An Introduction to LaTeX, Professional Typesetting and Scientific Publishing (a.k.a. When to Avoid Traditional Word Processors)
Howdy everyone. We hope that you have enjoyed and cherished your summer so far! As it stands out, there has been a bit of development behind the scene here at Math Vault, and with the limited time we had, it was difficult for us to hop back to writing and researching in the previous weeks. Thankfully, things seem to have calm down quite a bit (just so slightly) this week, and we hereby find ourselves leveraging a bit of our liberated resources to share with you what we have experienced and learnt about… hmm… word processor and professional typesetting!
- 6 Serious Weaknesses of Standard WYSIWYG Editors
- Introducing LaTeX and its Strengths
- Traditional Disadvantages of LaTeX
- 21st-Century LaTeX
Anyone knows a software application called Microsoft Word? Of course you do! And chances are, you have been using it — or another What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) word processor (e.g., OpenOffice.org Writer, Google Doc) — all along over these years.
And here is something potentially unpleasant to the ears: what if we were to tell you that sometimes, they could just be the poor text editors unsustainably designed with the wrong philosophy in mind? Or that they are built primarily for the general usage (i.e., not for professional publishing at the industrial scale)?
With that in mind, do allow us to share with you 6 critical flaws traditional WYSIWYG text editors tend to suffer from. These could be flaws that have bothered you somewhere in the past — some of which you might not even be aware of.
(and to the research team who published the questionable December 2014 PLOS ONE study praising the efficiency of Microsoft Word as a document preparation system for the academics, while we admit feeling ambivalent about your Pro-Word bias, we are also confused about your claim of saving time and taxpayer money by not learning a document preparation system — which could provide its users with a lifetime of benefits.)
Here’s a question: How do you open a doc/docx file? Usually with Microsoft Word! (or a variant that accepts these filetypes). In other words, opening a Microsoft Word file requires a Microsoft-Word-like application. Try opening these files with basic text editors such as NotePad (or TextEdit in Mac) and see what happens: a bunch of weird and unintelligible symbols that make no sense!
In addition to being text-unfriendly, converting these filetypes to other formats — or even just older formats — could very well jeopardize the formatting, alignment, or other specifications in the document. This would then require another round of judicious manual correction on your own, which could very well be somewhat painful or infuriating. In fact, there have been many recurring episodes of file conversion disasters in the history of Microsoft Word (in the olden days at least).
How much does a proper Microsoft Word® costs? A picture is worth a thousand words:
Or if you prefer subscription plans for Office 365, which seems a bit cheaper on the surface?
As powerful word processors, the proprietariness of document preparation applications — while sometimes justifiable — can hinder the democratization of the publication of creative work — a right previously reserved to the elites and associates of the publishing industry even decades ago.
And of course, there are free, open-source variants of Microsoft Word such as OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice, NeoOffice (for Mac OS X) or Google Doc. The problem — if there is one — is that they invariably suffer from the typical weaknesses exhibited by a standard WYSIWYG word processor, such as inflexibility in terms of feature extension and clumsiness with respect to the design interface.
While traditional WYSIWYG editors provide an enormous amount of choices in terms of fonts, font sizes and colors, documents produced using those editors tend to lack the typographical machineries to make them visual pleasing and satisfying. For one, the texts in these editors tend to be typesetted in low resolution, with usually little to no care on minute ornamentations (e.g., ligature) and spacing/alignment details (e.g., hyphenation) commonly observed in professionally produced journals and printed books.
