I’ve always had mixed feelings about Microsoft Word. I like it for making small posters and colorful banners. For a long time I used it as a full time text processor. All my articles for school, newspapers, a bunch of semi-finished stories and articles were all in Microsoft Word. And I was decently happy. Some things bugged me. Like how I never really used most of the features available and how I often wished there was a magic way to autogenerate tables of contents, or pull multiple files together (I never quite figured out how I should go about writing a book in Word).
And then I entered the world of UNIX and plain text. Wow, was that a revelation! There was actually such a thing as plain text, for which you used dead simple editors. No bold or italic or underlines. No bullets or margins or fancy fonts. Just pure text. It was powerfully simple. Then there was OpenOffice, the brave underdog that sought to break the Microsoft monopoly by using their own weapon against them: the .doc format. I learned about Microsoft’s monopoly and vendor lockin and dreamed of freedom. So the question was: what do I do with all my accumulated .docs? I wasn’t quite ready to turn them to plain text, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for beautiful displays and I like having nice fonts. I thought about converting all my .docs to .odt — the Open Document Document format and I actually did convert a lot of them. But I didn’t go all the way. There was just no really compelling reason to.
A few years passed during which I really didn’t use Word all that much. I was taking science-heavy courses in school, which meant I really didn’t do much writing. Last year I came to college and I began writing papers in earnest, at least for the first semester. I used OpenOffice on my own computers and Microsoft Office on the college’s lovely Macs. It was then that I started looking at my gripes with Word again. It wasn’t that Word wasn’t a good program. But having to maintain contents by hand and wondering about compatibility issues between different programs and operating systems was simply not something I wanted to deal with.
The solution came thanks to Apple. The Portable Document Format is the native file format for much of OS X and PDFs really look great on Macs. Added to that was the fact was that PDFs looked basically the same on all platforms. OS X also allows you to print directly to a PDF. I’ve recently started handing in papers as PDFs. But the problem was, I was still using Word to actually write my documents and then just printing them to PDF. And PDFs couldn’t easily be edited. So I was still looking for alternatives.
Once again it was plain text that came to the rescue. I’m currently learning to use Latex for all my documents. Latex is not a word processing system like Word, it’s a typesetting system. You write a document as your text and a number of commands to the Latex system. These commands control things like the font, spacing, inserting diagrams and also more complex things like automatically generating headers, bibliographies and tables. It allows you to offload worrying about how things look and are placed on the page to the Latex program and you can concentrate on just writing. Latex is based on a very robust program called Tex, created by one of the greatest computer scientists of our times, Don Knuth. It has been used by decades by mathematicians and other scientists to write papers with all sorts of complicated diagrams and tables.
The wonderful Mactex package lets you write your Latex document and then typeset it directly to a PDF, just the thing I was looking for. I’m just starting to use Mactex for full time writing. I am having a few problems because it is much harder to create a style for Latex than it is to actually use Latex itself, and the included document styles aren’t always quite what you’re looking for. However I hope to be in a position to use Latex for most of my work in a month or so. If you’d like to learn more about Latex, the official documentation page is probably the best place to start. I’ll continue to keep writing about my experience using Latex as a day to day replacement for word. If any of you have successfully dropped Word for something else, please let me know.