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Looking back, what really convinced you to begin writing with TeX or LaTeX?

This question is "community wiki", so there's no reputation to lose or to gain.

Please don't write advantages of TeX and LaTeX or any pros and cons.

I hope to read about something like

  • a drastic experience that led you to TeX,
  • a beautiful book, paper or poster that changed your view dramatically,
  • a first big success with a (La)TeX creation,
  • a person who inspired you.

Anything in this spirit would be great. Please post just a single reason or event in each answer. If you further shared a similar experience that you read here, voting that up would be fine.

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I think at first it was mostly curiosity. –  Caramdir Aug 21 '10 at 10:48
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I started using Latex because I wanted my school HW's to look really nice since the teacher at the time was adding 10% extra credit for well written reports. I really only wanted that extra credit for the HWs. This is how it all started. But now I use Latex for almost everything, even if there is no extra credit. –  Nasser Jul 4 '13 at 3:07
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40 Answers

In 1993, I was drafted in the army (at that time, army service was still mandatory in the Netherlands). I was placed at a communications centre that ran 24/7. Being a communications centre, we had access to quite a lot of good PC hardware for that time. Also, typically nothing much happened, and so we installed the then brand-new Slackware Linux distribution on a bunch of them, to toy with and study Unix system administration (as that was a lot safer than experimenting on the actual srv4 minicomputer we ran).

Slackware at the time came on 40 or so floppy disks, and about a quarter of them were marked 'TeX'. I remember thinking: if it is considered that important, it must be good ...

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I've written my bachelor thesis in Microsoft Word (version 2003, if memory serves), and that was excruciatingly painful experience. It's not that I was new to Word, or that I can't find my way around a computer program, but it frustrated me to no end.

Word has automatic TOC creation and formatting, but there are occasions that you want to make it just right --- for example, trimming a bit a long section title to fit on one row (which in LaTeX is trivial).

As far as figures went, it worked mostly okay, unless you try to keep a figure on a specific page and manually try to adjust it to fit. Even the slightest change in the text moved all the stuff around, and I had to double check almost all of the figures again and again. Numbering worked okay-ish, though.

References.. Don't even get me started on references --- I had to manually format them all (30+ entries), and that Gargantuan effort took probably a better part of a workday.

Fortunately, I had a good equation editor (not the Microsoft-supplied excuse of a such), and that made writing equations a breeze.

Code formatting and pretty-printing was another thing I struggled with --- I ended up taking screenshots of the Matlab code from the editor, and adding those in the appendix. My nerves were seriously shaken and I didn't want to get through the painful manual formatting again.

So, just a few days before I finished the thesis, I went to complain about my miserable existence to my math go-to guy, and he showed me one of the exams he prepared for his students --- he was doing some black magic in vi in a terminal, and he had some Makefiles for additional stuff like automatic generation of the problems and the solutions, uploading them automatically to the server, and preparing a sheet with names of all students in which the results are to be published later. All this with a click of a button. To my jaw-dropped mug he said "Oh, it's just LaTeX". And then he explained some of the basic stuff, and gave me a book to read. (Knuth's, of course). That's how it started.

As for a personal LaTeX pride --- my master thesis is prepared with LaTeX, and I used quite a lot of functionality outside basic LaTeX --- subfigures, listings, ams packages, page margins, headers and footers, BibTeX, customized hyperref, plus more. I even made a .tex template that resembled the one we had in .doc format for thesis work.

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Only 30 references :-) My thesis (in Word) has about 200, and that's quite a small number. I probably should have had more. –  Joseph Wright Aug 21 '10 at 8:40
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Isn't a bachelor's thesis supposed to be short? If so, I think you are citing a lot of stuff needlessly with your 200+ references. –  levesque Aug 23 '10 at 22:47
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Ah, I thought you meant PhD: I'd always call an undergrad thing a 'report' –  Joseph Wright Aug 25 '10 at 9:10
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Phhhh "report" ahem. =) disagree.... –  Dima Aug 31 '10 at 0:48
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This answer seems more like a MS Word rant to me. As for '... trimming a bit a long section title to fit on one row (which in LaTeX is trivial', I think it is all about knowing your tools. Without google-ing, I would have no clue on how to do that in LaTeX, whereas I know you can do that pretty easily in Word using the character formatting dialog box. And the 'with a click of a button' is also very optimistic. I takes a LOT of work to create a button that does what you want with just a click. –  Rabarberski Feb 14 '13 at 8:19
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I feel fortunate. The first OS I ever used was unix, my first year of university, and was told immediately to learn emacs and that all lab reports for a class I was in had to be done in LaTeX. It was over 5 years before I ever used any MS software, and I've never used it to any great degree since. And I find Word confusing as hell. It's always doing things that I don't want and then I have to spend time figuring out how to undo it. It's automatic capitalization features drives me nuts.

