LaTeX or Word?

I have worked with LaTeX for a significant amount of time — most of my undergraduate, and some of my Master’s — and while I haven’t delved into its deepest recesses (though it did get to the point that I fiddled with the source code of a package), consider myself an advanced user. Many of my friends are adamant that LaTeX is superior, and recommend it to others, especially for academic writing. I have become convinced that LaTeX is overvalued, and that it offers few functions beyond Word which are useful to the average user; in fact, modern versions of Word do almost anything that LaTeX does, and often better and in a less cumbersome way.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that LaTeX is a terrible choice. If you have LaTeX set up and running for you, then you can skip this article, as I won’t try to convince you to change; and for those having the time, and who like to fiddle around, LaTeX can be a very satisfying choice. But for those who are constantly nagged by their friends that LaTeX is the superior choice, or who find themselves torn between both, I’ll argue that you shouldn’t make the mistake of investing time into learning LaTeX.

There are some tasks for which LaTeX is clearly superior, which is Math typesetting, and more generally, any kind of writing in the natural sciences or which otherwise includes lots of formal notation. LaTeX is more convenient to use in this respect, and usually better looking as well. But this point should not be overstated. If your average writing will contain at most a few formulas, or some light technical notation, Word can deal with those equally well, and its overall benefits still outweigh any math-related benefits LaTeX might have. And if you really think the LaTeX math fonts so beautiful, then you can just install them in modern versions of Word. Most recommendations of LaTeX, I think, come from people who use it as a great tool for some specific purposes, but then mistake it as a useful all-purpose means.

Some people have suggested to me that LaTeX is also better for longer documents, especially if you want to typeset a thesis or a book. It’s quite unclear to me what these advantages are supposed to be, and I have written both a Master’s and doctoral thesis in Word. Word has, if you just look closely enough, just the same functionality that LaTeX offers for longer documents (e.g., different page counts or page styles for different parts of a book).

A last word on OpenOffice. I have been using OpenOffice for several years as well on Linux, but I found it inferior in virtually all respects to both Word and LaTeX. OpenOffice has less functionality, is more cumbersome to use, and usually more buggy, than Word. At least compared to Word 2010 (which will be my main focus), OpenOffice lags several years behind.

Supposed Advantages of LaTeX

To make the relevant comparison between LaTeX and Word, I will first go through some supposed advantages that LaTeX enjoys over Word. I think those strengths are generally overstated. After that, I will go through some features of LaTeX which make it inferior to Word, and which are often overlooked.

Easier to Use

Everyone will admit that LaTeX has more of a learning curve than Word, given that in LaTeX you “do not see what you get”, and that you need to become somewhat acquainted with its peculiar approach of “coding” a document. (But even that can be mostly ignored with editors such as LyX.) But, so the argument often goes, once you have learned those basics, LaTeX is simpler and quicker to use. You type your text, write down what you want the section headings to be, and roughly where you want your graphs and tables to appear. The rest LaTeX does for you: making a nice title page, formatting the text for you, numbering your equations and labels, giving you a complete bibliography in the end.

This point is misleading. True enough, to get your first LaTeX document compiled is not as difficult as it might first sound. However, it’s false to think that Word is not just as simple to use once you’ve gotten used to it. If you set up a template document with formatting styles, it’s just as quick to start writing in Word.

The other point about the LaTeX learning curve is that as it goes on, it actually becomes steeper. For most features in LaTeX, you will find using yourself a package which provides the functionality you want. This is fine as long as the package does what you want it to do. But imagine: Your table isn’t quite the way you want it to be? You don’t want your illustrations to be quite positioned where LaTeX puts them? You want more margins from your headers than LaTeX gives you by default? What a pity, now you will have to google your way to a solution, use some ill-conveived hacks (looking at you, \vspace), or start looking around for a package which provides precisely the functionalities you want.

I have spent just as much time reading forums, FAQs, documentations and handbooks about LaTeX and its packages than I actually spent time using it. And this is often for getting basic functionality, such as a table which you can use across page-breaks.

