Five Reasons I Use LaTeX & You Should Too

I have used LaTeX to produce my scholarly writing since midway through graduate school. I took an advanced statistics readings course, and the professor required me to learn LaTeX for submitting my assignments and producing a research paper.

I have not looked back since then. LaTeX presents a superior system for producing scholarly work, not just in terms of the final output, but also in terms of completing the entire project.

A comic in which a graduate student makes a New Year's resolution to learn LaTeX

Stop planning to learn LaTeX and do it already!

Five major reasons stand out for choosing LaTeX over other word processors.

LaTeX is free and universal

First, LaTeX is free and open source, and files are nonproprietary. It is, always has been, and always will be open source software. That is not to say it is flimsy software; in fact, an impressive technical support community provides helpful advice, while the main components and many of the widely used customizable features—packages—remain updated frequently. Because it remains open source, its files are nonproprietary, so you can share a file with any other LaTeX user, regardless of which program or platform she uses.

LaTeX lets you focus on writing

You write your files in a plain text editor, which makes writing productively much easier. Rather than incessantly fiddling with whether you prefer bold or italicized section headers, and then replacing each and every section header with your choice, your focus stays on the writing itself within a plain text editor. This means learning some coding to produce sections, tables, and formatting (see below), but the commands are intuitive, and you get the hang of them fairly easily. You can also customize as much or as little as you like, so the amount you want to code is mostly up to you. Most of the time you will just write.

LaTeX makes it easy to cite and reference

It includes built-in, easy to use bibliography management. This is great for at least three reasons:
1. First, you can input your citation commands and source information right into your document, or you can create a separate file containing all your source information. LaTeX automatically creates citations and a list of references including every source you cite, so you never leave out a citation that was referenced or a reference that was cited.
2. Second, I use BibDesk, which includes a user-friendly and highly customizable interface, to create my bibliography file. That’s right: file. I keep all my references in one file because you can use the same bibliography file in as many papers, presentations, books, and projects as you want, so you never need to duplicate the information for a source.
3. Finally, LaTeX can change all your citations and reference list to whatever style you need, usually by changing just a single—at most a few—lines of code, including switching from parenthetical citations to footnote citations. That means no more going through and changing each and every citation, only to miss a few.

LaTeX makes it easy to manage all kinds of documents

You can focus on writing one part of the project at a time by importing subdocuments. I break all my papers intended as journal articles into the main sections: abstract, introduction, literature review, research design, analysis, and conclusions. I have a separate file for each of these sections, which really helps me plan my work and focus on one certain section at a time. This takes me from thinking about writing a whole paper to writing up results, reviewing a portion of the literature, or discussing one more concluding remark. This helps me get the paper written, keeps me from feeling overwhelmed, and keeps me from having to manage one unwieldy document.

LaTeX produces universally-readable PDFs

Sending proprietary documents as email attachments or submitting them to professors, students, or clients may run into issues with version changes, feature access, or the recipient simply not having the necessary expensive program to view the file on the device at hand. LaTeX automatically produces PDFs, which anyone can view in the original format on any device. Now your intended recipients have no excuse for reading your documents, and you’ll never have to worry about resaving a document as a legacy version.

A satirical comic with a bar chart showing LaTeX files invoke a superior level of trustworthiness.

LaTeX, or .tex, files invoke a superior level of trustworthiness.

So why *not* LaTeX?

If LaTeX is so great, why isn’t everyone using it? I have a few ideas about that, but I’ll admit up front, there is a learning curve. Like I said, there is some coding, but you can make your work as complex or as simple as you like.

Also, when you code, you need to compile that code, and errors can cause your document to not come out right or not be produced at all. Your plain text work remains unaffected, but in order to produce the final PDF output, you need to find the causes of the errors and correct them. LaTeX gives you messages whenever it finds errors, and some messages are more or less easy to understand and resolve than others.

For both of these issues, tons of helpful posts, forums, and communities exist online, and I offer one-on-training and editing in using LaTeX. Whether you’re new to academic writing and presenting or you’re just fed up with expensive, proprietary word processors that produce generic, limited-access documents, I strongly recommend learning LaTeX.

Jeremy L. Wells

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