Quality and Aesthetics

Simply, documents produced using LaTeX just look better. The reason that LaTeX documents look more refined and polished is that LaTeX uses iterative typesetting algorithms which determine the optimal layout of text and floating elements (such as figures and tables) based on many typographical rules. Word processors are not written to typeset documents (i.e. determine the optimum position of characters/words) on the fly.

A lively community of expansions to LaTeX (called packages) allows virtually any modification and type of document to be created. This means that LaTeX can create everything from business cards to books to presentations. Advanced built-in referencing also allows LaTeX to easily handle very large and complex documents with many cross-references, such as theses.

Price

Free and works on all operating systems.

Microsoft Word, Apple’s Pages and Google Docs are popular word processors that make creating documents easy and interactive. All cost money and/or your privacy, have compatibility issues between platforms and either aren’t available on all platforms or require additional licenses. There are free open source alternatives such as LibreOffice, but even these have compatibility issues.

LaTeX is free with a multitude of editors to choose from for each platform. If you create a .tex file at work on Windows and go home to your Mac running macOS, the file will compile the same regardless. Since LaTeX and packages do not get updated very frequently, you are unlikely to run into version errors.

Another consideration is bibliography management. For the word processors that are capable of including bibliographies automatically, this software is usually an extra expense (e.g. EndNote for Microsoft Word). The LaTeX implementation of a bibliography manager (called BibTeX) uses any number of free reference managers to store your papers and saves the library as a .bib file which is read by LaTeX.

Editing, Versioning and Outputs

A .tex file is just a text document. This means it can be opened and edited in any simple text editor on any version of any operating system. It will not crash or corrupt for seemingly no reason. Many people feel this is liberating and enjoy being in control of their documents. Word processors can seem slow and bloated but few computers will find a text editor a daunting application to run.

Software developers commonly use source control systems to track changes to files over time. LaTeX is very amenable to using Git or SVN to track changes to your documents, something that is difficult to do for documents from a Word Processor. Git also makes it easy to collaborate with other authors and maintain multiple versions of your documents using its standard features.

The output from LaTeX by default is DVI which is readily (and automatically) converted to PDF. The PDF format is used extensively worldwide and is viewable on any platform without formatting differences. Along with PDF, you can output to PostScript, RTF, HTML, PNG, TIFF and others.

Focus on Content

LaTeX separates content and style. What you see in your .tex file is not what you get as the output. While this makes things more confusing for those that aren’t accustomed to compiling documents, it is actually liberating in that the structure of the document is set like rules and the content falls into place when the document is compiled. This ensures consistency since all of the formatting is handled separately and en masse.

The document content can be written without the distraction of seeing unwanted changes appearing, and can be compiled when you are ready to take care of formatting. For example, if a footnote is required, it is simply written into a \footnote{} command in-line with the text and the writing immediately goes on.

Time Investment

There is no doubt that LaTeX requires an investment of time in order to learn how it works and how to use it. The key word here, however, is investment. When using a word processor, time spent trying to fix a formatting problem is essentially time wasted; it is unlikely the same problem will arise again. In LaTeX, once you figure out how to make a formatting change, you now know how to do this forever and it becomes quite natural given some repetition. Each new task builds on top of previous knowledge to make the process even easier.

Longevity

Documents written 20 years ago in LaTeX are almost guaranteed to compile today. Compare this with a document produced using a word processor from 20 years ago, it is likely the software no longer exists and if it does, it has undergone so many changes that it may not display the document correctly.

Downsides of LaTeX

For those with little experience beyond point and click interfaces on a computer, LaTeX has a significant learning curve to effectively create documents. This may take differing amounts of time based on previous exposure to programming or command line operations. Time is often a luxury in a professional or academic setting, so it is one of the aims of this website to help ease new LaTeX users into the system by providing ready-made templates that can be effectively filled in by a novice.

Since LaTeX outputs read-only PDF files and most people aren’t comfortable editing LaTeX document code, it can be difficult collaborating with others on a document. For proofreading purposes, PDFs can be annotated with notes, highlights and lines to cross out text. macOS has built-in PDF annotation in Preview and Adobe Acrobat is available for Windows, but this solution can be slightly more cumbersome than the automatic ‘Track Changes’ implemented in Microsoft Word. Another option is to print the document and make annotations by hand. If a collaborator requests a document as a Word file, this represents further problems since both a PDF and LaTeX code are not easily translated to plain text and formatting will not be retained. Overleaf is a web platform that is tailored to collaboration on LaTeX documents so this may be a good solution if this is an issue for you.

While LaTeX excels at typography (the positioning of letters and words on a page), the default styling of a new LaTeX document leaves much to be desired. Customising a document in LaTeX can be a finicky process and requires a willingness to learn new things and search for answers. The templates on this website aim to use the typesetting power of LaTeX but provide beautiful styles for a variety of uses and make it accessible and easy to use.

In a word processor, when a change is made, it is immediately obvious what has been changed. In LaTeX, every change can only be seen after the document is compiled. This means LaTeX does not provide the immediate feedback that a word processor does, which adds another layer between the user and the document. This is both a blessing and a curse in that you are able to write without worrying about the look of the document and compile at a time when you are ready to see the document and add formatting.

OK, this sounds interesting, how do I start using LaTeX?