Why would I need to use version control with my LaTeX documents? I know people who do it, and I've seen questions about it on here and on SO, but I haven't understood what value there is to doing it...

[Maybe this should be CW?]

  • 29
    DO NOT use CVS. Ii is seriously outdated.
    – Caramdir
    Aug 5, 2010 at 11:55
  • 8
    @Caramdir: Ya think? I'm currently working in an environment that uses RCS - CVS' precessor... :P Aug 5, 2010 at 12:41
  • 7
    Imagine working on a paper all night. The next day you get up and wonder which monkey abused your keyboard to type random words that do not make any sense. THEN source control will help you to return to the last consistent state of your document.
    – h0b0
    Aug 5, 2010 at 15:45
  • 15
    Protip: write one sentence per line; then changing one sentence doesn't ruin the diff of a whole paragraph. Nov 12, 2010 at 0:24
  • 8
    @PaulBiggar no need if you're using git. Just do git diff --color-words and you'll see diffs at word level.
    – Yawar
    May 23, 2013 at 4:24

13 Answers 13


As a single user the main advantages are

  • Automatic backups: If you accidentally delete some file (or part of a file) you can undelete it. If you change something and want to undo it, the VCS can do so.
  • Sharing on multiple computers: VCSes are designed to help multiple people collaboratively edit text files. This makes sharing between multiple computers (say your desktop and laptop) particularly easy. You do not need to bother if you always copied the newest version; the VCS will do that for you. Even if you are offline and change files on both computers, the VCS will merge the changes intelligently once you are online.
  • Version control and branching: Say you published some class notes as a pdf and want to fix some typos in them while simultaneously working on the notes for next year. No problem. And you only need to fix the typos once, the VCS will merge them to the other versions.
  • 2
    NB: I learned the importance of the first point the hard way, when I accidentally deleted several days of work.
    – Caramdir
    Aug 5, 2010 at 11:48
  • 3
    The second one was what swung it for me - working from several different computers is a breeze with version control. Aug 5, 2010 at 11:50
  • 2
    About learning things the hard way: a VCS doesn't replace conventional backups unless the repository is distant. When I switched from SVN to git, I forgot this point until I was hit...
    – mpg
    Nov 11, 2010 at 21:50
  • Can SVN do automatic backups? May 31, 2011 at 5:39
  • @xport: yes/no. standard SVN requires a remote server, which kind of is a backup. For git, you don't need a remote server, but as mpg mentions, you should still consider that Sep 21, 2011 at 13:05

I'm also someone who uses version control as a single user. All of Caramdir's reasons are ones that I agree with, and I'll add the following:

  • Tagging. When I send a paper off to a journal, I can "tag" that version and so even if I make my own improvements in the meantime, when I get the referee's report back then I can easily revert to the version that the comments are on. Plus it's easy to see when I sent a copy to which journal or to collaborators or to eprint repositories.
  • Working with collaborators even if they don't have the VCS themselves. I can make a branch copy for my collaborator on my own system and simply copy in their corrections to that each time, then merge them into the main branch as if they'd been using the VCS all along. Keeps the advantages of using version control but without requiring all collaborators to use it.
  • Maintaining different versions. Caramdir already said this, but I'd like to emphasise it as it happens a lot more than one might expect. When I write a paper, I write it first for myself. So I make life easy on myself by using lots of macros and the like to make it easy for me to type. But then I want to submit it to a journal, send it to the arXiv, send it to some other eprint servers, put a copy on my webpage, put an accessible copy on my webpage ... Each of these might require a slight change to the document, for example one eprint server I use doesn't have a decent set of fonts so I have to "downgrade" my papers before sending it there. But of course, I'm still working on the paper after sending a version to all these different places and so a VCS helps me keep all of them in step.

Incidentally, I switched to using a version control system around about the time I started taking online notes of everything that I did. So I wrote up some notes on the process here. I also found an article (also available as a wikibook) on the subject that was very helpful to me in deciding to switch to a version control system and on what to look for in one.

