Like him, I cry myself to sleep at night for not being awesome enough to use TeX, but instead using the layman TeX, Latex.


Pro tip: Write in Word but use the LaTeX font. You get the speed of Word and the virtue signaling of LaTeX. Win Win.

This is just tongue in cheek, of course.

I wrote my thesis in 1993, and in that time period, my anecdotal observation was that the students who used LaTeX generally took longer to finish.

Today, I use MathJax inside of markdown, and don't even use word processing very much. Industry has gotten less formal. Most text is edited in an e-mail editor with screen shots pasted in. The main use of word processing is documents that nobody will ever read, such as functional procedures and HR proclamations.


What industry are you talking about? Email doesn't scale to the size of a detailed report; I've been criticised for sending 'wall of text' emails that were barely over 1,000 words. I'm sure you weren't entirely serious, but if 'nobody ever reads' documents longer than this, that is concerning.


I work in industry, and am amazed by the decline in use of things like detailed reports. Nobody reads any more. Someone might produce an in depth study of something, and present a summary as a PowerPoint, but that becomes the only documentary output of the work. If someone needs to know more detail, they go and ask the person. If the person get run over a bus, the knowledge is lost.

Even before this trend, there was a lot of documentation that was never intended to be read. Huge piles of what I call "ornamental" documentation, e.g., in fulfillment of ISO-9000 or other regulatory obligations.


> I wrote my thesis in 1993, and in that time period, my anecdotal observation was that the students who used LaTeX generally took longer to finish.

How much of that is down to the choice of tool, and how much is down to people choosing LaTeX being more likely to be more exacting about their work overall? I think it's difficult to a say.

(FWIW, I started my thesis in LaTeX, then gave up and used Word because it was faster - but only because I didn't know LaTeX prior)


I'm sure it was the latter, like you say. For one thing, the computer technology you used depended on your specialty, but there were also different "cultures" within each specialty regarding the thesis. The high-energy physics students had access to Unix workstations and used LaTeX.

Most of the other students had whatever old MS-DOS boxes they could afford, commercial quality typesetting was impossible, so nobody demanded it. My advisor didn't even send typeset copy to journals, because he figured they would just retype it anyway. Acceptance of manuscripts in computer readable format was just on the horizon.

There was a strong tendency to get emotionally attached to the physical document -- it was the pinnacle of your career after all -- and to get wrapped up in the aesthetics. I avoided that, partially because the clock was ticking. My boss had accepted a job at another university, and I had to clear out by a certain date. Nothing sharpens your mind like a semi truck coming to haul your experiment away.


My biggest issue with (la)tex is how hard it is to find up to date best practices. There are fifty ways to accomplish your desired outcome but it seems like every blog post or stack exchange answer conflicts with everything else and it turns out half of what you're doing is deprecated.

I'd pay good money for a "modern idiomatic latex"-type of tutorial.


As a frequent LaTeX editor (professional mathematician) -- what are you attempting to accomplish? And what do you mean by a "best practice"?

My usual operandi is: poke around or Google for a solution, until I figure out one of the fifty ways that achieves my desired outcome. I then declare my problem solved. If my solution is deprecated (by whom?), then whoever deprecated it may tsk-tsk to their heart's content.

Most mathematicians I know are not all that fussy with how they write their LaTeX documents, the same way programmers can be extremely fussy with their code. If there are "best practices" out there, then they aren't widely known or followed.

That said, here's something that may interest you. On the arXiv (arxiv.org), at least in math and probably in other disciplines as well, the LaTeX code is available for nearly any paper you want. Pick your favorite paper, and then click "Download other formats" on the right.

If nothing else, you can see what professional researchers are using in practice.


For example, there are two "dialects" for writing equations: vanilla LaTeX, and the amsmath package. Also, graphicx is not the only package for including images in to a document (I just forgot what the other options are).


>As a frequent LaTeX editor (professional mathematician) -- what are you attempting to accomplish? And what do you mean by a "best practice"?

Well in the simplest case how about something like \bf versus \bfseries versus \textbf?

Google that and you'll find thousands of blog posts, each telling you which is the One True Way™ but not expanding on the why.

Finding actual answers is really hard for latex.


> Well in the simplest case how about something like \bf versus \bfseries versus \textbf?

Use any of them.

