Take the 2-minute tour ×
TeX - LaTeX Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for users of TeX, LaTeX, ConTeXt, and related typesetting systems. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I have heard a lot about LaTeX, but never used it myself.

It is mainly used for typesetting professional research papers. But I am not writing research papers.

Is LaTeX for me? If yes, why should I be shifting from OpenOffice to LaTeX? What does LaTeX offer to the normal user who uses word processing software to make all kind of report documents?

share|improve this question

17 Answers 17

up vote 75 down vote accepted

Superficially, one of the advantages of LaTeX over other more traditional systems (e.g. Word or OpenOffice) is the high typographical quality of the documents that you'll be able to produce. This is particularly true for documents that are heavy on mathematics, but documents for any other area could also take advantage of these qualities.

A less obvious advantage, but much more important, is that LaTeX allows you to clearly separate the content from the format of your document. As a writer (scientist, researcher or not), this gives you the opportunity to focus on the “what”, the creative part of your work, rather than the “how” is it going to look printed out in paper (that is the work of LaTeX document class designers).

Now, you shouldn't use LaTeX if

  • You don't have time to learn it. Unlike most other point&click systems, LaTeX does take some time to learn. There are of course many guides and tutorials that can help you with this, but don't try to learn LaTeX if you have, say, less than 24 hours to prepare a manuscript.

  • Your document is already written. Say, if you have already written your thesis in Word, there isn't much point in trying to “convert” your document to LaTeX. You can do it, but the results won't be pretty. LaTeX isn’t just another “format” to store documents, it's a “system” to help you write those documents.

  • What you care about is the design of the document. If you do care about creating your own designs for your documents (rather than the content), LaTeX is perhaps not the best system for you. There are a number of packages (perhaps most notably memoir) that allow you to customize the look of your document, but things are not always straightforward. Having said that, if you are a designer, of course we would welcome your help in designing new document classes and templates!

share|improve this answer
6  
You write «LaTeX is not a “format” to store documents» which I don't think is strictly accurate. If you have a LaTeX document from 20 years ago it will still compile and output identical (probably) results; cf. a 20 year old MS Word document… (this remark has already been made in other answers on this page) –  Will Robertson Nov 24 '10 at 13:11
9  
I didn't mean that you cannot use it to store documents reliably (of course you can!) What I tried to mean is that it isn't just a file-format to “Save as..” a document. It's not that you can choose between saving as .doc or .tex, in a similar way in which you can choose between saving a picture in .png or .gif. LaTeX is more than that. –  Juan A. Navarro Nov 24 '10 at 18:40
4  
about Unlike other traditional systems, LaTeX does take some time to learn. actually, I find learning Latex is easier and shorter than learning HTML5+CSS3+Javascript in order to generate a web page. I use Latex to make a web page. I find it easier to use that and run the tex file by htlatex to get a web page than having to learn all html+css3 commands and options needed to do the same using direct HTML. –  Nasser May 28 '13 at 8:46
    
@Nasser Sure, I guess this is subjective, and different people might have different opinions. Anyway, what I had in mind was a comparison against most “point&click” systems to which people are typically used to, where you can intuitively find your way around without having to read a manual. I've edited the answer to make this more clear. –  Juan A. Navarro May 28 '13 at 9:55
1  
Even with the point and clicks systems, I find Latex easier. I used FrameMaker, Word, played with InDesign, Photoshop and many other such point and clicks systems. The problem is that there are so many points and clicks and menus and submenus in these, one gets lost very quickly and ends up using only 5% of them. I find Latex directive style more clear (except when I get a run away } and have to find the matching pair, or when I get a syntax error and have to find which file caused it, then it gets annoying at that moment :) –  Nasser May 28 '13 at 10:04

Since the last few years, reasons to use LaTeX are fewer than before, but there are some. I've jumped into the camp that sees LaTeX as a dying beast, so here are some arguments against:

  1. Nearly all functionalities that can be accomplished with LaTeX can be performed in MS Word without having to compile your document to see how it turns out. In word you can see the layout of your document and make adjustments as you are writing.

