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I asked my Calculus Professor for a recommendation. He said,

"Sure. No problem. But write me an essay about yourself and since you're a computer guy, do it in LaTeX."

Now I've never used LaTeX before and I'm not sure why he asked me to do it this way (except for he was being cheeky). As far as I see it, it's just a standard essay. What are your thoughts on using LaTeX to enhance my writing, maybe for emphasis/fancy formatting, or would it detract from what I'm actually trying to say? I've contemplated just doing in in Word and not responding to his jibe at all, but I'm curious to see how he responds when I turn in a .tex file.


I gave him a normal document, but threw in an inline command as a joke. I really enjoyed reading some of your responses, and I decided to join the TeX exchange to actually learn some LaTeX. Thanks guys


I'd upvote you all, but lack the reputation. Sorry

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I think you should be really cheeky and write it in binary. I mean, you're a computer guy, right? –  Lauren Ipsum Dec 10 '13 at 19:47
The LaTeX recommendation had to be because it was developed for formatting equations prettily, something a calculus prof would appreciate and possibly assume was too complicated for anyone who was not a computer person to do. –  KitFox Dec 12 '13 at 2:34

5 Answers 5

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Using LaTeX is unlikely to enhance your writing (or to detract either, as long as you start out with a complete and properly-formatted example LaTeX file and merely add your paragraphs separated by two linefeeds). Generally the LaTeX process should have little effect on the writing quality, but if you aren't familiar with LaTeX commands you may initially spend quite a while web-searching for answers. Note that if you plan to publish mathematics papers, or in some cases computer science papers, knowledge of LaTeX is valuable and for some journals is essential.

Commonly, LaTeX systems are not WYSIWYG and do not include an editor. Some LaTeX systems are WYSIWYG, and if you have to see how your text looks on the page as you type it, you may need to seek out such a system. That aside, the editor that you use is likely to have the most impact on how you feel about the process, because after the initial learning speed bumps you will spend most of your time interacting with the editor rather than with LaTeX itself.

While LaTeX can emphasize text via boldface and italics, underlining is problematic. LaTeX also can be used for fancy formatting but that is best left for people with years or decades of experience, or for people who don't mind begging in tex.stackexchange or at other LaTeX sites.

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LaTeX for writing books - especially for writing scientific books, with equations or technical drawings - is what HTML is to writing webpages. It's a metalanguage which will get your formatting right, it allows you to write complex equations fluently, moving sections of text will not make the whole thing collapse terribly, and while for things like an essay it's overkill, once your book on Calculus crosses 70 pages mark in MS Word, you will begin understanding why LaTeX would have been a better choice.

In short, in most WYSIWYG editors, and notoriously MS Word, scalability (in the computational meaning) is a serious problem; once your document is big enough things that should happen "automagically" don't, or happen well past the moment you've taken steps to mitigate their lack (and only got disastrous results) or happen halfway, or appear on screen but not on printout... The bigger and more complex your document, the less reliably the editor behaves.

LaTeX suffers none of these problems. A rendering run may take longer or shorter, but the product won't differ in quality whether it has 10 or 1000 pages and 10 or 1000 equations, pictures, footnotes, margin notes, font changes or nested tables. Sure, instead of seeing the result "immediately" on screen you just type \arcane_code{your text} but you may be sure what you see in preview will appear just the same in print. And LaTeX has thousands of "arcane codes", of which quite a few you will need to learn before you get to write your first essay. Still, once you do learn them, this will help you in your career.

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LaTeX is a fantastic piece of software. I do all my text writing in it - papers, letters, etc.

People are known to get totally addicted to it. Wander over to tex.stackexchange.com, and you'll find lots of such people there.

There is some overhead involved in learning it. However, this overhead is mostly caused by things like graphics and mathematics. A personal essay should not have any of these unless you are a graphics artist or a mathematical researcher. And if you were the latter you would already know LaTeX. :-) For a personal essay, the minimal level of markup required is trivial; just the beginning and end bits, which look as follows:


\title{my title}

some stuff


See? Nothing to it. Put this in a text file called something.tex, and then do pdflatex something.tex and you get a something.pdf. Of course you need a LaTeX distribution installed, but if you are using a sensible OS like any of the Linux-based OS's, that is a piece of cake.

I think your professor may be having a little joke, or maybe he just wanted to see if you would show some initiative. Regardless, I recommend you follow his suggestion, and turn in a LaTeX file. Even if it is a bit rough, he should be impressed. Make sure to mention you've never used LaTeX before.

The people at tex.sx are very friendly. If you need help, go and talk to them. Chat is a good way. If you have questions, make sure to check the site first to make sure it has not already been answered.

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The most natural way to write is writing "surface text": text that looks the way you want it to look.

If you want to emphasize a word, you want to see it emphasized. Because that is the text you are writing.

LaTeX (or HTML or the markup behind a Word document) are not text. They are commands that tell an interpreting software what the text should be.

You don't live in a blueprint, you live in a house. You don't eat a recipe, you eat a meal. Similar, readers don't read markup, they read the text the browser or printer creates from that markup.

From a writer's point of view, markup is something that stands between you and your text. Working on a passage of

The cake was \emph{huge} for a cup cake.

feels very different from working on

The cake was huge for a cup cake.

I feel that my writing process should let me work on the surface of my text. My software must hide the markup from me. That doesn't mean that I don't use LaTeX, only that I use it after I finished writing. For example, I might write my mathematical formula on a paper, label it with "Formula 3" and note in my Word document: "insert Formula 3 here". Later I copy-paste the text from Word into a text editor and mark it up in TaTeX, inserting the formulas.

Learning LaTeX is great, if you want to use LaTeX to create documents. It is counterproductive for the writing process and no writer needs it for writing.

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Check out lyx. It looks a lot like a normal word processor, but creates LaTex documents and has a lot of things like desktop publishing features in it as well.

I don't use it, but it would probably do exactly what you needed here.

I don't know what it would do with equations, but I wouldn't be surprised if it handled them nicely as well.

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