LaTeX vs Word

Why I Prefer The Less WYSIWYG Solution

In #articles

Reading this review of a PloS One comparison between MS Word and LaTeX, I was struck by how much it resonates. There are many things that I do in both (or, more precisely, in Pages rather than Word) depending on the application. There are things that LaTeX can do much better than any other solution I have found, none of which is touched in the PloS One comparison.

For me, some things that could not be done in Word or Pages without a ton of work, are mentioned in the review:

  1. Set up 50 numbered equations, refer to them throughout the text, then change the equation order.
  2. Have figures and their captions float to appropriate locations at the top or bottom of pages.
  3. Change the order of figures in a document and fix all references to those figures.

The referencing (figures, equations, and bibliography) is one of the strong points of LaTeX. I see how much time my students spend on this in Word, and it completely erases the time-savings of Word. I would add the following as well:

  1. Programatically change the content of the document - for example, I've had flags to change mathematical notation, and flags for the student vs teacher versions of a document
  2. Easily generate LaTeX formatting from a script - I've written Python scripts to make tedious, large tables, and write them in LaTeX to be included in my book.
  3. Organize multi-part documents, with references, into multiple files
  4. Separate my thinking into separate content and layout modes

I'm the first to admit that the learning curve of LaTeX is pretty steep, but once you know it, it really offers advantages for complex documents. For simple ones, it doesn't stack up to an easier program, but isn't that the case with most powerful tools? At that point, as the review also suggests, it makes more sense to write things in Markdown - which this blog is written in. So MS Word lands in that area of too-complex for simple documents and too-simple for complex documents.