> thousands of blog posts, each telling you which is the One True Way™

When I don't know how to do something in LaTeX, here is my flowchart for figuring out how:

1. Google

2. Look at any of the thousands of blog posts

3. Try the proposed solution, while ignoring any "One True Way" crap

4. Are the results what I wanted? If yes then done; if no go to Step 1.


That sounds like a recipe for mysterious breakages and subtle inconsistencies. And most importantly you can never develop a feel for the language if there are no clear idiomatic ways to solve some problems. There needn't be one true way, but there has to be some consistency.


I would say this is true of a programming language, but not really of LaTeX.

Now LaTeX technically is a programming language, it's Turing complete. But in practice for most users it's not.

Sure, there might be subtle inconsistencies. There might be some bit of mathematical notation that looks slightly different in one part of your document than another. I guess some people would be bothered by this, I'm not one of them.

It is true that it's possible to become a LaTeX power user, and write all sorts of sophisticated macros. In that case, yeah, you want to get the foundations right. But if you're just doing something simple (e.g. writing up a math paper), then mysterious breakages aren't an issue; there's not really anything to break.

When I worked as a programmer in industry, I was quite anal retentive about how I coded, and getting a feel for the languages I used. They were the tools with which I did my work. But LaTeX, for me anyway, is merely the tool with which I typeset my work. An outstanding tool, perfect for the job -- but not one I choose to invest time in mastering.


To me, this sounds like a very reasonable approach.


Yes, which is why my arxiv target in my Makefiles strips comments in addition to putting all files in the same dir etc.


Indeed, reading through the comments can be quite entertaining at times. I think that many authors don't realize they can be read....


Hear, hear! I have been slowly evolving the way I structure my LaTeX documents and I still feel like it leaves much to be desired.

It has often been repeated that we should all aim toward separation of content and presentation and LaTeX has been highly touted in this area, yet I find it very difficult to achieve in practice. Far too often, I find some package-provided environment lacking and I need to manually add some extra space or what have you. Now my document has become tainted due to the introduction of explicit styling in the content file. It's now baked in at that location and is very difficult to update later.

How do I avoid doing this? It's not enough to say "go back and redefine that command/environment to make it work the way you want." LaTeX is a leaky abstraction.


Just get Lyx. It's a graphical front end for LaTeX, so you never actually write LaTeX. You don't have to worry about what's idiomatic at all, because you aren't writing it. You're just writing a document.


The best bit about LyX is using it to format LaTeX tables nicely.

When writing my thesis I used LyX but found myself creating more and more ERT (what LyX calls raw LaTeX code). I eventually just started using a text editor. However, I still do tables in LyX and copy them over -- such a pain to insert a column otherwise...


That's kind of an indictment of latex in and of itself; the best way to use latex is to not use it?

At that point why not just use .docx?


Repeatability.

Complex formatting, such as figure captions and figure placement, in Word documents suddenly break for no apparent reason. Troubleshooting a “broken” Word doc is akin to fixing a typewriter while one is blindfolded.


Wouldn't it be nice if Word actually provided some kind of UI for working with the underlying XML, like the old WordPerfect 'show codes' feature?


In my experience, journals sometimes use old versions of packages, so you often don’t want to use the «modern way». Examples: lualatex is often not available, biblatex is not supported, etc


Deprecated? Like, has Latex been updated since the www became a thing? The last standard was set 1994.


> Deprecated?

Yes. In 1994, you would `latex document` and then `dvips document` to get your document.ps. Then in the 00s almost everyone would use `pdflatex document`. And these days, pdflatex is going out of fashion, but I am unsure what the current to go tool is.


While still an early project, I am keeping my eye on the Tectonic(https://github.com/tectonic-typesetting/tectonic) project. A re-write of the core Xetex engine in Rust with a focus on many quality of life improvements - useful error messages, UTF8 always, less line noise during build, eliminating the intermediate files, etc.


I recommend `latexmk -pdf <mainfile.tex>`

(This just runs latex and bibtex in the right order and the right number of times..)


Used in that way, it still uses pdflatex, which sucks if you have Unicode symbols (even Umlauts äöü are complicated...). Though latexmk can easily be configured to use xelatex with the -xelatex flag.


inputenc utf8 and fontenc T1 usually solves all my umlaut (and ğ) related problems


the right number of times

Unless the authors managed to solve the halting problem, I guarantee that latexmk doesn't always run them the right number of times. ;-)


It runs until you produce the same output twice in a row, or you exceed a maximum number of runs. This defaults to 5, but is user select able.

You can disable the maximum number of runs, in which case it really does run the right number of times.


The snark was that you can create an infinite chain of varying output.