Poor typography aside. With the traditional WYSIWYG word processors, the end of the lines are — most often than not — poorly aligned. And even if a paragraph is fully-justified, there is usually a lack of consistency in the interword spaces — which in turn could make the document look even messier than the original. 🙁
And if you want to produce elaborated formulas and equations in its full glory, you are pretty much out of luck. While the standard WYSIWYG editors usually allow for inserting exotic symbols and might even offer rudimentary features for equations, you would — in more likelihood — find yourself doing lots of clicking and hand-and-eye coordination with very little in return…
Some more words of caution: if you run too many equations, text boxes or figures in the same Word document, you could very well risk of having your computer run out of memory and freeze to an infamous Microsoft® Blue Screen Of Death (BSOD). 🙂
There is of course no doubt in our mind that Microsoft Word and its competitors has evolved to become powerful text editors over the years. For example, in the newer Microsoft Word (e.g., Word 95 and onward), users can determine the position of the images via a simple and intuitive drag-and-drop. However, while apparently intuitive, the position of these images could also be easily altered during the document editing process, which in turn requires the image position to be readjusted again — and then again…
And if you manage to integrate some text boxes smoothly into the paragraphs, similar formatting issues could then resurface again: you would drag a text box to an intended position, and it would slip away from your grip and travel somewhere else into the no man’s land. Other times, the editor would get wiser and simply disobey your commands. 😉
If you were to write a book today, how would you number the different chapters and sections? Well. Just number it! Plain and simple!
OK… While you can certainly do the numbering manually (which admittedly is rather intuitive), this actually becomes increasingly difficult and intractable as the number of chapters and sections increases. In addition, what if you accidentally numbered Chapter 13 as Chapter 12, or decide to introduce a new section between Section 5 and Section 6? Well, that can only mean one thing — that your numbering is all messed up and needs to be readjusted from scratch all over again!
But of course, the point here is not just about the chapters and sections, as the same numbering issue could apply to bibliographical references, tables, images, definitions and equations (if you manage to create some that is!).
To be fair, Microsoft Word does support automatic numbering adjustment in some cases, but at the cost of more confusion and complexity. As Microsft Word MVP John McGhie puts it:
Numbering in Word is difficult to understand because Word attempts to hide “complexity” from us. In many cases, it provides insufficient detail in the explanation of features. Regrettably, a simplistic explanation does not help understanding of a complex subject. It fills our heads with loose ends, which makes the problem worse!
To make the matter worse, let’s say that you referred to page 91 where you elaborated a bit on the Keynesian theory of economics, but later edited the text so that the same content now appears on page 87. Well, that’s not a good news, because it means that you would have to change your reference page now from 91 to 87!
And there is more: imagine doing that for hundreds of page references for equations, sections, chapters, paragraphs, tables, figures, footnotes and citations… Not exactly a human-friendly task if you ask us!
While WYSIWYG text editors provide an intuitive graphical user interface by displaying, in real-time, how the document will look like when it’s printed, in some instances, it has also been argued that it’s this overemphasis on elaborated graphics that forces traditional WYSIWYG editors to water down its display resolution and typesetting quality. For example, Alain Cottrell, a strong proponent of $ \TeX$, puts it this way:
The typesetting algorithm employed by WYSIWYG word processor sacrifices quality to the speed required for the setting and resetting of the user’s input in real time. The final product is greatly inferior to that of a real typesetting program.
In addition, as the demand for more powerful features and functionalities grow over the years, there is a tendency — for developers of traditional WYSIWYG editors — to sacrifice the cleanness of user interface (UI) by featuring an excessive amount of friendly icons, menus, boxes and bars into the editor’s main window. As a result, the users would find themselves performing repetitive mouse clicks and exercising an unnatural amount of fine hand-and-eye coordinations, just to get to some feature which could have been more energy-efficiently implemented with a few taps on the keyboard.
And worse. The decision of opting for a more graphical — rather than a more minimalist user interface — would eventually take a toll on the speed of the text editors in question, putting additional demands on the computer’s memory chips and graphic card while making the installation larger and longer as the year progresses.
For those of us who have only used Microsoft-Word-like word processors all these years, it is kind of hard to appreciate how an apparently-intuitive graphical user interface could actually make word processing tedious and ineffective in the long run, and for that, we hereby turn our attention to $ \LaTeX$.
So what is $\LaTeX$? Well, in official terms:
LaTeX is a high-quality typesetting system; it includes features designed for the production of technical and scientific documentation. LaTeX is the de facto standard for the communication and publication of scientific documents. LaTeX is available as free software.
Based on the work on $\TeX$ by the computer science wizard Donald Knuth, $\LaTeX$ (that X pronounced as a C, by the way) was first developed in 1985 (!) by the badass mathematician Leslie Lamport, before becoming popularized in the typesetting and scientific community. Since 1994, $\LaTeX 2\epsilon$ has been the current version of $ \LaTeX$, even though the LaTeX 3 project was already underway back then — in the early ’90s.
