Posted on Tue 06 November 2018

Read Time: 8 minutes

LaTeX in a Humanities World

Let’s talk about LaTeX for a second. WAIT! Come back! I know we’re going deep into techcomm nerdom for this one, but I think it’s worth talking about. I’ll try not to get too lost in the details, and I promise that this isn’t going to be me telling that the way you write is wrong. I like LaTeX, a lot, but our tools have to be able to adapt to fit our use cases. I’m not sure it does that. LaTeX presents certain challenges to what have become typical strategies for writing and editing documents. This is especially true when it comes to writing documents outside of traditional STEM disciplines. Which is, primarily, what I do.

LaTeX is, essentially, a open system of tools for typesetting and text formatting. It can be a powerful resource for writers and editors. While intimidating at first, once you get a feel for it and the sense of control you have over your page, it is hard to go back. I still remember compiling my first document and thrilling at how everything was exactly where I told it to be. Then I discovered that I was just on the tip of a massive iceberg of writing options. LaTeX has a phenomenal group of contributors and developers that only adds to its capabilities. There are plugins and tools for almost every edge case and even collaborative editors if that kind of writing is what you prefer.

So, yes, LaTeX is kind of awesome.

What’s Wrong With Word Processors?

Nothing. If you like them, use them. This is going to be a refrain you see a lot from me. I’ve never been interested in trying to tell people that their way of creating and writing is wrong. That is not the goal of this post. I do think there are ways to improve on the work we do, but we all need to start from the point at which we are comfortable. If using a word processor works for you then I encourage you to use it1. Get out there and make interesting and amazing things because that is what the goal is here.

I also want to encourage you to experiment with your processes, though. Test out new systems and tools and have an open mind. In many of my classes, that is what I try to encourage, a sort of open experimentation with tools and form. Writing, even technical writing, is a craft. We improve through practice and exploration.

As far as those tools go, word processors have always been a challenge for me and my approach to writing. When I write I often feel like I am developing a block of clay. The first step of this work is to lay out the ideas and the concepts that I want to work with and trouble in some way. As I write, the text accumulates and gathers. Some of that text is great and some of it is absolute garbage. That’s okay. That’s the point of the initial writing. I want to get the ideas out there on the page. Once I have enough to work with, usually a section, an article, or a chapter, I begin to shape the work. I revise and whole pages and paragraphs change or disappear. Ideas shift and move and those concepts that I was playing with (I hope) become more apparent and concise. As I move through these passes, I begin to shape the appearance of the text as much as I shape the words. I identify places for section headers, create tables, add in citation markers, and determine margin and font needs. These elements are part of the craft of writing. They matter.

They don’t happen first, though. I don’t start with titles and citations and formats. I start with text. I was thinking of Daniel Allington’s critique of what he calls the LaTeX fetish and I always felt that was one of the greater flaws in his argument. He assumes that those of us who write in LaTeX add in those elements as we go because that is what word processors encourage us to do. I would argue that he was using a word processor mindset while writing in LaTeX. Shockingly enough, that doesn’t work very well. I am sure some people do edit LaTeX formatting as they go. I don’t, though. For me, I want the text first2. I may leave a small marker where I think formatting is needed, but if I add in a title or a section header before the text is done, it is absolutely going to change. For me, titles and sections describe content and therefore they follow that content.

When I do work with the formatting, I want it to be flexible and powerful. LaTeX wins here, hands down. I’ve spent a lot of time working with styles in a variety of word processors and layout and design programs. Frankly, except for InDesign (which has other issues3), I don’t really like any of them. MS Word all but forces its styles on you and any attempt to customize those styles usually require wandering through a whole series of modal pop-ups and configuration dialog boxes. LibreOffice is catching up, but they have some annoying quirks that can make basic structural work far more difficult than it should be. None of that configuration is easy. LaTeX can be complex, but let’s not pretend that these word processors are any easier in that regard. They all have a learning curve. Of course, you can just use the defaults. That is what most people do, and that is fine if that works for you. It doesn’t for me. As I mentioned above, formatting is a part of my writing process. The font, the sections, the title, and the document structure all contribute to the work.