  • 11
    +1 for the idea of using branches to incorporate collaborator edits. I also use the tagging idea for different versions (submitted, final, journal, arxiv etc)
    – Suresh
    Aug 5, 2010 at 17:55
  • For maintaining different versions do you have different branches and keep merging between them, or do you use a different method? E.g. patch queues? Nov 3, 2013 at 18:39
  • @FaheemMitha I usually have a main branch where I do the significant edits and then the other branches keep pulling these changes from the main branch. Nov 4, 2013 at 8:11
  • What are the advantages of using something an external program such as git vs using a version control Latex package such as the ones listed here texcatalogue.ctan.org/bytopic.html#classes ?
    – skan
    Nov 10, 2016 at 17:19
  • 1
    @skan I've never tried them so I can't really comment on them, but at a first guess I'd say that the external programs have much better support networks and are better developed. Nov 10, 2016 at 20:38

Using revision control makes you unafraid to make radical changes to your document. As one of my friends, Peter Boothe, put it,

you can now freely throw away bits and pieces, secure in the knowledge that if you actually want them back, they are there in the revision control system. Interestingly, almost nobody actually uses this feature. Revision control systems are not there to save your old work. They are there to give you permission to throw that old work away.
  • 6
    I agree completely! Before switching to a VCS, the ends of my papers were full with junk that I'd "saved" by shifting it beyond the \end{document}. Now I no longer have to do that. Aug 15, 2010 at 16:28
  • 2
    That's a great quote. Very insightful. Oct 16, 2010 at 10:29
  • Yeah, this has been my main reason for putting nearly everything I've written lately under some form of VCS, even just RCS: that way I can easily make a snapshot before making massive removals/revisions, so I can go back if I change my mind, no matter when I change my mind (although in practice I don't think I've ever done more than revert to the last committed version, and even then perhaps only partially).
    – SamB
    Dec 19, 2010 at 7:23
  • 2
    Thanks Chris! I egosurfed and found this here! I am glad you found it useful. Jan 8, 2011 at 3:44
  • Well said! Bravo!
    – Jan
    Jan 6, 2020 at 17:50

For me, one of the main reasons for using a VCS is to avoid cluttering my working directory with lots of mainly useless files with cryptic filenames like:





With such a system, it is hard to keep track of which changes occurred in which version. It gets worse if you have multiple authors collaborating on a document with different file naming conventions. It gets even worse if you are using a similar system for your bibtex and image files, as you have to keep remembering to update the references to the files in the main document. It gets even more worse if you are collaborating via sending email attachments and don't know for sure that you have saved every single version that was emailed into your working directory.

With a VCS you just have one copy of each file, so you have a much cleaner and easier to navigate working directory. The VCS should make it easy for you to find out where changes were made, so that you can easily find things when you want to restore something that you previously edited out. Since the VCS stores everything, you know that every version of the file is available in one place. It should also declutter your email inbox a little bit as you won't need the attachments and emails that just announce updates to the document are no longer needed.


The same advantages you get of using version control for any other kind of documents.

Helps for many people to collaborate on a single document/project, keeps track of all the changes to the document as it evolves, you can revert and/or merge edits.


Version control systems also let you work on several machines. For example, I git push before going home, and when I get there and want to finish my work, I start with git pull. This is a lot easier than transferring files to a USB key, or scping them, or using dropbox, etc.

  • 1
    Since Dropbox just works in the background, how is git push and git pull easier than doing nothing?
    – Seamus
    Oct 25, 2010 at 9:38
  • 1
    @Seamus: I probably use dropbox incorrectly. I want all my files to be local to the directories in which I work, so I copy to dropbox, which is a bit of work. I guess I should make links to my dropbox directory. Thanks.
    – dank
    Oct 25, 2010 at 10:41
  • 1
    I just have my local working directory inside dropbox, so I don't have to do anything. That said, I would prefer the extra control that using git to do this would give me. But I maintain that it isn't easier, just better.
    – Seamus
    Oct 25, 2010 at 12:24
  • 1
    Zombie Note: Just as a note to others who like me would consider this. One of the problems of using dropbox as a director are if you use a shared folder. If two people are working on a file for an hour like a Latex file when one save and then the other the first person's hour of work is lost. It's perfectly fine for a solo person but when used collaboratively it's a habit that can get you in trouble which is why many people do avoid developing it as a habit.
    – Wolfkin
    Apr 25, 2016 at 15:33
  • @Seamus Perhaps it's just me, but I find using dropbox history incredibly painful to use compared with diffing a git repository. Part of the problem is that dropbox saves every time the document changes whereas files in a git repository have a small number of documented commits. Feb 18 at 9:25

It's also handy to automatically include a version/revision number from your VCS into the output of your document. Then when you're look at the output or hardcopy you can tell if it's out of date or how to re-construct the exact input files.

