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Why LaTeX?

These notes are collected from comp.text.tex, (,, and with a few additions of my own.

I use Pagemaker, Word and LaTeX. I think that if you are writing a document with lots of maths, tables (multipage, perhaps), cross-references, etc, and you need to format the document and bibliography to suit various publications, then LaTeX is clearly the best choice. If your document contains many equations / figures / tables, Word easily runs out of memory and shows a nice blue screen of death or prints red crosses instead of your equations. The only solution then is to split up your document which makes automatic table-of-contents generation hard.

If you don't mind manually renumbering captions and updating cross-references, if you don't see the need for Word's templates and outliner, then you're not going to appreciate LaTeX's ease of use.

If you write few documents, or if you want to write short, one-off documents with many font styles/types and not very much maths, then Word's probably more suitable.

There's a large grey area in between. The advantages of LaTeX are that

  • It's free.
  • It's available for many machines.
  • LaTeX files are ASCII and are portable. Because they're ASCII it's easy to discover how someone achieved an effect.
  • You can use the editor of your choice (I sometimes use Word).
  • The typesetting's better, especially the maths.
  • Style changes are neater in LaTeX. Style files for many periodicals exist. Many Word users don't use styles or templates, and there's a limit to what can be done.
  • LaTeX is extensible. If you want a new feature, you can look around for a free add-on or write one yourself. Pagemaker Additions and Quark Xtensions exist, but usually cost hundreds of pounds (the MathMagic QuarkXTension for writing maths and importing/exporting TeX docs costs over £600).
  • LaTeX's floats are no more awkward than Word's anchored frames, and the latter don't always work well.

Some disadvantages are

  • Font selection is difficult compared to selection in Word and Framemaker (though some XeTeX-based Mac/Windows front-ends now let you use native fonts).
  • LaTeX's not good at flowing text around pictures.
  • LaTeX encourages (almost insists on) structured writing and the separation of style from content. This is not the way that many people (especially non-programmers) are used to working.
  • Without a WYSIWYG front end, it's not always easy to find out how to do things.

We've had WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) systems on trial at CUED. Only Framemaker was at all suitable. It's not cheap. WYSIWYG front ends for LaTeX exist. We've tried versions of Lyx but it has disadvantages. WYSIWYG is ok if you are only going to output onto paper, but if (as is common nowadays) output might be in various forms (HTML, etc) WYSIWYG becomes increasingly unhelpful. See also