Challenges and Considerations

All of this is great when I am writing for myself or when I have control over publication. I usually edit the text in my favorite text editor at the time. I then manage my revisions via version control (usually git) so I don’t have a ton of documents to track. Version control also means that I also don’t have to worry about losing my tracked changes along the way. After a few revision passes, I compile the text and the review it outside of the editor. This gives me a fresh view and lets me catch mistakes that I might have missed, otherwise. I am a big believer in printing and proofing, or at least in publishing to an output format (pdf, etc) and reviewing for issues before finalizing anything4. This is true regardless of the editor or word processor I am using.

This is my preferred way to work. I rarely get to work this way, though. Much of the work I do is meant to be edited and reviewed by others. If I am lucky, they will take my pdf output. If I am working with a co-author or with an organization that only takes a docx format, though, I am stuck. LaTeX has never played well with word processors, and I don’t think that is going to change despite Overleaf’s admirable attempts.

I just ran into this issue with my dissertation. My committee chair has been a great about supporting my writing approach, but it’s been difficult for him to review my work they way he would like. He would prefer a Word document to comment on. When I did try to convert LaTeX to Word, it was almost always a disaster. The best luck I had was converting to pdf and then using Adobe Acrobat to convert the file to Word. That was a lot of steps, required two paid applications (and Windows), meant extra work, and it still had formatting issues. I had to accept that to actually make things work using LaTeX was going to take me way too much time.

To resolve this, I adopted a common middle-ground approach: Markdown and Pandoc. Pandoc is one of the best tools for writers who need to balance between different input and output formats.

Using it does have some real benefits:

  • Citations are actually easier via BibTeX and Markdown than they are in LaTeX because of Pandoc’s support for CSL
  • Markdown documents are easier to read and edit and I can use Ghostwriter or Uberwriter5 to write which I like a lot.
  • I have a lot of flexibility in terms of input and output formats.
  • I make my committee chair happy and this is good for everyone involved!

That said, the drawbacks are frustrating.

  • I lose a lot of the power of LaTeX formatting in the development process.
  • I have zero support for anything more than simple tables.
  • When I export from Pandoc to Word, I still need to set up a Word template for it to be truly effective.

Luckily, the template can be rather straightforward as I don’t need to change much of Pandoc’s default for basic review. Unfortunately, to actually finalize output, I am probably going to have to set up LaTeX templates for conversion. The good news is that I am not the first to do this. There are some excellent examples and git repositories out there that can aid in developing that conversion. It just adds a level of complexity that I could avoid if I was writing everything in LaTeX from the start. As it is, none of that is too onerous, though, and at least I am able to focus on the work the way I need.

Do I recommend LaTeX for Humanities work? I do. I like LaTeX a lot, and I am glad to have it in my arsenal of tools. When I can use it, I almost always do. A lot of my personal documents are LaTeX managed. My CV is built off of the AwesomeCV template which I then customized to fit my needs, my job hunting documentation uses that base format to maintain uniformity across all my documents6. LaTex has been invaluable in that process.

We need to be careful, though. Becoming locked in to a system can be a problem even when that system is open and freely-available. I may like LaTeX, but I understand that it is not an easy or accessible platform. Most people never get a chance to work with it. Demanding a single format or tool, whether that is LaTeX or MS Word, is never a good idea. I want my work to be accessible. I want to be able to work with people who use word processors just as much as I want to work with people using text editors. Tools like pandoc, make that possible. I would love to see and will always push for more LaTeX support from Humanities scholars. I acknowledge, though, that to push for those changes I first need to be able to contribute. For me, LaTeX will always be an option, but never a requirement.


  1. I highly suggest using LibreOffice 

  2. This is also why for shorter and less complex documents, I was already using Markdown and Pandoc. I focus on the text with only a brief markup for headers, etc. 

  3. To be fair, InDesign is a solid program. Of course, you have the cash and be willing to give Adobe control over whether or not you can publish/edit your content. I am not a fan of locking content into rented applications. 

  4. That is why these posts sometimes have issues. They are difficult to review off-screen.  

  5. Markdown editors pop up and then die way too fast. It’s nice to see UberWriter development happening again especially with no updates to Ghostwriter in a few months. Both are solid Markdown editors for Linux, though. 

  6. I’ll do a full walkthrough of my job hunting process later this week as I have more applications to push out, anyway. 

Author: Geoff Gimse

Category: technology

Tags: LaTeX, word, writing-tools

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