And… before delving into the powerful functionalities of $\LaTeX$, why not take a quick look at this Visual FAQ and judge for yourself what $\LaTeX$ can help you achieve?
In $\LaTeX$, the fonts are typesetting in high resolution and so intricately designed that once you get a hold of it, it becomes nearly impossible (or even embarrassing) in retrospect to reminisce about your former lack of textual aesthetics.
In addition, if your paper bears any resemblance to mathematics, how exactly are you to type out those squeaky symbols (e.g., fractions, Greek letters, matrices) without some kind of specialized tools? And while these are certainly still doable in Microsoft Word, do still expect a fair load of inefficient/repetitive icon-clicking — at the very least!
Of course, there is definitely more than meet the eyes (literally). For a more comprehensive typesetting comparison between Microsoft Word and $\LaTeX$ — in images — check out Dario Taraborelli’s The Beauty of LATEX.
Have you ever noticed how disorganized the usual (left) alignment looks in Web Pages — or even in some books? By default, documents prepared using $\LaTeX$ are fully justified, and while full justification has been known to be sub-optimal for Web Pages, the same issue is basically non-existent in $\LaTeX$, as justification would be obtained through the intelligent use of hyphenation — and not through the stretching of interword spaces as we do in the Web Pages.
Actually, speaking of alignment, did it ever occur to you to hit
SPACE multiple times just to get that right look, only to mess it up a few seconds later?
Oh well. We just have to point out that in many instances, that could be considered a rather awkward approach to alignment and formatting. In $\LaTeX$, for example, the system is actually deliberately set up to ignore
ENTER tapping, which means that as users become increasingly proficient in $\LaTeX$, they also becomes habitually conditioned to create alignment mainly through the use of commands, invisible columns or separators — as opposed to some other apparently-intuitive tricks which could make formatting harder in the long run.
Imagine writing a weekly performance report with 15 already-numbered sections, and as you rush towards the completion of the report, you forget — in the midst of the confusion and chaos — to include the Metrics & Chart section, which is supposed to be inserted between the 4th and the 5th section in your report!
What now? Well, it means that your numbering is — officially — totally messed up, and has to be redone all over again!
On the other hand, if instead you were using $\LaTeX$, issues of this kind would never have surfaced from the get-go. In other words, whether we are talking about sections, subsections, chapters, footnotes, bibliographical references, theorems, equations or figures, $\LaTeX$ makes tedious manual numbering a menial task from the past. Why? Because the compiling process would take care of that aspect for us!
And if you want to refer back to any of the objects (e.g., references, equations) mentioned in the earlier pages, you should not proceed to manually typing in the reference numbers either! As a cross-referencing system, $\LaTeX$ is specifically designed to automatically readjust the numbering every time you modify the document. So for the love of God, let $\LaTeX$ do that for you!
Ask a regular LaTeX user about what’s best about $\LaTeX$, and you will probably get the following claim:
The biggest difference between a traditional WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor and $\LaTeX$, is that the latter is designed to specifically discourage working on the content and the design — at the same time.
While it is customary to compliment traditional WYSIWYG editors for its intuitive user interface, to the eyes of a $\LaTeX$ proponent, the ability to easily modify the design/presentation of a document — on the spot — represents one of the fundamental weaknesses of a document preparation system, as it could translates into repeated, intermittent tweaking of the formatting details by its user — usually not trained as a designer — while working on the document itself.
On the other end of the spectrum, the system of $\LaTeX$ is set up so that in more likelihood, the layout and other formatting specifications are found exclusively in the preamble (i.e., the very beginning of the source code) and the style sheets. This would have the effect of conditioning its users to specify the design components once and for all, and then proceed to focus on content creation — without having to worry about changing the text size, font, color or paragraph indentation in the document.
If you want a new feature, or a new shortcut that invokes a feature regularly in Microsoft Word, what would you do? In many cases, there is no easy solution, and in other cases, no solution simply exists within the system itself.