So I was bred on the beauty of LaTeX and thought that was normal. I was never faced with the decision to choose LaTeX over Word. For me the decision was the reverse: should I go with Word and dump LaTeX? At my first job everyone was using Word so I tried it. I found it too anti-intuitive, too ugly (I hate ragged-right justification for example), dangerous (lost docs on a semi-regular schedule due to Windows semi-regular crashing), and the learning curve was just too high (way higher than LaTeX, imo). I was always asking others how to undo something Word was just sure that I wanted to do but didn't. I gave up on Word and now only use when forced to, which is rare.

I'm still having trouble absorbing that Joseph wrote his thesis in Word.

Word's popularity is explained by my "Doughnut Theory" : If all you've ever eaten are doughnuts, you can tell a good doughnut from a bad doughnut, but you have no idea what good food is.

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+1 for the doughnuts –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 21 '11 at 7:59
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I was an undergraduate at MIT in the early 1980s and used TeX ('78) for the first time to write my undergraduate thesis in Physics. I had been using something called Scribe in order to write essays and also played around with troff. Both were very limited in their ability to typeset mathematical content -- although I recall writing an essay on group theory using Scribe.

During my time working as an undergraduate research assistant at the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, I saw people producing beautifully typeset preprints with lots of mathematical formulae. I asked around and found out that they had been produced using TeX (which at the time was TeX '78) and which was installed on only a handful of computers at MIT at the time. I was converted immediately and wrote my 1984 undergraduate thesis using TeX. That version does not compile any longer, but at some point I converted it to LaTeX.

In graduate school in Stony Brook, TeX '82 (as the new version was called then) was available and this is what I used to typeset letters, notes, papers, thesis,... I always used TeX (with an increasing collection of macros) instead of LaTeX, until some time in the 1990s when LaTeX2e came out and I was persuaded to change. I liked the way my PhD thesis looked and I especially liked the fact that the macros made the source very readable. Visually it was perhaps not too striking.

In summary, it was an aesthetic choice based on the need to typeset documents with a complicated structure and substantial mathematical content.

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Very nice looking thesis! –  Joseph Wright Aug 21 '10 at 8:39
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The same reasons that led Knuth to creating TeX in the first place: to have our math texts look good.

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Only convincing answer so far :D :D –  Richard Durr Jun 4 '11 at 18:01
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Invisible formatting in MS Word. So many times I had the bullets of a list become italicized or differently sized because somewhere (before?, in the item?, after? - never figured it out) there was or used to be a formatting of that sort.

And then I had to make some last minute changes to a paper written in Word but I was at a machine that only had OpenOffice. It wrecked the formatting. It looked good in OO, but when I opened it in Word the next day, I realized how the paper was submitted (the prof had Word).

That was the last straw.

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You can tell Word to display all whitespace and invisible formatting using light grey symbols, which is what I invariably use when editing client texts, since otherwise I can't reliably tell a single space following a period from a double period. –  Charles Stewart Oct 25 '10 at 11:45
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In linguistics (my field), LaTeX offers many concrete advantages: automatic numbering/referencing of linguistic examples, automatic aligning of foreign language words/translations, automatic syntactic tree drawing; a full range of logic symbols, easy access to phonetic fonts etc., not to mention other basic academic requirements such as citations and bibliographies. When Mac OSX came out, running LaTeX became quite simple, and I made the switch then.