It’s true that Word, if it doesn’t have a function, simply doesn’t have it, and there’s not much you can do. However, that’s only scoring nerd points, and will be irrelevant for 99% of the users 99% of the time. Out of the box, the features that Word offers are usable with much less effort. (Just right-click on a paragraph in Word, marvel at all the layout functions you could use, and ask yourself how many different LaTeX packages you would need to emulate all those features.)

More Beautiful

Another common reason I have heard in favour of LaTeX is its supposed beauty. Word documents, so the prejudice goes, are typeset in ugly 12pt Times New Roman, with awkward line and page breaks, inconveniently placed graphs and tables, and a general layout which screams “amateur”. LaTeX layout, on the other hand, is an oasis of calm, designed with typographical principles in mind, and generally pleasing to the eye.

There’s a grain of truth in this, but it’s minor. The default layout of a Word document (Times New Roman in the older Word, Calibri with light blue Cambria headings in newer versions) is indeed an eyesore, and some of the older standard Windows fonts are quite bad. But there is nothing intrinsically ugly about a Word document. Comparing the default LaTeX layout with the default Word layout tells us little about the respective programmes, other than how unreflective users approach them. A Word document which is set in a nice font, with a commonsensical page layout, can be just as beautiful as a LaTeX document.

As a sidenote, I find it amazing that the most common font used with LaTeX is still Computer Modern, and its relatives such as Latin Modern. Computer Modern is an inconsistenly designed, hard-to-read, ugly typeface. When seen next to any professionally designed font, I cannot help but find it hopeless in its awfulness. What’s more, the usual size in which it is set in LaTeX documents I find much too small. There’s no excuse to use Computer Modern.

A more sophisticated argument is that LaTeX has all those advanced typographical features which Word lacks: ligatures, better kerning, real small caps, and better line and page breaks. (See this argument being made well here.) This wins some points, especially against older forms of Word. At least with Word 2007, however, it is easy to have ligatures, and I find the kerning generally satisfying. It’s rare that the line breaks awkward. But again, I feel that this is scoring nerd points. I actually think that kerning, ligatures etc. are highly important, and unfortunately widely ignored. But I find it hard to recommend LaTeX on the basis of this rather remote feature, if it doesn’t matter to the person I recommend it to, and will matter to very, very few readers.

Easier to Use References

I can deal with this point relatively shortly, as I have made the exact opposite experience. I found doing references in LaTeXcumbersome, and much better in Word. (For clarification, I used LaTeX with biblatex, JabRef, and TexNic Center.) First, you need an external programme to deal with your reference database, just as with Word: so this can’t be the relevant difference. Second, LaTeX requires you to refer to the books you intend to cite by a key. Defining and constantly looking up the keys I found annoying and tedious work (though there’s probably solutions for this as well). Lastly, LaTeX packages again operate opaquely: they simply give you the output in the referencing style you have chosen; but it’s difficult to change those outputs.

I nowadays use Word with Zotero, which I find amazingly quick and simple in comparison. Even if there is a solution for LaTeX out there which is similar, I can’t imagine it to be better. First, Zotero is directly integrated with Firefox and Chrome as well as Word, and it also exists as a standalone application. Referencing a book in Word is a search in my Zotero database away, which works via a search/suggest bar. It takes a two seconds to get a full reference into my document; I am bewildered by academics who still do references manually. Lastly, if for some reason I don’t like the output which Zotero gives me for a reference, I can easily override its text output, which Zotero accepts graciously. (Good luck with that in LaTeX!)

This looks more like praise for Zotero, rather than a defense of LaTeX. Indeed, you can use the former with the latter just as well. But LaTeX offers no special advantage over Word when it comes to referencing, and that there are modern solutions to this old problem which work amazingly well in Word.

It’s Free

This point is, of course, indisputable. If you’re short for cash, LaTeX might be your choice, or the alternative but somewhat awful OpenOffice. (But note that the comparatively more hours you will spend on learning LaTeX will incur hidden opportunity costs.) Some people might also prefer LaTeX as an ideological choice to make a point about “free” software, and prefer it against closed-source solutions such as Word. Indeed, Microsoft is not precisely a saint, and the whole Office Open XML debate did not put Word in a very good light.