In contrast, a regular LaTeX user does not exactly work on the document itself — but on its source code, which inherently provides plenty of coding capabilities and rooms for its users to innovate and do much more than any set of standard functionalities can ever afford. That is, unlike most of the traditional WYSIWYG word processors, $\LaTeX$ does not lock its users up into a system which only gives them the illusion of abundant features. Rather, it provides them with the coding power and the freedom to make use of it however they like.
For example, one way of getting feature extension in $\LaTeX$ is through the creation of new environments and commands — which essentially serves to chunk a load of codes into one or two lines. After these gimmicks are created, one can then proceed to use them as many times as they like — or even create more complex features based on these environments/commands!
Actually, more is true: if you ever become that brutally sophisticated in coding, then you get to create your own document templates and stylesheets — which can of course include some new environments and commands on their own! And once the creation is completed, it would then be in your own right to either keep these treasures for yourself. or publish them online in some centralized archive (e.g., CTAN) — for all to use and see! In effect, such is the open source, non-proprietary spirit of $\LaTeX$ ever since the early days, which means that any possibility of feature expansion is bounded only by the limits of imagination itself!
(aside from the inherent technical constraints of $\LaTeX$, of course.)
As cool and as popular $\LaTeX$ can be (in the scientific community at least!), it is of course still not without its flaws and shortcomings. In what follows, we shall bring up a few of these — to the guilty pleasure for some and dismay for others! 🙂
Traditionally, $\LaTeX$ is used offline by installing a TeX distribution, along with a LaTeX editor on the top of it which allows for source code editing. There are many TeX distributions freely available on the Web, with the standard ones being MiKTeX (for Windows), MacTeX (for Mac) and TeX Live (cross-platform).
Depending on your level of computer proficiency, installing a TeX distribution and adding/updating the fonts and packages can be either a breeze — or a pain in the ass. The size of the distributions can also vary, with the basic ones being around 150MB (e.g., Basic MiKTeX), and complete ones around 2.5GB (e.g., MacTeX 2015).
If you still manage to make it through all these sections, it might have already dawned on you that unlike the Microsoft-Word-like editors, traditional LaTeX users don’t really edit a document by typing in the exact symbols they want to see in the document. Instead, they edit the source code of the document, in $\LaTeX$ — That is, a computer markup language analogous to HTML for the Web Pages.
And again, depending on your experience in coding, learning the LaTeX language can either take a few days here and there, or a few weeks/months. Admittedly, this is a small price to pay for using traditional LaTeX editors, as there will be no to very little feature buttons/menus to click or rely on. However, if you persist long enough, your neural network will grow denser and the payoff will far exceed the initial investment. Actually, why not think of it this way? 😉
In life, what starts as hard usually becomes easy, and what starts as easy usually becomes hard.
While in some instances, implementing features by typing in the source codes directly can certainly work faster than clicking on the icons, menus and windows, it’s also no surprise that computer codes tend to have a notorious reputation of being not-so-human-friendly — especially when presented in large chunks with all kinds of non-alphabetical symbols (e.g., backslashes, parentheses, brackets and braces).
In fact, we could even argue that this is an all-too-common issue that users of traditional LaTeX editors experience regularly, as they work through the complex formulas, tables, diagrams and drawings. Take a look for instance at the following source code — and the output formula associated with it:
See that green blob in the middle of the left pane? That — is the source code we used to type out the equation on the right. In this case, because the equation is still relatively straight-forward, it only took us a few attempts in coding —- before getting the formula exactly the way we intended it to be. Now, imagine doing a schematic drawing of a complex network, with various sub-components, connectors and curved arrows… How much more work would that be?
And the truth is… creating complex objects via the exclusive use of source codes can be a rather cumbersome and daunting task for humans, as our eyes and brain are not evolutionary adapted to parse strange-looking symbols in a cost-effective manner. And as hard as it is for source-code fanatics to admit, there are indeed many instances where a feature is most efficiently implemented — not by coding or simplified coding through the creation of new environments/commands — but by direct modification of the previewed document itself.
This, of course, is where WYSIWYG graphical user interfaces shine — and source code interfaces stink. 🙂 In fact, fellow mathematician and LaTeX advocate Jim Hefferon agrees:
The opposite extreme, a document such as a brochure or an advertisement that is dominated by graphics, font changes, and color, is best tackled in a layout tool like Quark or Framemaker.