  2. Many LaTeX users claim that the document resulting from your work will be of higher quality, but I haven't noticed. I've read that the justification algorithm is better in LaTeX. I haven't checked on this myself, but it's something to look at. Having said this, I've seen theses written in word which received compliments for quality (and content) by professors on the committees.

  3. A lot of LaTeX users also claim that it's easier to write your mathematical expressions in LaTeX. This almost always untrue (note the almost). Microsoft has developed the use of shortcuts that produce mathematical expressions written in a similar way to that used in LaTeX. Pick a place where you would like to write your expression in a word document and press alt+=. Then use shortcuts like \int, \rho, \Rho, or \sum to produce integrals, Greek symbols, sums, etc.

  4. You'll also hear people talk about how easy the referencing system is to use in LaTeX. I've used the Word referencing system extensively and I find it very easy to use, but it takes maybe half an hour overall to read about it before you achieve fluency in it.

Having said these things, I did notice that someone mentioned above that LaTeX editions are consistent such that you can take what you've written decades ago and still read it. I haven't been working long enough for this quirk to hit me yet. Anyway, while I can read very old Word documents, the compatibility is sometimes unfortunate for older software. As an example, I once had to manually convert documents from Word Perfect into MSWord during a job as a student. Fortunately it was quite easy since I could see the way the documents were laid out as I made the corrections instead of having to wait. It was a bit painful though.

share|improve this answer
3  
Item number one starts with nearly but that's a very crude approximation. Number two becomes obvious if you write enough text. I'm using Word and LaTeX for my work and the response is unanimously consistent. For number three, just write Fourier transforms a few times on the same pages with hat notation. Number 4 is indeed getting better in MSWord but a single mistake can ruin many things in Word such as reference numbering order. And Ctrl+Z is not working. But compatibility is not what you claim. I have rigorously created documents that are impossible to have it working on newer versions. –  percusse Feb 7 at 10:13
    
LaTeX does not mess around when processing documents with 300+ pages. It does not screw up the layout after inserting a figure. And the process for numbering equations is ridiculously long and tedious. Not to talk of full automatism for the table of contents, list of figures and list of tables and other structures like an index. That said, W0rd prevents users from creating good looking documents by offering dubious default settings. –  Thorsten Donig Feb 8 at 8:34

I don't intend this to be a complete answer to your question, but I don't believe anyone else has yet brought up the topic of longevity.

TeX has been around for over thirty years, and the underlying language hasn't changed very much in that time. Has anyone ever tried using Word 2007 to load a file that was originally written in Word '97? Even if the file imports properly, chances are some of the page/line breaks are going to be off, possibly skewing the entire layout.

What if you had decided to write your document in Lotus Word Pro back in 1990? Would you be able to view/edit that document today? These problems almost never occur with (La)TeX.

A document that is typeset in (La)TeX today is likely to look exactly the same when you re-typeset it 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. Since TeX is stored in a human-readable plain text file, you also have the knowledge that you will always be able to edit the file in the future.

share|improve this answer
    
+1 interesting point. –  David Z Aug 17 '10 at 4:14
9  
Or, heaven forbid, a Word file made on a PC in Word for Mac! (even current versions for each platform still have compatibility issues). –  drfrogsplat Aug 19 '10 at 2:39
1  
That is one of the reasons I came to LaTeX! –  Serge Stroobandt May 28 '13 at 10:14
5  
Well, that may holds for simple documents and plain TeX, but if you go the LaTeX route and start using the newest and super-coolest packages, don't forget to archive them as well! I have had a lot of troubles to get documents compilable again (not to speak of getting exactly the same output) that where less than five years old, but used packages like biblatex the libertine font or microtype features. Even with LaTeX, longevity is not granted for free! –  Daniel Sep 20 '13 at 12:46
1  
@Daniel I agree, the only reliable way to achieve this is through special archive formats like PDF/A. Still, it's much better than closed binary formats with which you'll have absolutely no chance. –  dtech Oct 9 '13 at 14:02