This is ultimately a matter of taste, budget, and ideological alignment. I have felt strongly about these issues in the past, and that was part of the reason I used LaTeX and OpenOffice. Nowadays, I find a blind preference for “open” software misguided if it becomes an obsession, and I have started using a range of Microsoft products again.

Disadvantages of LaTeX

In the last section, I aimed to show that the common strengths that are in mentioned in LaTeX’s favour aren’t by far as clear or convincing as they are usually made out to be. But there are also some weaknesses and flaws in LaTeX, which often tend to be overlooked. Again, I focus here on some weaknesses that might be specifically relevant to academic writers.

Collaborating and Sharing

I should make the following point with some caution, as I have collaborated on a LaTeX document with others only to a limited degree. Still, I have seen grave obstacles in collaborating, sharing, and commentating upon documents in LaTeX.

First, code varies. Given the different packages that people tend to use in their documents, and differences in individual coding style, code will not be easily sharable. The default LaTeX template which I had after three years of heavy usage, for example, invoked over a dozen packages, and had defined a number of customized environments. It’s not impossible to share, of course, but certainly not as easily as a Word document. All LaTeX documents from others I tried to compile required some effort and time to make them work. None compiled at first try.

Second, if you want to give your paper to others, you will usually have to do so in PDF form. And PDFs are horriblem to comment upon, even nowadays. Correcting a minor spelling mistake? Highlighting, and commenting upon, a particular bit of the sentence? It’s doable in modern PDF readers, but the related features in Word are much more intuitive and easier to use. (I require my students, for example, to exclusively send me documents in Word.)

Third, many journals, websites and other publications will want your document in text form, and not as a PDF: they will not be interested in your cool and clever coding, as your text will need to be put into their layout in any case. LaTeX is not easily transferable into other formats. For example, Word to HTML is easy, as is Word to RTF, if Word documents are not accepted straight-out. No such easy solutions exist for LaTeX, and if you suddenly find yourself required to provide your paper in such formats, significant additional work awaits you again.

Problem Shooting

In my experience, you either have no problem in a given LaTeX document, or you have a big and major one. This is because LaTeX can simply fail to compile a document. It has been several times that I worked on a deadline, and kept getting a cryptic error message. Not only that, but LaTeX must have some of the worst light-to-heat proportions in all of programming in their error reports.

If something doesn’t work in LaTeX, it usually took me significant amounts of time to correctly resolve the given problem (rather than give a quick, dirty fix). Did you use conflicting packages? Did you use a given package correctly? What precisely is that error message trying to tell you? These are questions which I felt happy to tackle in the past, but nowadays I find myself less and less patient with them. The point here is that the problems often occur when you least want them.

I can’t remember having such problems to any degree with Word. Sure enough, it can be buggy, and you might fail to make Word do what you want it to do, just as in LaTeX. But the main strength of a WYSIWYG approach is that it’s easier to give a quick fix for such problems. And there is always is a document, rather than your program failing to produce one altogether. While you might have more minor problems in Word, you have fewer big, seemingly unfixable ones.

Design

I tried to dispell, in the last section, the notion that Word documents are usually uglier than LaTeX, though I conceded that LaTeX is superior in some of the more advanced typographical features. However, in other ways Word is clearly superior to LaTeX.

LaTeX is essentially paternalist: it does not trust you in your tastes or design decisions. This is why it takes so many decisions from you, and might also explain its perception as simple. (That it chooses Computer Modern as its default font should make you wonder, though — my complaints about Computer Modern are another story altogether, however.) LaTeX’s choice of typefaces is quite limited, too. I hear that XeTeX gives you access to all your heart’s desires when it comes to modern typefaces; but at least inside LaTeX you cannot easily integrate other typefaces.

The Upshot

In short, all the supposed advantages of LaTeX are barely advantages in the end; and the disadvantages of LaTeX vis-à-vis Word are often major. It is unlikely that this is going to change any time soon. Indeed, as far as I can see, Word has more significantly improved over the last decade, while LaTeX is improving only in a slow and somewhat chaotic fashion. For most users, then, Word strikes me as the superior choice to work with texts.

Update (23/11/2016): Some minor changes.

Update (23/11/2016): I would also highly recommend Josh Parsons’s essay on LaTeX who makes some further forceful points against LaTeX.

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