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Background(just ignore):

Is there an exhaustive list of packages that you should load and of things you should do to improve your document? Here I mean packages and things that have to do with the quality of your document and which can be forgotten if you do not know about them.

My real question is more like 'Why is LaTeX so bloody difficult to use?', but I do not think that this would do here! I have been using LaTeX for several years, and I am still discovering things that I do wrong or things that I can do better.

Hey sir.. you just do the conceptual markup, and people that know about typesetting have already done the work for you. – well not really.

My recent discoveries mainly come from these TeX.sx pages:


Actual questions:

My list of things(with no direct functionality(do not read literally)), to do when starting a new document, include:

\RequirePackage{fix-cm}
\documentclass
\usepackage{fixltx2e}[⟨date⟩]
\usepackage[final,babel]{microtype}

and from the microtype manual:

For the memoir class, you would additionally have to disable auto-detection of multiple footnotes, which prevents protrusion:

\renewcommand*\@makefnmark{\hbox{\@textsuperscript{\normalfont
\microtypecontext{protrusion=footnote}\@thefnmark}}}
\let\m@mmf@prepare\relax
\let\m@mmf@check\relax
  • Do you know more? are all of these things always a good idea?

  • Have I missed something in the manuals? (I do not plan to use any of the actual functions in e.g. microtype)

  • What date should I use for fixltx2e, and where do I find it?

  • Is the 'final' option for microtype not default?

  • Will future LaTeX distributions be more complete(in some sense) and user-friendly?

  • I remember reading about something you could do to make the compiler error messages more human readable – what was it?

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I do not think that my question title is accurate and descriptive, but I can not think of a better one. –  Hans-Peter E. Kristiansen Jan 20 '12 at 11:52
    
What exactly is your question? –  Seamus Jan 20 '12 at 12:05
2  
you say "I have been using LaTeX for several years, and I am still discovering things that I do wrong, or things that I can do better." don't be discouraged. there will always be something new to learn. (from someone who's been using tex for over 30 years, and latex for almost 25.) –  barbara beeton Jan 20 '12 at 14:35
    
You make some really good points. I've taken the liberty of editing your posting to fix a few spelling errors and to (hopefully) improve the syntax. –  Mico Jan 20 '12 at 16:11
    
@Mico: Thanks - always appreciated. I have now also made some edit, to make my questions more clear. –  Hans-Peter E. Kristiansen Jan 21 '12 at 7:33

4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted
+50

How does one improve the typesetting of a document? There are no straightforward answers. Traditionally a number of craftsmen and professionals were involved in the publishing of a book. With what is now called "self-publishing" all these decisions now fall on the author's shoulder. The disappointing results can be viewed at Lulu.com

Do you have to read the manuals? Unfortunately yes, if you want to manipulate and be in control of what they do. Unfortunately there is no package available called "bettertypography" and the reason is that typography and typesetting have no fixed rules. Whatever rules could be deduced (about 100 are already programmed into (La)TeX) the balance are for you to define. Asking that a piece of software can produce art or a book design is not possible or feasible.

Typesetters have their origins as craftsmen working alongside the printer but the rise of desktop publishing has democratized this work and thus eroded the typesetter’s status. A typesetter needs to have flair and an artistic eye (hence why the jobs of typesetter and book designer are often combined). But the work also demands meticulous attention to detail and application of uniform standards.

When you decided to produce your publication you have accepted the role of the typesetter. You need to invest adequate time to learn about typesetting and computer programming.

There are no-shortcuts and instant solutions. No magic wands. You need to invest time in effortful study.

Having said all that, a good class can go a long way to save you time. For example most Journals offer their own classes and the majority of authors do not have to worry much about the final look of papers (although the editors, might add some modifications). The most important decision you make, if you are unwilling to invest time in disciplines that are not within your core of expertise is to choose your class carefully.

Will future LaTeX distributions be more complete and user-friendly?

Software in general evolve by adding more abstractions and more complexity. LaTeX3 is expected at some stage to provide a more "complete" typesetting and programming framework. More user-friendly? Highly unlikely.