In my opinion, Latex is the best system to typesetting that I have ever seen. Because the quality of its output is great. I strongly recommend you to use Latex and throw away systems like Word and Open office.

share|improve this answer

My reasons for coming to LaTeX were:

  1. The excellent referencing system that never lets you down,
  2. The fact that \section{} commands etc. are unnumbered in the source; so I can easily swap them around,
  3. The consistency of the layout; It is really difficult to mess up the typography. This lets you concentrate on the contents and does not distract you by being concerned about the looks of the document.
  4. Unlike MS Word, there is no invisible end of paragraph character that in a spooky way contains all layout instructions.
  5. Correct word splitting at the end of line in the language of your choice,
  6. Have a file per chapter, move them around and join them together at the click of a button.
  7. Easily produce PDFs with hyperlinks, table of contents, indices, etc.
  8. Unlike MS Word, guaranteed backward compatibility,
  9. Typeset formulas.
  10. Last but not least, since the advent of desktop publishing we all pretend we are experts in the art of typography and page layout. The cruel reality is most of us are not, nor are software houses like MicroSoft. LaTeX effortlessly brings back a bit of civility to the world of printed documents, starting with giving the reader a proper margin to place his thumbs.
share|improve this answer
2  
You know, I never thought about our thumbs. That's really clever. –  Sean Allred Aug 6 '13 at 2:26

For me, there are two things that Latex provide many advantages over other solutions: (1) Tables & (2) Equations.

What I do requires me to produce many complicated tables (with spanning elements, different alignment settings for different columns etc.). These always cause me headache in Microsoft Word. Latex gives you more control as to how things should behave at a very micro level. It is also more transparent i.e. you see the attributes you entered that makes things look a certain way. Sometimes in MS Word, things don't look right just because of some changes you have made but not aware of. In addition, many software packages support Latex so you can paste their outputs directly into your document.

This must have been covered by other people. But equation editing in Latex is very powerful. It does have a bit of a learning curve but, once you learn some basic syntax, it is much faster to write an equation in Latex compared to MS Word Equation Editor.

Latex in general is quite intuitive if you have some basic programming skills. There are also many resources online such that you can get most of your questions answered by just putting them into a search engine.

share|improve this answer
    
Although to be fair, whether you consider tables a strong point of LaTeX probably depends on what you want to do exactly. If you want to edit your table a lot after you created it or even do crazy things as inserting a column then you're probably better off with a spreadsheet (although some will let you export LaTeX code). pgfplotstable made things a bit more flexible but even more difficult to learn. –  Christian Sep 20 '13 at 12:30

One of the reasons I keep coming back to LaTeX is that it does things for me that would require the same (or more) amount of work in other programs. Just take a look at how much simpler tables of contents, figure and heading numbering and headers are in LaTeX, compared to the "standard" InDesign:

But so far this one is the best: Table of Contents:

There is also no automatic list of tables and list of images in InDesign (though you can do that in Word or OpenOffice).

Why do we need a whole post on a site called "indesignsecrets" just for figure numbering and cross-referencing?

Most of the time I've spent learning LaTeX was for something I really didn't need to do, and I can assure you just with a few hours of LaTeX crash course anyone can do most of their academic work.

EDIT Speaking of being at the mercy of buggy software, I just spent a full day's work (and was paid for it) to format headings, quotations and table of contents of a thesis. Word crashed several times, making me lose a lot of work every time and forcing to begin anew, saving my file at every modification. I inserted captions for some 50 images one by one, but then Word repeatedly crashed after I had tried inserting a simple "List of Figures".

LibreOffice doesn't even open the file, and crashes every time. iWork Pages opens it but with weird formatting.

You would suppose that inserting figures with Word or Pages would just be easier with a drag a and drop, but every time text flows with figures it makes formatting both together a nightmare.

