Today I saw this documentation from ShareLaTeX linked on Hacker News and, as I haven't used LaTeX in a while, thought I'd quickly skim through to see what I remembered. And I started reminiscing about LaTeX which I'd been using semi-regularly around a decade ago, eventually writing a circa 300 page thesis with it.

If you've never encountered it before, LaTeX is a free software project that is described by the project's site as:

a high-quality typesetting system; it includes features designed for the production of technical and scientific documentation.

There's nothing to stop you using it for other types of documents too; those are just the areas where it's traditionally used, particularly in academic circles.

Back to ShareLaTeX. First, the ShareLaTeX documentation looks pretty good if you need something to get you started.

I haven't used ShareLaTeX recently although I think I tried it out a few years back and it seemed fine enough. It's a web app that lets you prepare LaTeX documents and, if you pay, collaborate on them. One big advantage I can see of using a web app for LaTeX beginners is that it removes one of the barriers of starting with LaTeX: installing everything.

Installing LaTeX on Windows

I've not had cause to use LaTeX much recently, so haven't tried installing on Ubuntu; a lot of my writing is done via Markdown, whether technical documentation or words like the ones you're reading now on my blog.

On Windows, it used to be reasonably simple to get a working system with TeXnicCenter and MikTeX, but you'd still have to get a PDF viewer, like SumatraPDF integrated into that for previewing. This Stack Exchange answer may help with integrating the PDF preview.

Though that's still three different bits of software you have to get working together, so not a trivial task by any means. From memory, install MikTeX first, as TeXnicCenter can detect it during install and configure its own settings to use your MikTeX installation without you needing to set things up by hand.

Starting out

The ShareLaTeX documentation just starts out with creating a basic document and has you working through following their example. That's fine to see things piece by piece. Beyond that the single suggestion I'd have for a new user to learn effectively is to take a completed document you have written, representative of what you'd like to create using LaTeX, and then struggle through recreating that existing document in LaTeX.

And it may well be a struggle, but this has a few benefits:

  • It's presumably a finished work, so you don't have any time pressure for completion. With a deadline to meet, as soon as you encounter issues with LaTeX, you'll likely fall back to whatever word processor or document creator you're comfortable with to get the job done, and then give up on learning LaTeX.

  • Using a document similar to that you'd usually be writing, you'll encounter many of the issues in LaTeX that you'd hit doing so, and can solve these without the aforementioned time pressure.

    In my experience, it was graphics and, especially, table layouts that caused the most problems, but you may have particular typography requirements that require some package to be installed, or some subtle override of the LaTeX defaults to change.

    Finding these solutions is not always quick, but I imagine there are more forum posts, Stack Exchange questions and blog posts around than there were when I started, so it's likely someone's encountered and asked about the same issue you're dealing with. The LaTeX Community forum was also a good source of helpful solutions from knowledgable people even in its early days ten years ago, and still lives on today.

  • A completed document gives you a reference for getting started in future. You can use it as the basis for a new document, instead of starting from nothing, or you can just refer back to it and copy and paste appropriate bits of formatting markup you need.

LaTeX versus Word

LaTeX installation

As I saw it when learning back in 2007ish, LaTeX was more difficult to get started with than the likes of conventional word processors: the installation isn't trivial, and you need several things other than your desired text in a LaTeX document before you can get that text to display. In a word processor, you can just start typing. So there's some level of competence you need just to make any old document, let alone the one you actually want to make.

Word woes

Word is easy to get started with, but Word had, and maybe still has, its own problems: again, going back to 2007, to when Word 2003 was still popular, referencing support was limited, that you'd use external tools for (e.g. EndNote or Zotero). I'm not sure how Word looks with respect to that now.

Back then, Word seemed to struggle and be sluggish with large documents with lots of images, which was always fun. Again, maybe that's improved in recent versions? When editing LaTeX, you're only editing the source markup in whatever text editor you choose to use, and this source, even for a lengthy document, will be relatively small; images for LaTeX are stored entirely separately from the source.

Another issue with Word is ensuring formatting styles are correctly and consistently applied to text. You can create styles, but you then have to apply them by hand, selecting the text. Sometimes you may delete spacing between words and suddenly you have to reapply a styling, as the text has changed to the style of its neighbours. In LaTeX, anything to do with formatting is specified explicitly in the markup, making it easy to see that the correct styling is applied to the text. Furthermore, the LaTeX defaults are usually decent, not always perfect, but decent.

The good and bad of LaTeX

This explicitness and strictness of LaTeX is good and bad. It means that you know what is intended for your text, but it also means that it's possible for you to break your document sufficiently such that it cannot be rendered correctly, or sometimes even at all, by LaTeX.

If you've done programming and are used to finding and correcting your inevitable mistakes, this isn't unusual. But the idea of having written a document that you can't then display in the intended output format may be an intimidating concept to new users. Likewise, the error messages can be numerous and formal, and not much help to novice users.

Tricks known to programmers like a regular edit-compile cycle to ensure you find issues as you create them, or commenting out markup to isolate the specific parts of markup that are the cause of difficult to understand problems are useful skills. (These ways of working are perhaps a result of the creators of LaTeX — and TeX, which LaTeX is built on — being computer scientists.) However, these concepts may not be immediately obvious by users with little experience of coding who just want to get on with writing, and don't want tools getting in the way.

On the other hand, working just with the LaTeX source and focusing on the text alone seems much more productive to me. You can concentrate on content first, and fix up the presentation at the end. Otherwise, I find that working alongside the printed document layout presents me with the continuous distraction of making things look "right", fixing incorrect formatting or alignments, even though the content in question could be modified or removed entirely during later editing. This time might be better spent just writing.

Talking of layout, in my opinion, a LaTeX document using defaults will be much more pleasant to read than a Word document using defaults. To some extent, in both cases, this can somewhat depend on templates that you may choose to create your document, but a default LaTeX document has more of the look of a professionally typeset book.

Finally, many useful additions to LaTeX come in the form of a huge range of additional packages you can install to add new commands and features. Again, this is a mixed blessing. First, you need to be aware that they even exist — lists like this can help: there may be a package perfect for what you're trying to do, but you just haven't discovered it yet. Another hassle is that you can have incompatibility issues between certain packages, or they may require to be loaded in a certain order. Fixing problems like these is time, again, spent on tools, not on writing.

You do need to be careful of package updates. Mostly these should be benign, but in one case I experienced, a package update suddenly broke my document, and I had to spend time discovering the problem and reverting the package version. (My memory's hazy, but I think this was complicated by MikTeX only having the latest package versions, so in the end I think that I had to download from elsewhere and install by hand.) This may be an issue for compiling documents if you return to them much later in the future: if any of the packages have broken their backwards compatibility, you may be stuck. There's also no easy way that I was aware of to pin package versions, like you might in a Python file.

Do you still need to learn LaTeX these days?

Since I learned LaTeX, software like pandoc has appeared and made it simple to write in other formats — for instance, Markdown, reStructuredText, or HTML — and convert that to LaTeX. Markdown in particular is very simple, and easy to learn.

For relatively straightforward documents, that's an alternative to give you the benefit of nicely typeset output, without having to bother writing LaTeX directly. This can give you a handy subset of LaTeX in potentially a simpler markup, especially with Markdown.

However, LaTeX remains flexible and powerful and, especially for creating more complicated documents, it still retains popularity more than thirty years after its first development. Furthermore, it's also released under an open source license (the LaTeX Project Public License) so these professional-level tools are available to everyone at no cost. If you have the likes of long reports or a thesis to write, it's certainly still worth a look.