What date should I use for fixltx2e, and where do I find it? Find the file fixltx2e.sty on your computer open it up in your text editor and the date is stated by the Providespackage command:

\NeedsTeXFormat{LaTeX2e}
\ProvidesPackage{fixltx2e}
          [2006/09/13 v1.1m fixes to LaTeX]

If you are not going to distribute your raw file to anyone, don't worry about the date, just don't use any date, everything will still work fine.

Microtype

The final option is the default (like in most classes), unless you use draft in your class. In that case you will have to explicitly state it. From the manual:

E.g., if you are using the class option draft to show any overfull boxes, you should load microtype with the final option.

User friendly compiler errors? Software developers think that error messages they build in their software are user friendly. In most cases they are as user friendly as calculus.

Have I missed something in the manuals? This is not a hard one to answer. If you did not read the manuals you probably did.

Do you know more? are all of these things always a good idea?

Probably and yes they are a good idea.

BONUS

How to Ask a Question

The questions with more left unsaid than said normally go ignored. A question that is not very focused will not elicit many answers. State clearly what you expect to gain from the answers.

Ask one question at a time.

Get people interested in answering your question. It is almost like you are making a sale here! "Hey, look at my question, I’m obviously interested in helping you give me an answer so pay attention to me". Provide a minimal example and ask how to better it or why it does not work. When your question starts with one of Kipling's six honest men you will receive better answers.

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You are right - it is amazing though that you can do the typesetting(at least a huge part) your self, and not be 100% percent dependent on professionals as in olden days. I do not want to read e.g. the microtype manual, when all I need is one line. –  Hans-Peter E. Kristiansen Jan 21 '12 at 7:41
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@Hans-PeterE.Kristiansen Nobody likes to read manuals;) Microtype needs a bit of care though, but if there is one package that can make an impact on the typography of a document is microtype, as it tends to reduce hyphenation by about 80-90%. The correction that you referred to in your question should have been incorporated in memoir and I am sure in future versions it will be, that is the correct place for it to be. –  Yiannis Lazarides Jan 21 '12 at 9:42
    
I do not doubt that people here are very helpful, or that my question could be a lot better. -but I got my answers:o) -even a very elaborated answer... would have been happy with one line per question. –  Hans-Peter E. Kristiansen Jan 22 '12 at 8:08
    
You know more? - "Probably". Willing to share? -I am thinking about extra packages(or other). Not general knowledge :o) –  Hans-Peter E. Kristiansen Jan 22 '12 at 8:11
    
Six Honest Men!? –  Hans-Peter E. Kristiansen Jan 22 '12 at 8:12

Maybe it is not exactly the answer to your question, but I'm under the impression that you may have missed (sorry if I'm wrong) one real advantage of current TeX-distributions: the command for console / command window texdoc »packagename«. You just type texdoc fixltx2e and almost immediately get the documentation.

texdoc -s packagename will give you all possible documentations, but as far as I remember it does not work under MiKTeX.

Usually it takes only 2 or 3 minutes to check whether the package is helpfull. But I admit that monster packages like microtype need much more attention. I always give the advise to users to buy a decent book on LaTeX, it saves just so much time (by the way: I buy nearly all books on LaTeX which are published in German, to support the authors. Usually some weeks later I recognise how helpfull the book is right now.).

EDIT: Just to check whether there are interesting packages, once in a while I have a look at the topic index of CTAN, here: http://texcatalogue.sarovar.org/bytopic.html . The maintainer, Jürgen Fenn, does a great job there, and if you miss a usefull package in his index, mail to him.

And -- I confess, I'm a news junkie -- once or twice per month I check the announcements of new packages here: http://www.mail-archive.com/ctan-ann@dante.de/

Ahm, yes, I'm member of the German TeX-User-Group DANTE. Our quaterly journal on TeX & Friends helps also to keep on track.