And on top of all that, I was supposed to do copy-editing work on that thesis (grammar, spelling, style etc.). I wish I just had to read and mark spelling and grammar errors, specially if it was a printed or a plain text file (and it would be easier to read and correct a plain text file on screen).

share|improve this answer
1  
Not to defend InDesign or anything, but creating a TOC is quite straightforward with it. If you want to get hold of all minute details (e.g., paragraph styles for the TOC levels, dot leaders, etc.) you do need to read all that stuff from the links you posted. And yet, if you want to have the same kind on control in LaTeX, you'll also have to digest a bit of documentation (at least 25 pages in memman, for instance). –  NVaughan Apr 23 '12 at 0:48
1  
@Vaughan, If you use KOMA-script it's very easy to change your TOC. See \usepackage[tocgraduated]{tocstyle} \usetocstyle{nopagecolumn} that does what most of books I've read do. But anyway, you have to agree that there's not simple way to make a List of Figures or a List of Tables in inDesign. It's easier to do it in LibreOffice or Word, and easier still to just write: \tableofcontents \listoffigures \listoftables and be done with it. For me, LaTeX has always been about getting things done properly with the least effort. –  Joseph Apr 23 '12 at 0:53
    
Should Adobe FrameMaker be part of the comparison as well? –  pluton Apr 23 '12 at 4:23
    
@Joseph, of course you can create publisher-standard TOCs with LaTeX without much ado and out-of-the-box (with Koma-script, with Memoir, or with the standard classes---although I must confess I dislike very much Koma-script's typography). But if you want to tweek the TOC's properties, that's where the tricky part comes in. In InDesign, creating LOFs, LOTs, and LOLs is just as "easy" as creating TOCs. Just specify different paragraph styles for each of the headings/captions of the elements you want to list. –  NVaughan Apr 25 '12 at 14:00

Even if you don't write academic journal articles, LaTeX can still be extremely useful.

  1. For example, it forces you to follow certain format. Unless you know what you're doing, you can't mess about in the format. Now I don't have to worry about all those equation, page numbering, finding chapter title on one page and the content in the next page, and so on.
  2. Like OpenOffice, it's free as well. But the typeset is lot better. TeX files are lot smaller than .doc or .docx file.
  3. CV presentation looks lot better than in MSOffice, Open Office, etc.
  4. Joy of knowing and participating in something that people from all over the world contribute to develop, use and help others to use.
share|improve this answer

There is one aspect more, and not the least important one:

People, who use LaTeX, do cooperate, as you can see here in this forum, and in many other places around the web. Here in Germany in a dozen of cities users meet once per month in the evening in a bar to chat about their usage of TeX & Friends.

There are thousands of volunteers all over the world who write packages, bug reports, answer questions. Not to forget the indefatigable Karl Berry and his fellows, who issue each year a new texlive. Or Christian Schenk, who maintains MiKTeX, day after day.

The software allows to discuss all and everythink along »minimal working examples«. I've never heard about a software making it so easy to get help when you are stuck.

Use TeX & Friends for every letter you print on paper, if you like the thought of cooperation and you'd like to participate as well.

share|improve this answer

With LaTeX, you have the option to control "content" and "presentation" separate. And you should.

You might compare it to HTML+CSS in a modern webpage: the content is stored in the HTML file (pretty much everything after \begin{document}), with style tags that control what's the name of the format for the specific element, and CSS (the preamble), where you define the styles that will render your document the way you want it - with these font shapes and sizes, with such and such margins, footnotes, etc.

This way, if you decide at a later stage to reformat your document (e.g. different figure caption styles, changed headers and numbering) you would only change this in one place --- in the preamble. All occurrences of the corresponding styles will change automatically.

It's not that you can't do the same in Word or OpenOffice.org, but in these programs it's easier (and pretty much the norm) to get sloppy and just do quick manual formatting with a shortcut instead of using proper style definitions and formatting for all your document elements.