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I like emacs and always want it to be able to fulfil my document preparation needs. LaTeX/TeX turns out to be the best solution. I make templates for most of the uninteresting documents and make them accessible through a key shortcut in emacs and thus I can produce documents no slower than people using word or the like.

emacs-tex

Emacs extension used in the screenshot:

I have temporarily released minibuffer-choose.el at http://paste.lisp.org/display/113728. Most packages (org-mode included) when present choices to users use a message in the minibuffer (echo area to be precise) or a new buffer. This package actually uses the minibuffer so you get the experience of a real buffer and the convenience of the echo area. You can TAB, Shift-TAB, C-n, C-p, C-s, C-r, M-n, M-p or type directly the highlighted character to choose a choie. Example:

(let ((files (directory-files "/usr/local" t "[a-z]+")))
  (minibuffer-choose "Choose: " files 'file-name-nondirectory nil 'alpha))
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I recently co-authored a book for a major tech publisher. They formatted it using -- I kid you not -- MS Word.

The late stages of the editing process (where I was working with the publisher's .doc files instead of just sending them text) were so painful that I vowed to learn Tex and/or LaTeX before helping my mother self-publish her upcoming quilting book.

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I was in college and my friend told me about this LaTeX thing. I was initially totally dismissive, "Why would anyone want to compile a document?" As a computer science student, I had spent more than enough time waiting for programs to compile and couldn't imagine doing the same for my documents.

I forget the specifics, but I believe we had a (modern) algebra assignment to write up. My friend did his in LaTeX. I wrote mine in some "normal" text editor. After comparing the output and the relative difficulty of producing beautiful mathematics, I was a convert.

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When I was starting to attend university, I was truly enlightened by LaTeX. This system really absolved me from my previous troubles: When I high school, I used to fiddle with Microsoft Word. All went well, but, naturally, one of my friends did not have the correct version of Microsoft Office to open my file. This was when I started to think that the WYSIWYG approach is doomed.

Nowadays, I do not use Microsoft Word or OpenOffice Writer. Instead, I fire up my favourite text editor (vim *ducks*) and type anything in LaTeX: Memos, letters, documentation, papers, presentations, you name it. Coupled with the version control tool git, I can browse through the history of my works with ease, all the while never having to fear that something is lost.

I am not sure whether any word processor, how advanced it may be, can give me this feeling of bliss when simply concentrating on what I want to write, not how it should look. To quote Allin Cottrell:

One only has to imagine, say, Jane Austen wondering in what font to put the chapter headings of Pride and Prejudice to see how ridiculous the notion is. Jane Austen was a great writer; she was not a typesetter.

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Througout high school, I did all my math, physics and chemistry hand-ins in MS Word using Equation Editor, teaching myself the various short cuts, and patiently moving the equations back where they belonged when they for no apparent reason jumped. It was natural to continue this when I started at the university (and I had never heard of TeX/LaTeX). A few weeks later, my TA in linear algebra wrote "Come to the dark side. Learn LaTeX!" on one of my hand-ins. A week later, I was addicted :-)

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I was re-writing the documentation to our software (check out the LaTeX versions here). I like to write using lots of figure examples. I also like to write lots of cross-references. The trouble was, Word was an absolute train wreck. If I modified anything mid-document, all of my figures would end up pilled up at the bottom. My cross-references needed constant and manual updating... it just was not working.

I was in the middle of this nightmare when I was playing poker with some friends. I said something like, "I %^&*in' hate Word for what I'm doing. I wish there was something out there that was made for this."

Two of my poker buddies (both nerds) said, at the same time, "LaTeX!" They described it to me and I could not concentrate from then on. I was absolutely obsessed with finding out more.

I did and the rest, as they say, is history. I wrote my first manual (The Cablecast Guide) and have slowly built up quite a robust set of macros that define the style and common tools for everything from our documentation to our pricing guides.

It's been about 4 years with this work flow and I find myself, very often, looking for something better. LaTeX has its oddities. The drill is, I'll hear about something (Prince, DocBook) and then I think to myself, "This is it! The end of LaTeX! Now I can finally be rid of Longtable!"

This never pans out, however. 30+ years of LaTeX has lead to some pretty fantastic capabilities and indispensable packages (Datatool, TikZ).

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I'm a lawyer. I'm earning money by typing or speaking (Dragon became a lot better recently).

Typing into Word under pressure is horrible. It looks awfully. The program tries to outsmart me. It may crash.