I think the favorites are xelatex and lualatex. I normally use xelatex, because it handles Unicode well and can use otf or ttf fonts. Not sure about lualatex, but I heard it's nice to have Lua as a Scripting Backend.


XeLaTex uses the same text shaping engine Firefox uses, that's why it looks so much better than the default latex.


Lualatex also has good unicode and support through fontspec.


Overleaf's documentation is quite good.


I see a few things at work here.

First, over a period of decades, LaTeX's syntax became the lingua franca of nontrivial mathematics in plain text. I regularly emailed quite sophisticated equations to people as part of discussions because you could assume that anyone who could understand the equation understand its LaTeX representation. Given that cultural fact, providing LaTeX as an input syntax for equations is totally normal.

Second, most LaTeX users are not trained in any other typesetting system. This quote from the article is typical:

> “For me, LaTeX is the tool when I want to get the typesetting just so,” says Casey Greene, a bioinformatician at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

I spent a lot of hours typesetting in the family business using Quark Xpress back in the 1990's. I turned in most of my graduate level math homework in LaTeX generated PDFs, because rewriting three page long proofs by hand because you realized you had an error on page one is a pain. Of my two books, I typeset one in LaTeX and one in Adobe InDesign. If I want the typesetting just so, I would use InDesign over LaTeX every time. It's simply a better tool for the job.

The book I did in LaTeX I did because I happened to know that it would fit extraordinarily smoothly in that. It was a long flow of text with a few inline figures and equations and a really disgusting number of references. If I had a comparable reference tracking system in InDesign, I would have absolutely used it instead.

Finally, a lot of writing I'm doing these days is meant to be read on a screen, with all the vagaries of reflowing and unknown screen size that implies. In that situation your best bet is to wrap yourself in a straitjacket. Markdown and pandoc with blocks of raw HTML as needed is where I've landed, not because I love it, but because it's a well supported straitjacket with an easy escape hatch.


Typing with LaTeX within Vim can be as fast (or even faster) than in the Word processors. You can use the power of Vim plugins, concealments, and customized snippets. Most probably the same can be done inside Emacs as well. See the excellent article[1] on how to set up your Vim to follow the mathematics lectures in real time.

[1] https://castel.dev/post/lecture-notes-1/


LaTeX (and many other TeX-based technologies) simply amazing. But it is not enough for better scientific publishing. There was quite an interesting discussion[1] about creating something in between Overleaf[2], ArXiv[3], Git, and Wikipedia, moreover with the ability to do a peer-to-peer review, discussion, and social networking. There are a few implementations, albeit not covering all features, like Authorea[4] and MIT's PubPub[5] (it is the open source[6]). See also GitXiv[7]. See also the Publishing Reform[8] project. Moreover, there is a quite interesting initiative from DARPA, to create the scientific social network of a kind - Polyplexus[9].

[1] http://blog.jessriedel.com/2015/04/16/beyond-papers-gitwikxi...

[2] https://www.overleaf.com/

[3] https://arxiv.org/

[4] https://authorea.com/

[5] https://www.pubpub.org/

[6] https://github.com/pubpub

[7] https://medium.com/@samim/gitxiv-collaborative-open-computer...

[8] https://gitlab.com/publishing-reform/discussion

[9] https://polyplexus.com/


LaTeX integration is one of the neat features of Dropbox Paper. I don't know if people think of it as a "word processor" but you can stick a bit of LaTeX in any context by just using the $$ macro.


Why do they claim that Word ditched its equation editor? I believe I’m on the latest Word and it certainly still has the editor.

Word’s equation editor is hands-down the best WYSIWYG equation editor I ever used. The results are beautiful and if you want a tilde you just type a f*ing tilde instead of spending an hour figuring out which combination of packages and fonts will cause LaTeX to grace you with this standard unicode character.

I guess maybe MS discontinued the old plugin equation editor (which was terrible, agreed), but the built-in one is still there.


I've used LaTeX for years, written part of a textbook and a whole dissertation in it, and I don't like it.

There are two good parts to the TeX ecosystem in my opinion.

  - Typesetting math formulae. Even Word agrees that it's superior to point-and click for this use case (unlike our Blackboard online learning environment ... *sigh*)
  - Plain-text based. You can use your favourite editor, you can put it in version control, diff it, etc.
But for writing text-based documents such as lecture notes in subjects that are not mathematics, I really don't feel comfortable with the usability. For example,

  - Getting figures, page breaks etc. where I want them.
  - Underlining things is suprisingly hard (and not intuituve).
  - A marco preprocessor that has many of the disadvantages of that in C.
  - Confusing error messages, stuff randomly doesn't build.
  - Package X doesn't work with package Y (unless you include package W with option Z first) type problems.
I would switch in a heartbeat if there were something with the advantages of TeX, but not the disadvantages. It seems to me like neither of LaTeX3, luaTeX or XeTeX has got enough traction to get everyone to switch.