If you've ever struggled formatting a document for two or more printing medias (e.g. two journals with specific stylistic guidelines) or paper formats. If you've ever written anything over 50 pages (think master thesis), and you remember your frustration making everything "just right" --- like table of contents, index, figure and equation numbering, references --- you'd be reborn with LaTeX.

share|improve this answer
3  
Not only might you decide to reformat your document later, but you might start writing it without a format in mind. I can imagine even a novel writer might want to just start writing, with no desire to format the document outside of chapters, paragraphs and separating lines of speech. Much later on, the layout can be decided and changed very easily to fit different forms (A4 drafts vs a custom size for a printed book vs various eReader formats, with different indention/headings/etc for each). –  drfrogsplat Aug 19 '10 at 2:36
1  
Good point, although having no format in the beginning can be a bit tricky for non-text elements (e.g. figures), and you'd need some extra effort to make those scale transparently and be readable at the same time. –  Martin Tapankov Aug 19 '10 at 5:33

I see two advantages to TeX over text editors and word processors: high-quality typesetting (especially for math) and the ability to automate formatting. I would not recommend learning TeX unless you need one of those things.

Things I use TeX for instead of other software:

  1. Taking notes during lectures where there are equations and formulas. It is far better for this than any traditional word processor or text editor; I can usually reproduce exactly what the speaker writes on the board, and from then on it's digitized, searchable, and essentially permanent in my records.

  2. Formatting the output from programs and databases automatically -- for instance, preparing a working printout of a dictionary I am compiling in a database. It is also possible to do this using text editors and word processors that have macros or similar functionality, but TeX is better suited to it because of how comprehensive it is.

  3. Preparing camera-ready copy for publication. TeX produces much more closely kerned and fine-tuned print than any word processor.

People often say that TeX allows you to concentrating on writing rather than formatting. I have never found this to be true. If ``just writing'' is what you want to do, use a plain ASCII text editor or whatever word processor is near to hand and format your text later. TeX is attractive exactly because it gives you vastly greater control over formatting than normal word processors do. But that control is not cheap: TeX is time-consuming to learn as well as to use.

The exception? If you have a front-end like LyX (there are others) that can be used like an ordinary word-processor. That frees you from having to think about many of the technical aspects of TeX.

share|improve this answer
    
You should differ between LaTeX and (plain)TeX. –  Martin Scharrer Apr 10 '11 at 12:01

Regarding the benefits of LaTeX, some in short:

  • LaTeX provides very high quality and is extremely customizable.

  • It's extremely stable, no matter how complex the documents are.

  • It's free and Open Source, we can study and improve everything as we do on this site.

  • LaTeX is portable concerning its implementation, your document source and its output -- all is cross-platform.

  • It provides a logical approach do create documents instead of a physical, enhancing consistency.

  • Your document is safe because the file format is open and there's no virus threat.

I elaborated these points in this article: Getting Started with LaTeX.

If you have questions to any of these points, don't hesitate to ask.

share|improve this answer
1  
You could add, that it also has advantages for non-latin characters afaik. –  Martin Apr 10 '11 at 10:48

In addition, as LaTeX is coded in plain text, you can use collaboration software like etherpad. But the biggest advantage is, that you can track all your changes with regular revision control software (i.e. CVS, SVN, GIT, ...) and revert any changes.

I use LaTeX to create high quality vector graphics and math-plots (see: PGFplots and TikZ)

share|improve this answer

I will echo Leo's point, about plain-text. Programmability and highest-quality are perks, but the fact that the input is plain-text has one extremely important consequence:

You are not at the mercy of buggy word-processing software, proprietary or otherwise.

I once used MS Word happily, as this was a substantial improvement over WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, and contemporary office suites offered e.g. by Lotus. But whenever I tried to do anything modestly non-trivial, such as bullet points, it would begin to exhibit what could at best be charitably termed "eccentric" behaviour. Using Word to do anything more than a simple letter --- anything which involved a list, or controlling varying font sizes, or tables (especially tables!) --- involved for me a struggle against the software. And modern, well-meaning, open-source Office clones are even worse: in trying to reliably imitate Word's codependent behaviour, they have produced software with even more quirks against which I must fight.

With LaTeX, I can have documents which are as simple or as complicated as I like, with all of the mark-up and structure plainly visible to me, and with reliable results --- and I don't need anything more complicated than a text-editor to write the source-file to produce a high-quality PDF. Furthermore, any text-editor will do.

