LaTeX: the pain, the pleasure

As befits a self-respecting Unix geek, I've pretty much finally decided that I will write my thesis in LaTeX, and not in Word (which is what I have been using for the last few years). I am a bit nervous about this. Most historians, I'm sure, have never heard of it, and indeed the typical LaTeX user would be working in the sciences (which is where I first learned to use it, many moons ago; among other things, it's great for equations). There's not a lot of support for using LaTeX in the humanities.Though there are in fact some users in the humanities, as the comments to this Crooked Timber post show. The Astrophysical Journal may prefer papers to be submitted in LaTeX format, but the Journal of British Studies probably wouldn't have any idea as to what to do with such a beast.Though actually, it seems that most history journals only accept paper manuscripts. How quaint! Since none of my colleagues will know how to use LaTeX, it's next to useless for any collaborative work. But all that is get-around-able, because I can switch back to Word if need be. The big problem, though, is bibliographical management. EndNote can't work with LaTeX in the same way as it does with Word. That means I either enter and format all citations by hand (urk), or use BibTeX-oriented software. Which is fine ... except if I ever decide I want to go back to Word/EndNote, either temporarily or permanently, then my bibliography will be in BibTeX, which of course Word can't handle. It is possible to convert from EndNote to BibTeX and vice versa, in theory, but in my experience this isn't very unreliable. EndNote can export directly to BibTeX, but the resulting file isn't readable; I had better luck exporting to RefMan (RIS) format instead. Unfortunately, for some reason this abbreviates authors' first names to just their initial, so I will have to key those in by hand.

So much for the pain. What's the pleasure? Well, for one thing, the result looks so much better than Word. It is very easy to produce a beautiful document in LaTeX. It's the kerning ... the justification ... it's just the vibe. More importantly, LaTeX separates form from content. When writing in Word, I find that I get hung up on how the thing looks, and distracted by trying to massage its appearance. In LaTeX, you just write, and worry about that stuff later. And when producing large and complex documents (like a PhD thesis!), LaTeX comes into its own: when you do need it, you have the power to specify exactly where to place that table on the page - whereas Word will put it wherever it thinks best and you have little say in the matter. In fact, LaTeX can be (and is) used to typeset entire books. The other main advantage as I see it is that LaTeX files are just plain text files, where Word uses a binary format. Which is stupidly easy to corrupt.To be fair, this seems to happen much less often than it used to. This is the safest and most portable format around, and it helps that LaTeX is available for Windows, OS X and your various Unices and Unix-work-alikes. (For more comparisons, see here (with pictures!) and here.)

OK, but just what is LaTeX? It's actually not strictly comparable to Word, because it's not a word processor: it's essentially a markup language, like HTML. So for example, in HTML the first sentence in this paragraph would be written like this:

OK, but just what <b>is</b> LaTeX?

In LaTeX, the equivalent is:

OK, but just what \textbf{is} LaTeX?

And so on. Then you run 'latex' on the document in order to produce the output (these days, generally a PDF file) - just as a web brower parses a HTML page. There's a handy cheat sheet here, and a useful collection of installation and usage links here.

Frankly, LaTeX is hard to get the hang of, especially coming from the WYSIWYG world, and typing out the various commands is a bit tedious. But there are tools which make the process a lot easier (and this is the biggest improvement from my days as an astrophysics postgrad, when I used vi exclusively). I'm on OS X, and my favourite LaTeX editor is TeXShop, but there are others. To manage my bibliography, I'm using BibDesk (and for the humanities, the jurabib bibliographic package is a must - specifically the Oxford style, jox.bst, as Chicago support is poor).MAKEBST might be another way to go. I'm currently going through my ex-EndNote bibliography, fixing up the first names and adding keywords (PRImary/SECondary, OWNed/LIBrary/UNSeen) as I go. This will be a good thing to finish, because I had been deferring adding new entries until I made a decision to go to LaTeX/BibTeX or stick with Word/EndNote, and instead writing them down in little text files here and there, and it was all starting to get away from me!

So is this a good idea? Come back in three years and I'll tell you ...

Update: for some reason, I've re-edited this entry about 10 times since posting it. The most important thing I forgot to mention is that all of the LaTeX/BibTeX tools mentioned above are free - an important consideration for postgrads! LaTeX is open source software, and pretty much all the related tools are too, though I think there are some commercial LaTeX editors.

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53 thoughts on “LaTeX: the pain, the pleasure

  1. I am an MA student at Kings College London in the War in the Modern World program. Thanks for a motivating blog post. I am interested in LaTex due to the concepts of sustainability (plain text lasts forever) and Reproducible Research. I am glad to see I am not the only humanities person going down this road. I am using Emacs Org-Mode as an editor for LatTex. A couple of links that might be interesting for you and your readers:

    The Programming Historian - Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text using Pandoc and Markdown:

    Emacs Org-mode for Reproducible Research:

    Emacs Org-mode: Organizing a Scientist's Life and Work:

  2. Post author

    Glad to see there are still some going down the LaTeX path (I wrote this post over 9 years ago!) I think it's a good choice for a thesis and other documents where you are responsible for the way the final product looks. But I tried to keep using it after my thesis and the dominance of Word when it comes to academic writing just made it increasingly difficult and pointless. I did try Pandoc at one point but couldn't get it to do what I needed -- it may have progressed since then but I've left the text-only world (but at least I'm using Scrivener, not Word).

    I can't condone your use of Emacs, though -- vi is the One True Editor!

  3. It may be an old post but it comes up a lot in my Google searchs.

    Charlie Stross, the science fiction writer, makes similar points about Word, Scrivener and indeed LaTeX.

    Also in the great rant, "Microsoft Word Must Die!:

    Let him who have understanding reckon the Editor of the Beast ... VI VI VI!


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