Why I really love LaTeX (and you should too)

It may be an understatement to characterize my affection for LaTeX1 as fanatical. I may have gone as far as to say that I would never consider working for a company that didn’t let me use it exclusively.2 Behold this fine example of LaTeX typography:

From The Beauty of LaTeX by Dario Taraborelli

It’s right about now that many people reading this blog (hi friends and family) think I’m talking about a synthetic material. I’m not. I’m talking about the greatest document typesetting application in the world:

LaTeX Logo

These days, LaTeX is experiencing renewed interest due to a clever mash-up with the simple markup language MultiMarkdown.3 I’m excited at the possibility of more widespread adoption as people realize the ultimate control that LaTeX allows over the documents they produce everyday.

For those that don’t know, TeX is a typesetting program originally developed by Donald Knuth back in the day to reduce friction when producing technical documents with mathematics. The simplest way I know to summarize TeX is this: you program your document in plain text using the TeX markup language and compile directly into pdf.

Why would you want to do that? The goal here is clear: focus on writing (not formatting) when you are writing. LaTeX allows for beautiful typography4 and affords precise control over every aspect of the presentation of the content. It effortlessly manages all of the overhead inherent in generating citations, cross-references, numbering, table of contents, etc. You won’t believe the gains in productivity from this level of automation.

If you are heavily entrenched in a Microsoft Word5 culture, it may be hard for you to understand the power of LaTeX. But what I can say is that after using LaTeX for years, you become accustomed to a level of quality and refinement which makes MS Word feel impossibly obtuse. You develop the ability to immediately notice whether a document was created in Word vs TeX. Sometimes the differences are subtle, but these cues are like the secret handshake of the typographic elite.

I now use LaTeX for almost everything: my thesis, reports, presentations, articles, CV, letters, be-right-back door signs, exams, technical notes–essentially any document conforming to the paper metaphor. I even installed the Computer Modern font family on all my computers for those unfortunate circumstance when I do have to open MS Word–it helps it feel a bit less alien.

Anyway, all this recent publicity got me thinking about how I originally learned LaTeX. I think I’ll share the process I went through in the next post for anyone interested.

  1. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaTeX

  2. This, of course, is farcical.

  3. MultiMarkdown: http://fletcherpenney.net/multimarkdown/

  4. See Dario Taraborelli’s The Beauty of LaTeX

  5. John D. Cook (@TeXtip): Contrasting Microsoft Word and Latex