For things less than 50 pages or so, I've actually moved back to word, which if you buy the proper version rather than the 365 one is surprisingly good. I've found that in practice, for things where I care a lot how they look (which is pretty much everything), unless it's very mathematics-heavy I get the job done in just over half the time in Word usually.


For my own uses the combinations of markdown and pandoc feels very satisfying.

Pandoc allows me to pick and choose what parts of LaTeX I want to use and I can otherwise write in plain text/markdown.


For anyone looking to use Markdown while reaping the benefits of a typesetting engine, you may find the following series on how to typeset Markdown using ConTeXt of interest:

https://dave.autonoma.ca/blog/2019/05/22/typesetting-markdow...


> Proponents embrace LaTeX because of the total control it offers for document layout

Erm. Doesn’t a word processor or a specialized publishing software like Adobe InDesign offer more control over document layout? I thought LaTeX sort of takes over the control (which, some would argue, is a good thing, because you can focus on writing instead of formatting your text).


For all purposes I would claim LaTeX does take full control, only because the damn thing is so obscure that it takes a very specific mind to fathom how to use it.

I've done desktop publishing, I've done my MSc thesis in LaTeX, I'm a software engineer by profession - but if I would want any control by myself to any aspect of the document I would probably choose some other layout system than LaTeX.


Maybe it's because I did way more plain TeX than LaTeX, but just what is it that everyone finds so difficult about LaTeX?

Is LaTeX itself that much more difficult than plain TeX?

If so then why not just use TeX, the TeXBook is really easy to follow and gives clear examples.

The equations are formatted exactly the same way in both.¹

1: Unless you choose to use some package like amsmath, but why ?)


I think writing text and equations in LaTex is very simple. It's not WYSIWYG, but fairly straighforward. Even complex equations are fairly easy to formulate and look great. However as soon as you want to change how something is presented you might be in for a world of pain.


> However as soon as you want to change how something is presented you might be in for a world of pain.

So yeah, don't use LaTeX then use TeX, where you can change things easily because it's not as complicated.


If you run/operate/host an online service which allows rendering user-submitted LaTeX you must care about security.

There are a bunch of sites which take arbitrary input and convert it to PDF - they're often easily exploited, to allow arbitrary files to be read from the server, and commands executed:

       \begin{document}
       \setlength{\parindent}{0cm}{\Huge \Hello}
       
       \bigskip
       \section*{Execute Commands}
       \immediate\write18{uptime> scriptoutput.tex}
       \immediate\write18{id >> scriptoutput.tex}
       \immediate\write18{ps -ef >> scriptoutput.tex}
       \begin{alltt}
       \input{scriptoutput.tex}
       \end{alltt}
       
       \bigskip
       \section*{Read Files}
       \begin{alltt}
       \input{/etc/passwd}
       \end{alltt}


Interesting there was no mention of MathType, just the indirection of citing Word's Equation Editor which was originally licensed from the maker's of MathType I believe.

You can still order their licensed software which functions like a plug in and is more rich than the default equation editor that was a feature trimmed release of the broader MathType software I believe. http://www.dessci.com/en/products/mathtype/


In Finland the nation wide test in math are now digitalized. Which is good bit neither memorizing latex commands or menu hunting feels as natural as "drawing" by hand. This will inevitably spread, what to do?


When I was studying math, I enjoyed the challenge of writing LaTeX. It gave me a break from struggling with (e.g.) a real analysis proof to instead think about typography, struggle with syntax, and tweak my document layout.


I think going one-step further and making LaTeX the entire backing structure of a document would be a great idea. Kind of like HTML WYSIWYG designer tools. Would be a boon for interoperability which is probably why it'll never happen.


It would be an awful idea.

Latex can't produce HTML, it can't produce EPUBs or any other reflowable document type. It can't produce any document which is accessible to blind people (other than giving them the raw LaTeX file).

Note: You will find various libraries that claim to produce HTML output. I can tell you from experience none of them work, given a random LaTeX paper you download from, say, Arxiv.