Depending on your background in coding and typesetting, your opinion on the usefulness of $ \LaTeX$ can vary. For one, we know that some regular LaTeX users derive their guilty pleasure by teasing non-techies, while the latter would complain about the irrelevance and the intimidating interface of traditional LaTeX editors. Here at Math Vault, we believe that a solution synthesizing the best of both worlds is in order, and here are our recommendations of some of the most avant-garde LaTeX editors:
OverLeaf (formerly known as WriteLaTeX), is a cloud-based online LaTeX editor that allows for document preparation — without the hurdle of installing and maintaining LaTeX distributions (as the fonts and packages could add up to gigabytes in size). This is only possible because source code management, typesetting and PDF preview/compilation are all processed out there — in the cloud. All you need to do really is to create an account, and you are ready to go. You can then either choose to work on your own documents and publish it, or share and collaborate with other co-authors in real-time.
However, what really shines about OverLeaf is its (limited) Rich Text Mode, which allows for previews of mathematical expressions — on the spot — as one works through the source code. This is clearly of great benefit, as users no longer have to seep through convoluted source codes for the long-winded mathematical expressions to know what they stand for. In addition to the friendlier interface, the Rich Text Mode also upholds the tradition of source-code-based document editing, which — as you might know by now — minimizes the need of introducing new buttons every time there is a new functionality. Result? A cleaner and more effective user interface — coupled with a flatter learning curve.
However, as a freemium web application (in rapid development) monetized through the offering of additional storage/bandwidth and advanced features, OverLeaf is of course not without its drawbacks and limitations. In what follows, we shall present a few of those weaknesses:
- Speed: While a free OverLeaf user does have access to a full LaTeX distribution without having to install it on their own computer, the act of typesetting in the cloud can take a toll on the speed of the application and the smoothness by which it runs. In OverLeaf, the preview is updated almost as soon as you finish performing an edit in the source code. As a result, the preview screen can lag a bit from time to time.
- Limited Storage: A free OverLeaf user has a starting storage size of 200MB, and while the storage size can be increased to 1GB through acts of referral and endorsement, in more likelihood you would probably still end up paying for the subscriptions — if you are looking for more serious expansion in storage space.
- Limited Feature: Since you have decided to outsource the installation and maintenance of LaTeX distribution to OverLeaf, it should be of no surprise that they expect you to pay a bit for the standard features commonly available in the offline LaTeX editors. These are features such as project history, version tracking/comparison and unlimited files per project.
Translation? If you want to prepare a long document like a 100-page report or a book, OverLeaf — or the free version of it at least — is probably not an ideal candidate for the task. In fact, it’s not all to uncommon to find members in the LaTeX community who are dumbfounded about the need and relevance of such a web application, as many of the premium features in OverLeaf can be obtained for free through its offline counterparts with just a bit of additional work.
As a cloud-based web application, OverLeaf appears to be sophisticated enough to deal with minor security and administrative issues generally associated with online storage. However, for those who would rather store their source codes on their own computer and benefit from the full-fledged features unavailable to the (free) users of online LaTeX editors, there is a single offline alternative that helps address those concerns — all of the while outperforming most of its (online or offline) counterparts.
The name? BaKoMa TeX. That’s right. As awkward as it might sound (that’s the initial of its creator Basil. K. Malyshev by the way), BaKoMa TeX is the Swiss knife of LaTeX editors. Why? Well, simply because it allows for editing of both the source code and the preview of the document — with simultaneous synchronization between the two editing interfaces in real-time.
And as innocent as it might sound, these features can have profound repercussions on the program’s ease of use and productivity potential. First, instead of modifying the figures or tables by tweaking the source code, one can achieve the same task at a much faster speed by directly modifying the preview of those figures/tables instead. Second, because the preview of a document is instantly available right after making any change in the source code, this dramatically cuts down the time needed for tasks whose successful completion requires an extensive amount of trials and errors in the source code (e.g., drawing diagrams, networks, mind maps and other complex figures).
In broader terms, BaKoMa TeX combines the best of both worlds by leveraging the intuitiveness of Graphical User Interface (GUI), and the coding power of source code which $\LaTeX$ is famous of. As a result, BaKoMa TeX makes other alternative applications attempting to graphicalize LaTeX editors (e.g., LyX, Cassiopeia, TeXmacs, Scientific Word) look almost childish or futile.