  • 1
    Is there a way to automatically do this with LaTeX? Nov 11, 2010 at 23:10
  • 1
    I use \input to read a file that the Makefile created.
    – bombcar
    Mar 13, 2014 at 19:25

It doesn't matter whether it's a document or computer program source code. The benefits of VCS are the same. For me the compelling reason is the ability to study and track change over time. It's just like having a time machine.


Version control systems are also very useful to view differences between versions of a document.

This functionality is only relevant for files in plain text format, but thanks god, you use *TeX :)

  • Binary files are at least partially supported i.e. you can still see the diff.
    – Leo Liu
    Aug 5, 2010 at 17:01
  • 1
    @Leo: Well, you can see the difference, sure, but you aren't going to get any kind of sensible udiff out of it...
    – SamB
    Dec 19, 2010 at 7:26

If you haven't used a version control tool before, I seriously recommend you start using one. Otherwise you will version control manually i.e. paper-v5, paper-v6 etc which may be sufficient for one-off, short-term projects.

You can see version control as recording a (discrete) history of your project allowing you to associate notes with the changes you make and to inspect at later stage why they were made. This might sound cumbersome but most good editors let you seamlessly integrate it into your workflow. In fact you will soon find version control tool indispensable.


For why this is needed, look at the other (very good) answers. I would like to add that I use DropBox for my LyX documents. It does pretty much what you would get with a VCS (without branches/merges etc. - but as a single use for a document, you probably won't need it), but it does that automatically. It syncs your files between computers and it makes your documents available to you online.

  • 1
    How can it sync files reliably without branches/merges?
    – SamB
    Dec 19, 2010 at 7:24
  • 2
    In case of conflicts it just duplicates the file. That is, it is mainly useful for one user, or when the it is sure there will be no conflicts.
    – Dror
    Jan 13, 2011 at 14:54

Though an old question, I recomend using Git. It works fine and is incorprated today for shared projects inside Github, Gitlab or Gitea (free). One striking argument I found near the cover of book "Git". So for curiosity reasons, not for advertisement, let's have a look at it: information obtained from the books cover

Version, commit, change, status, statistics, branch, fork ... all daily routine with Git. Turns out said book was written by two authors (using Git) with ... Latex. Some background:

  • Git comes from the software world, where any ASCII-editor creates magic using a computers operating system
  • so Git supports merging and comparing ASCII-sources for resolution of conflicting edits on the same parts
  • Latex is ... ASCII-based, so the two work together well

As an aside the mentioned online plattforms Github, Gitlab, Gitea and others, add management capabilities on top of Git: that's their added value besides proliferating code. Management in this context means e.g.:

  • making suggestions, discuss, decide
  • retrieve history of and contributors to such events
  • and most importantly: assign a person as INTEGRATOR, who solely decides what to push or to merge into the golden repository, the whole team works with.

Hope this helps :)


I agree with the others, but the most "non technical" reason is to think about it as "unlimited undo" between the versions that was saved in the VCS.

You can always get a old version back regardless what you do.

This is the meaning of the "automatic backup" that is a little bit tricky to understand.

SubVersion is a simple to understand system, that works well for small teams.

Git on the other hand is is more technical advanced and scales better, but for small teams this is a academical question.

But the point is that any VCS is better than not using this type of systems at all.

  • When I was using svn I still used rcs for single file projects. But since moving to git, even for single file projects I can no longer use rcs. The most difficult tool hard to learn and use is actually rcs. I have encountered endless locking problems.
    – Leo Liu
    Aug 15, 2010 at 16:39
  • @Leo: I never had any real trouble, but then I always did it from within Emacs and just used "C-x v v" for almost everything, so...
    – SamB
    Dec 19, 2010 at 7:28

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