For this reason alone, LaTeX is excellent!

share|improve this answer
    
I agree completely, excluding that old MSWord was a substantial improvement over WordPerfect 5.1. –  Fran Feb 6 at 21:05
  1. I use LaTeX because it allows me not to think about the visual aspect of documents. I get a high quality layout, even if boring, of aricle etc. but I don't have to choose anything. Presentation may not have fancy animation but it will have 'professional look' without work.
  2. LaTeX allows typesetting math easily. Really - writing \alpha is quicker then searching alpha symbol in GUI. Similary writing x^y is quicker then searching power in list of symbols. I guess with AMS packages included LaTeX have much more symbols then anything else.
  3. PDF guarantees same-look on everything. You won't run into problem because the computer you're useing don't have some fonts installed.
  4. You can script it (program it)
  5. It is plain text, open source and highly stable
  6. It is standard (at least for many CS/Physics/Math... departments). When I want to send an e-mail about math I use LaTeX because other side will probably understend (1. because it is standard but 2, because it is intuitive)
  7. It has many packages that allows vector graphics (tikz for example)

To conclude.

Use it if:

  • You type a lot of equation
  • You like plain text, stable formats
  • You don't want to bother with formatting documents

Don't use it if:

  • You want to control every graphical aspect of whole document (it is possible to create custom layout but LaTeX is not designed to fine-tuning every page)
  • You are afraid of plain text (however - you can use some WYSIWYG)
  • You need to exchange documents with non-LaTeX people (for example someone requires doc and it's final)
share|improve this answer
2  
I disagree with your first point against: in fact, it is also preferable to use LaTeX to fine-tune every detail; this simply requires, as for the use of LaTeX in general, a bit of study. –  Ryan Reich Aug 25 '10 at 21:14
1  
also the last can have a counter-point: some editors (like LyX) have alsto the .odt output option, and maybe also .doc, or probably there is a way to have it with some extra compiler... –  clabacchio Jan 12 '12 at 12:13

plain text, programmability and highest-quality output are what make me use LaTeX.

I used to think that for short one-off documents, word processors are better. But since having a wiki live right inside my text editor (I use orgmode), this is no longer the case. That is one can use LaTeX as the backend and use wiki markup as the input language.

share|improve this answer

There are bound to be several answers to this question, and different aspects that people highlight. I'll try to list a few. There are a number of webpages with detail on the reasons to use LaTeX: I'll highlight a few.

LaTeX is a typesetting system, not a word processor. LaTeX uses source code to generate a document: you edit one file and typeset it to a generate the output (usually PDF nowadays). This is in contrast to a word processor, where you edit the text as it appears. For a critique of word processors, look at http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/wp.html.

LaTeX does things that word processors do not do but that well-designed published material does do. For example, LaTeX uses a hyphenation algorithm which generates well-spaced out justified paragraphs. It also uses ligatures where applicable, which means that letters which 'go together' look better than if the letter design is all done separately. See for example http://nitens.org/taraborelli/latex for more details.

LaTeX is intended to focus on document structure rather than appearance. Of course, some set up is needed to get the correct appearance, but once it is done most of the source you write is focused on structure. For example, there are commands such as \section for document structure rather than making everything bold, italic or whatever. This structured approach helps when you want to do things that are repetitive, as the formatting is always taken care of 'behind the scenes'.

There are a large number of add-ons to LaTeX (called packages) that are designed to help with particular tasks. Many of these have an academic focus but this is not true of every package. For example, the datatool package can be used to do mail-merging from a list of names and addresses, which is common for business documents.

share|improve this answer
    
+1 for mentioning justification alone. Once you got used to the kind of justified text LaTeX + microtype produces, you'll find everything produced by Word and LibreOffice plainly insulting. \begin{rant}And that's even true for the rare occasions when people thought of manually activating hyphenation for their text. Unfortunately, people are so getting used to badly justified text that they won't even notice that the Kindle has no hyphenation and even Hollywood typographers will produce justified three-word wide paragraphs with obviously horrible interword spacings.\end{rant} –  Christian Sep 20 '13 at 12:40

protected by tohecz Feb 6 at 23:46

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.