In my previous post I discussed some of the software choices I’ve made for working on a PhD thesis. This evening I spent a bit of time researching the pros and cons of using various document markup languages for taking a raw text and styling it (or typesetting). The main one that intrigued me is called LaTeX (styled as you see in the picture). It is commonly used for preparing mathematical texts for publication (e.g., the University of California, Berkeley Math department requires PhD Theses to be submitted in .pdf format, and recommends using LaTeX to do so). Notice the following complex mathematical formula which LaTeX nicely styles:
That pretty formula is really a complex code which is “interpreted” as we see it above (think “html”).
What’s the Use?
One of the goals behind LaTeX, other markup languages, and even programs like Scrivener, is to enable the writer to focus purely on creating a text prior to and apart from styling a text. In Microsoft Word, for example, we usually style the text as we compose it. We format headings. We format footnotes. We format block quotes, tables, etc., as we write. For some, keeping the composition raw–to be styled at a later time, mind you!–is a purer form of writing.
I like the concept because I think that it has the potential to bring together advantages of Old School writing (e.g., taking notes with ink and paper, composing drafts by hand without worrying about formatting, etc.) with the amazing time-saving technology available to us (e.g., compiling lists and bibliographies, filing research digitally which is easy to retrieve, styling documents which are print-ready, etc.).
Those who prefer LaTeX seem to me to have very little to say about its disadvantages and much about its benefits. It comes with a pretty sizable learning curve (which I believe explains why its users adamantly recommend it–they’ve already invested so much time into it), and I personally cannot see learning it worth my time given my current goals. I can see some value for nice typesetting of various languages within a single text (e.g., an article which contains quotations of biblical Hebrew and Greek, Syriac, or whatever).
LaTeX can compile bibliographies and indexes somewhat automatically–a feature that merits its staying somewhere on the back burner of my mind. It’s also open source and free. Many front-end programs are available to help make LaTeX more usable and convert documents to various formats. Scrivener, a program I plan to use for at lease the early composition phases of my thesis, is able to export texts into LaTeX (via MultiMarkDown, another markup language), so perhaps I’ll play around with it and change my mind on its value.