Don’t believe us? University of Toronto economist Martin Osborne explains:
BaKoMa TeX Word is a true WYSIWYG LaTeX editor: it is truly WYSIWYG—the output window displays precisely the LaTeX output—and it is truly a LaTeX editor—the input file is a LaTeX file, without any need for conversion. It is a stunning achievement, a huge step forward in LaTeX-editing technology.
[…] [BaKoMa] TeX Word makes it easy: you type the code and the output appears instantly. For me, TeX Word has cut the production time for figures by at least 75%.
What’s more, Professor Osbourne went on further with his rants about BaKoMa Tex on TeX StackExchange:
There are three things I don’t understand about BaKoMa.
- Why isn’t it more widely used? You edit the TeX code and instantly see the output, or just edit the output—saving a huge amount of time. How is it possible to create slides, for example, any other way?
- Why isn’t there an open source project to develop a similar system?
- How can anyone complain about paying the price of dinner for two for a system that is so superior to the competition? The 200-odd people who think Emacs is a better system must be living in a different world than I am!
Now, you might be asking yourself, “if it’s so good, why is it that almost no one talks about it?” To which we reply:
We believe that BaKoMa TeX been consistently underrated, in part due to its relatively-exorbitant cost, and in part due to its not-so-sophisticated branding.
And it’s like Professor Osbourne said: when you think about it, the price of BaKoMa TeX is still on the lower end in absolute terms — especially when productivity and efficiency is taken into consideration. Professor Jack Huizenga offers this following insight:
I agree the cost shouldn’t be an issue for serious researchers: this is orders of magnitude better than the alternatives. It’s just hard to get people to pay for something when a free option exists, even if they are so far behind.
And of course, for the less serious among us, it’s always possible to stick to the free, non-proprietary and open-source options. In which case, we would recommend TeXStudio as your LaTeX editor, which is pretty much as good as it gets — as far as traditional LaTeX editing is concerned.
While 100 years ago, the access to professional typesetting might have been restricted to organized publishers and their associates, with the advances in Internet and digital typesetting in the recent decades, the typesetters and document designers that used to be so hard to find are now easily available — at our fingertips. In fact, one could even argue that in this day and age, any non-professional with a willingness to learn $\LaTeX$ can have professional documents produced and published — for them and by them — with a few clicks and keyboard strokes.
(i.e., around a few thousands, on average?) 🙂
Furthermore, with the advent of links (e.g., hyperlinks and anchors), an eBook prepared using $\LaTeX$ can be likened to a professionally-prepared book, plus the interactive features commonly available in the Web Pages. Think about it: when is it 20 years ago that you have read a book with linkable table of contents, bibliographical references and figures?
Remember: $\LaTeX$ is not a tool reserved solely for the mathematicians and scientists who want to get some fancy symbols typesetted correctly. Rather, it is a general document preparation system for books, reports, manuals, theses — all the way up to articles, letters, CVs, presentations and business cards. When leveraged appropriately, the awesome power and accessibility of $\LaTeX$ can have a profound contribution to the democratization of professional typesetting — while removing yet another additional barrier away from independent publishing.
And that’s not all, as $\LaTeX$ — at its core — is still a primarily volunteer-based project with sporadic development. Indeed, many members in the $\LaTeX$ community are constantly in look for news about the latest LaTeX 3, whose release date is — in all likelihood — still imminent. Coupled with the advent of cloud computing, preview-based editing, customizable shortcuts and social media platforms, $\LaTeX$ can only continue to evolve into a springboard for future innovations on effective document preparation and mass publication/collaboration on an international scale.
And if there is one thing we have learnt along the way, it would be the realisation that at the end of the day, the old debate about which philosophy of document processing dominates another (e.g., WYSIWYG, WYSIWYW, WYSIWYM) is becoming increasingly irrelevant, as the bigger issue at hand — in actuality — revolves around maximizing the efficiency and productivity of the editing process, all of the while retaining the tradition of professional typesetting. The information age can only be characterized by the state of constant flux and neverending improvement/obsolescence indeed. 😉