Pandoc does all that, from LaTeX source (among others).

https://pandoc.org


Pandoc creates PDF using LaTeX. You still constrained to LaTeX features, and therefore the lack of trivial accessibility.


Pandoc's documentation itself says that the conversion is lossy.


Pandoc conversion is another trip down the rabbit hole (latex to markdown:

Error at "input" (line 265, column 1): unexpected '\n'


The assertion was that LaTeX cannot generate specific formats. Using Pandoc (NB: Pandoc Is Not Markdown, though it's often used with it), s well as earlier tools, that is in fact quite possible.

Using templates, with quite a level of flexibility.


soo.. like lyx?

https://www.lyx.org/


I find LaTeX's math syntax quite bad, e.g. the fact that you have to use \frac instead of just the / operator, \left( instead of just (, and so on.

AsciiMath is much better and actually works as you would expect it to.


\left can be a hassle, but the distinction between \frac and / is often quite useful. In inline math something like x/y can be a lot more readable than \frac xy. You might say it should just automatically choose, but often some terms are more important than others and I really want to control which get rendered more compact.

I also don't like how parentheses in asciimath sometimes don't get rendered.


Notice that this article is explicitly about formatting equations in LaTeX. Other Word processors, of course, don't actually do any LaTeX, they simply emulate the equation stuff from it.


The Web is where I want to read stuff. I find the publishing industry simply curious nowadays.


I think Latex is awesome for what it is: a system designed to enable engineers and (beta) scientists to produce printable documents without having to think a lot about making it look good; which is something they tend to be not good at. From having worked with skilled designers, I know I suck at this at least. As soon as you broaden the scope of writing to include e.g. ebooks, websites, and search engines as first class citizens, latex stops being an appropriate solution.

I rarely produce text for the purpose of printing these days but I used to do this a lot when still working as an academic. These days, I read a lot of books in ebook form and I read a lot of articles, blogs, and news in HTML form. Likewise my output seems to be online documentation, social media comments, the occasional blog article, etc.

Pdfs (and their printed output) are a second class citizen in that kind of world. They are harder to machine read, which results in issues with SEO, accessibility, or even simply re-flowing to deal with different screens or output formats. Pdfs are actually only appropriate for sending to a printer. On screen PDF reading is tedious and the UX for that tends to be not great. The whole page metaphor is simply not appropriate because it means setting the size of the output window to some fixed dimensions and hard-coding assumptions about the medium on which it is going to be consumed. It only makes sense if your medium is paper.

My printer is rarely used these days. I've had it for 12 years and I'm only on the second toner cartridge. The awesome thing with laser printers is that they don't dry out. Most of the output is exclusively limited to bureaucratic stuff. Thankfully that's very limited these days. I used to print stuff like boarding passes but these days you just wave the QR code around with your phone.

Engineers have tried to fix latex to produce things other than .ps and later .pdf documents. The results were never that popular. You can do e.g. presentations in latex and people have probably produced websites from latex as well. But lets just say that it's not a great fit for that kind of thing and also not that commonly used that way.

Additionally, the results are typically kind of bland and boring because the people most eager to produce stuff this way tend to have very little interest in e.g. design quality or making things visually interesting. It sort of self selects to people who have neither the skills nor the patience for that kind of thing. I.e. engineers. The same is actually true for the paper output. Yes you can do nice typography with it and some people do, but most people just stick with the bland defaults, which results in a kind of yawn inducing and bland look that instantly jumps out from a page.

What I've learned over the years is that engineers are obsessed with their tools and that mostly the tools don't actually matter. This article makes the simple observation that for mathematical formulas, Latex provides a pretty awesome DSL and that when it comes to doing math in systems other than latex, that DSL is increasingly what people fall back to rather than whichever formula editor comes with word, open office, etc. or alternatives like mathml, matlab, or hand scribbled things in bitmap form, etc. I think it makes sense. I'd probably use it all the time if writing math formulas was a thing in my life. This happens to be not the case for me, so I have had zero exposure to Latex in most of this century. I do a lot of my writing in relatively dumb editors or even an HTML Text area. I seem to use markdown a lot as it is good enough and doesn't lock me in to taking any decisions for the output.

Funny story: when I was in university we had secretaries that knew how to use latex. Reason: several of the elderly math professors had no clue how to use a computer and were used to handing their papers in handwritten form to the secretaries for further processing. It's easy to forget that computers and word-processors are relatively new tools and that people have been publishing scientific work for centuries. Even Latex is not that old. Ultimately it's about the content, not the tools.




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