LaTeX is much more easy going. Deadlines still are deadlines, but I know, as long as there's electricity, I'm gonna make it. It's reliable, if you know, what I mean. And the output is pretty.

Some years ago I delivered a legal due diligence written with Lyx for a bank in Kuwait and the customer was satisfied. My clients often can not judge whether I'm a good lawyer, but at least the pages look better than they are used to see.

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It was a bottle of sherry for me!

I don't know quite how I first became aware of the existence of TeX - I installed Linux on my first PC (my first computer was a BBC Micro which didn't, back then, support Linux) because the people with whom I was friends at the time wouldn't have stayed my friends if I hadn't! So TeX came along with it, and I suppose that many of my lecturers used TeX (of some flavour) for typesetting notes and the like so it was "in the air" as it were.

So by the middle of the fourth year of my degree I was sufficiently aware of TeX, and it's importance in mathematics, that when a lecturer set a challenge problem (I think it was that A_5 is simple), I decided to write my solution in LaTeX in order to learn it (I guess I'd already absorbed the lesson that the best way to learn LaTeX is simply to Do It^{TM}). So I wrote up my solution and duly handed it in!

(I got the sherry)

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Before using LaTeX, I created documents in OpenOffice.org and made extensive use of its semantic markup to format text (basically, I have never used the B, I and U buttons or the “font” selection in the formatting menu bar – I always created my own styles). Unfortunately, OOo had a few bugs that made this a real pain. Sometimes, changes in formatting were not adopted across the document. Sometimes, changes got mixed up.

Automatic references and figure numbering were also buggy as hell. Oh, and did I mention that I spent hours adjusting the word breaking and orphans to improve the overall look?

At some point I actually unzipped the document files (the .odf files are just renamed .zip containers) and edited the content XML manually to fix some wrongly nested markup.

So you can imagine that once I heard of LaTeX, my conversion was natural and immediate. But I was somewhat disappointed because LaTeX didn’t live up to my expectations of semantic markup: \textit? \textbf? Doesn’t sound very semantic to me. It took me some time to figure out that to work effectively in LaTeX, you need to define your own macros and use those. Once I learned this, I haven’t looked back.

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I had to write my Ph.D. thesis and the only thing available was Word 3 on a Mac Plus (many years ago). But in the computer room there was a copy of the TeXbook and one of "The joy of TeX"! I was fascinated and eventually (after the Ph.D. thesis was finished) I managed to get a working implementation of TeX; I was the first in my Math department to use TeX (plain or AMS-TeX).

I switched to LaTeX some years later when some colleagues asked me to help in producing the Proceedings for a conference they had organized. AMS-LaTeX had just been released and typesetting a math book with LaTeX had become possible. It was a pretty big volume: 393+x pages and 41 papers. Many of the papers had been written in ChiWriter (probably very few of you know about it). I'm pretty satisfied of the result, which required to define a personal document class and solving some difficult alignment problems: the conference was about Mathematical Physics, which is not my field, and some of the papers had huge formulas.

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Back in 2007, I had to write an article with actual mathematics in it. The text editors had a very poor math support, not the mention the lack of productivity and a ugly and messy document in the end. I use the \vdash symbol a lot in my mathematical stuff and soon I discovered that none of those editors had a symbol for that. I refused to use |- or instead (the second abomination, oops I mean symbol is for drawing ASCII boxes) as a replacement for \vdash.

A friend of mine suggested me to use LaTeX. Needless to say I was very skeptical, but at that point I had nothing to lose. So I embraced the idea. He told me some LaTeX basics (sections, items, inline math, and so forth) and how to produce my very first document. After writing my first lines of mathematics in LaTeX –- which was insanely fast and very intuitive –- I couldn’t believe in my eyes. Everything was correctly in place, beautiful typesetting and with a professional look.

Since then, LaTeX became part of my life. For everything. =)

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Two things put me on the road. The author is perhaps the greatest influence on my programming career--- his article in DDJ alerted me to a problem that I had been wondering about at the time. Later (again a result of the Knuth) I became entranced with the idea of 'Literate Programming'. This approach precisely fit a problem I had; how to preserve code and document it at the same time. As this was a maintenance task, there wasn't a budget for any of the very expensive tools of the time, but LP was for free so I began to get my hands dirty. In that the code involved a chess engine, there were problems that were quite difficult for a beginner to solve, but in general correspondence with the authors of various packages kept me going. Moving forward a great many years I use LaTeX almost without thought for anything I deem needful of typesetting. Wouldn't have it any other way.