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I know about texdoc - I am using it extensively(mactex). -but I am afraid that there is some package that does something wonderful, but I do not know about it yet. Often when I read the package doc, there are things I do not understand - english is not my native language, I do not have any knowledge about typesetting, other than what I read in these docs - and my IQ is annoyingly average:o) –  Hans-Peter E. Kristiansen Jan 20 '12 at 11:45
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@Hans-PeterE.Kristiansen I edited my answer to reply on your comment. –  Keks Dose Jan 20 '12 at 12:11
    
Thanks for the great tips about news. Have you seen the actual questions in my post - now made more readable? –  Hans-Peter E. Kristiansen Jan 21 '12 at 7:45

While I totally agree with Yiannis that you need "to invest time in effortful study" to achieve good or even great typography, I don't agree with the underline sentiment. We should provide options between (1) "If it requires effortful study, I don't care!" and (2) "I am willing to invest a lot of time to achieve great typography".

I know an awful lot of people (I would say they make up the vast majority) who would always opt for (1). Deadlines are firm, the paper/thesis/report has to get out or has already been accepted, and so on. Even though some people acknowledge good typography, in most professions you just do not get brownie points for it. On the other side, there often is nobody who would fix typography later on: Lulu has already been mentioned. In my field (Computer Science) there is basically no post-production on the publisher's side; most conferences just ask you to submit a PDF file. Even worse: Their class files and document templates tend to be at least twenty years old and not very well crafted. There really is a lot of sloppiness in the business.

So we should provide some easy-to-apply don't-ask-me-to-think-about-it rules of thumb that generally improve typography of the average document. This is just a matter of pragmatism. Maybe we could organize it by the required effort: 1-Minute fixes, 5-Minute fixes, 10-Minute fixes, and so on. I will start with the 1-Minute fixes, maybe others could add upon this.

1-Minute Fixes

So here is my (incomplete) list of 1-Minute fixes ("meta packages") one could include. A package qualifies for this list, iff its blind application causes significantly more good than harm with respect to typography in the average case. That is, given a stack of 100 papers with bad typography, it would improve at least 60 of them.

\usepackage[T1]{fontenc}      % you always want this!
\usepackage{lmodern}          % if class uses standard fonts (CM)
\usepackage[utf8]{inputenc}   % if document contains non-ASCI characters (such as äöü)

\usepackage{ellipsis}         % improves whitespacing around "..."
\usepackage{fixltx2e}         % always a good thing
\usepackage{microtype}        % improves typography a lot; bonus: often reduces # of pages
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I am not disagreeing with you, but what we need is more, specific classes that incorporate the typography. That what LaTeX provided originally and it took off. Granted is a bit dated now. Packages alone will not resolve the issue, yes maybe they can improve hyphenation and spacing of ellipses but if you go and double space the rest of the document, use the wrong combinations etc.. it defeats the purpose. You can include booktabs and still have bad tables. –  Yiannis Lazarides Jan 22 '12 at 12:25
    
@YiannisLazarides: Yes, that is true and, in fact, there are good replacements for the standard classes (e.g., KOMA). However, for papers there are many classes with less-than-good defaults around that are, however, imposed by the publisher (such as ACM, IEEE, or Elsevier) and it is unlikely that the situation is going to change. So we need packages. Not to resolve, but to relieve the situation just a bit into the right direction. –  Daniel Jan 22 '12 at 15:00

Your question is not very focused, but here are my answers.

As explained in a related question, most of the time I use the following packages and classes:

  • beamer for presentations;
  • tikz for producing pictures;
  • booktabs for producing better tabulars;
  • xcolor for the colour in presentations. (I don't like colour in printed running text/tables.);
  • microtype for marginal kerning/character protrusion, font expansion and letterspacing for acronyms and abbreviations;
  • biblatex for better bibliography management;
  • pgfkeys/pgfopts for key=value parsing;
  • amsmath for improved mathematical typesetting support;
  • acronym for acronym/abbreviation support.

$<stuff>$ and \[<stuff\] is better than \(<stuff>\) and $$<stuff>$$ because they are LaTeX commands. The other commands are TeX commands.

For the finishing touches, I usually fix problems related to orphans and widows and problems related to too much or too little whitespace at the bottom of a page or near the vicinity of floats (figures, tables, ...) . Usually, rephrasing the text near the problem area helps resolve the problem. Please note that I don't cheat by adding \vspace:-)

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