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Quite recently I decided to undertake a major private project: Taking a large body of RPG-related books (I.C.E.'s classic Rolemaster, 2nd Ed., to be precise), re-editing it (making one concise rule volume instead of a set of base rules and lots of optional add-ons) and translating it (to my native German). The goal was to provide a rule book that my friends and I could use for a RPG campaign.

That's a good dozen books of ~100 pages each, to be compiled into a ~300 page 4-part volume chock full of tables, lists, charts etc., with hundreds of cross-references to chapters and tables, footnotes and graphics.

Another requirement I placed on myself was to make the result look as much as the original as possible - including the two-column layout, typesetting, chapter headings etc.

Previous experience told me that neither MS Word nor OpenOffice Writer would be up to a task of these proportions and still be maintainable.

I've heard about LaTeX before (from co-eds at university), and decided that this was the time to give it a try.

Being a professional software engineer, I like learning new (or, in this case, old) technologies, widening my skill set, and actually prefer doing things "in source" as opposed to "WYSIWYG". (Being able to diff and grep and sed and svn my work sounded like it could come in really handy given the scope of the work, and I was absolutely right).

I downloaded the basic LaTeX package, the Texmaker editor, and a "quick guide", set up a SVN repository for the .tex files, and went ahead. It took me less than a day to realize that LaTeX was the ideal choice for a project like mine. Especially the fine control over tables impressed me, as well as the ability to enter the table data right away and worry about the actual layout at some later point.

I ordered the LaTeX Companion the next day. Took me a couple more days to find your excellent site here, though I ask myself what took me (regular customer at StackOverflow) so long.

I can't say I'd use LaTeX for everything, or even for most things. But for my project right now, I couldn't imagine anything more adequate. Too bad I won't be able to make it available to the public once I'm done. :-\

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Powerpoint sucks. I couldn't in the best of my enthusiasm, complete a presentation with 20 sides filled with code and images. More than half the time would be spent in formatting it.

Then I came across beamer and wrote some custom commands in an hour and then created a presentation the way I wanted, with images in a folder, code in a folder and all the content mentioned in a file.

I am proud of very happy with this alternative, and the work I was able to do using it.

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Powerpoint may suck, but used correctly it’s vastly superior to preparing presentations with LaTeX. This is one of the areas where I think LaTeX isn’t well-suited at all. In fact, the average LaTeX presentation is just as bad as the average PowerPoint presentation, which is saying something. (Disclaimer: I don’t use PowerPoint either.) – Suggested Read: “Presentation Zen” by Garr Reynolds. –  Konrad Rudolph Sep 22 '10 at 8:38
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I agree that slideshows test a TeXer's mettle. Being able to adjust the location of something interactively (rather than by editing coordinates) is fundamental to powerpoint, and I would say fundamental to the way most people make presentations. That said, I still use powerdot for all my slideshows. It takes longer, but that's because I tend to care about the output more than I do when I'm making a powerpoint. –  Brandon Kuczenski Sep 22 '10 at 21:13
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Konard, With powerpoint, I'd need so many mouse clicks etc, to choose the file for each slide and adjust it to the resolution needed. It was a breeze with Beamer. Thats a huge advantage. –  Lakshman Prasad Sep 28 '10 at 11:57
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I have seen the beautiful typography in a computer magazine. I was stunned by its beauty, it just looked like "printed".

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I played about with Latex as an undergraduate at the end of the '80s, but didn't "commit" to Tex until I started postgraduate work in 1994 and needed to typeset logic, and found that the advantage in this domain that Latex had, and still has, over any non-Tex-based document preparation system is huge: the support for laying out proof trees alone would have been decisive (I know of four implementations, and I wrote one myself), but additionally the specialist typesetting needs of logicians have received attention in the Tex community and not outside of it.

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As an undergrad I often failed to find a free machine in the shared labs on which to run Word or T3, as machines with hard drives were still relatively scarce. In contrast, editing plain text files with vi meant I could use essentially any system with a keyboard (even my ancient home PC), yet TeX produced such good-looking documents. Bibliographies and cross-references that just worked were the icing on the cake.

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I wanted something that made my calc and physics homework look pretty. At the time, Word couldn't handle equations gracefully. I looked around for something that could generate equations I could import into Word and found a LaTex equation generator and a WYSIWYG LaTex frontend that, when used in combination, would output pretty pdfs that I could then drag into Word. Eventually, I just shifted over to using the LaTex frontend for everything and tweaking the code as needed. I haven't used LaTex in ages, but I have many fond memories of it.

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When I was a first year undergraduate math student, the lectures handed out some notes. Looking back today they were merely standard LaTeX documents. But back to then, they looked so amazing. And I would like my homework to have that look.

With quite a lot of efforts, I did reproduced one or two pages of the notes using Word. That was a painful progress especially the input of math. In addition the adjust of the layout took quite some time. I gave up Word and many other softwares, because I didn't believe that the professors would spent that much time to produce some lecture notes.

So the next step is searching. Well, I always like to solve problems alone. And after hours of googling I found TeX/LaTeX. The rest of the story was what you can guess easily.

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About 20 years ago, I had to write a report and a friend of mine had a piece of software called Ventura. This software didn't have a nice user interface, so we studied the Ventura output format and realised it was aplain text format, which we could edit by hand with vi. I don't know the exact details anymore, but there would be command sequences for Greek letters and so on.

Later, when I saw a guy's presentation in our local group at university, it almost looked like Ventura, but better. When I asked him if it was Ventura, he said, `No, this is LaTeX.' The next day I went to the library, got a copy of Lamport's book and read it from cover to cover. Then I started using LaTeX, and I've never looked back.

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For me, it was necessity. My first programming job (working part-time for a research division of my university) required me to edit some documentation, but my computer only had WordPad on it, and WordPad is terrible for absolutely everything so I tried to find an alternative since I wasn't going to buy Word just for that job. I noticed a co-worker using LaTeX to put something together, and I'd heard of it before but never used it. I spent a couple weeks reading the Wikibook on LaTeX before I finally decided to install it on my work machine and convert the original documentation over. It was glorious.

Now, I use it for just about anything that isn't a group project—software documentation, class assignments, and especially typesetting public-domain books (okay, and some non-public domain ones too).

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I wrote a lot of papers and documentation in RUNOFF on RT-11, and nroff and troff on VAX/VMS, Unix System 3, and BSD 4.3, all through the 80's. All the quirky .xx commands never seemed to quite do what I wanted, and the resulting source text would often end up very difficult to read and spell check. TeX was clearly a better way, and when it became available I was quick to adopt it. The big annoyance in that time frame was pushing drafts out of the 200 dpi printer that was a big deal at the time but combined all the good features of a 200 dpi thermal fax machine with an off-brand photocopier. Drafts were charged by the inch, and really had to be photocopied for longevity.

Being pragmatic and needing to communicate (meaning share documents) with the non-academic world Word ate the majority of my day-to-day business and technical writing. But TeX has always been there for those things it suits best. (We'll just ignore the brief affair with the SGML-based monstrosity named Ventura Publisher, and the flirtations with FrameMaker.)

I've recently dusted off my first editions of the TeX book and LaTeX book, and expect to be returning to them as a preferred way to build technical documentation. Especially now that my favorite little language (Lua) has found its way into the TeX family.

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I came via a programming route. Had heard about LaTex over the years, but never taken the time to install all the requirements and get it working. Now, with the bundles that are available, I'm able to easily install on my Mac and Windows environments (primary documentation platforms for me).

As a Python programmer, I was using the Sphinx documentation tool. However, I wanted PDF output and Sphinx did not convert tables to PDF. After noting that Sphinx generated LaTex, I searched around, found longtable, and figured I could write a generator that would build that for me. After playing around a bit further, I determined it was easier to just write in LaText to start off with and then join it with some custom script-generated LaTex output that documents our data structures.

Been using it about a year now; have one 300 page technical manual completed and starting on a second one. Still very much a newbie, but still way more productive than the previous FrameMaker environment.

Also, since LaTex is strictly text files, I'm able to version control the source files and have more than one person working on the same document. Extremely efficient.

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