What typographical knowledge from LaTeX can I apply in Word?
December 21, 2008 8:23 PM   Subscribe

What typographical knowledge from LaTeX can I apply in Word? My professional field insists upon Word documents, so LaTeX is not an option, and results from LaTeX to Word converters have not been satisfactory. So, what can I teach Word, to make it a better typesetter?

I'm already familiar with the basics of styles and logical formatting. What I want to know is what typographical principles LaTex (or just TeX) uses, so I can replicate that behavior when designing my styles. Some things that TeX knows can't be (easily) replicated in Word (e.g., Knuth-Plass linebreaking), but I'm sure there are other bits of typographical wisdom buried within Tex and LaTeX that would be helpful to know. How much space should one have after a heading, before body text? How much larger should headings be compared to body text? I'm curious how LaTeX decides on these kinds of formatting questions, so I can use that knowledge in my style design.

I realize that there are not unanimous conclusions on these issues; I mention LaTeX because it seems to consider these questions in a fairly intelligent way, and it seems like a good starting point for my own typographical education.
posted by philosophygeek to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Do everything from Word's Styles feature. A pain in the ass and not an option if you're editing somebody else's document, but it's worthwhile.

Justify your margins and add hyphenation.

Don't press Enter twice. Press Enter once and jiggle paragraph spacing in Styles.

Increase line spacing a little to increase readability. Word 2007 defaults to 1.15 (I think), so that's decent, but Word 2003 uses 1, which is usually too low.

Increase left and right margins to increase readability by decreasing line length.

That ends my expertise about LaTeX, but the memoir package documentation does an excellent job talking about book layout theory and practice, most of which applies to regular article layouts. (The memoir package is an attempt to redefine large parts of LaTeX. It's as insane as it sounds, but the author pulled it off.)
posted by shadytrees at 8:44 PM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

ditto shadytrees -- styles from the get-go.
posted by airplain at 8:54 PM on December 21, 2008

The Editorium is your friend. You'll definitely want a couple of their freebies, like the macros for inserting thin and hair spaces. There's also a macro for turning off all the autoformat junk that Word has turned on by default, which definitely helps make the program more palatable. I bet a perusal of the blog/newsletter will turn up lots more useful stuff, too.

How much space should one have after a heading, before body text?
What kind of documents are you editing? How familiar are you with Grid-based design? Having a strong understanding of the (simple, swear) mathematics of building a page grid will help make a lot of this stuff fall into place.
posted by bcwinters at 10:13 PM on December 21, 2008

The more effort you put into making your Word documents beautiful, the more depressed and frustrated you will become

posted by flabdablet at 3:57 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Alternatively you can use something like OpenOffice.org or KOffice which allow you to save documents as word files.

These programs are not typesetters either, but are perhaps more amenable to granting you control instead of trying to keep it at all costs.

From experience you can accomplish quite a lot of customization using custom templates and custom styles in Open Office.
posted by oddman at 5:34 AM on December 22, 2008

When you're talking professional field, are you meaning "documents to send to colleagues" or "stuff sent to publishers for publication"?

Because the answer to your questions is different depending.

If documents for colleagues, the above advice is good, unless these are things you will be collaborating on, in which case all bets are off, because the other people you work with are going to have their copy of Word screw up all of your careful formatting and likely implement the "automatically define styles based on my formatting" BS that largely makes Word suck. If you are sending them ONLY, by all means format away as best you can. If you're collaborating, don't waste your time. (I've tried to do clean-up after the fact in a collaboration before, and it was HORRIBLE - ended up converting entire doc to plain text, then reformatting from scratch to remove all of the clutter of added styles).

If this is stuff sent to publishers for publication, don't know about your field but in mine anything aside from adding bold, italics, and super/subscripting is unnecessary and pointless. The publisher will do all the rest, the only thing you need to send is the text.

In short, if sharing docs, use Styles sparingly, and preferably only at the end when it is in final form. For any other purpose, just use Word as a fancy typewriter and try to pretend you don't know any better method.

A lot of LaTeX users will sneer at those of us using Word, with the same look I probably give to people that use graphical HTML editors. Problem is, ~95% of the people you interact with wouldn't have any idea what to do with a LaTex document if you sent it to them to review. (My dissertation advisor would likely have deleted all of the "weird stuff" I added to the file, which means I'd get it back with all of the formatting markup removed...) Thinking about this realistically you have to admit that LaTeX is overkill for the vast majority of people who need to do word processing. Seriously. Nobody cares about the markup on the church bulletin or weekly office newsletter, and nobody in the secretarial pool cares if the business memo has thin spaces or not. I'm not saying this is a good thing, I'm just saying.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:07 AM on December 22, 2008

Just my opinion.

If you are producing a polished final proof that will be sent to the printer and dupliated in volume pixel for pixel, use something like Scribus, Quark, or InDesign.

If you are submitting something to a journal or periodical that will be heavily edited, sent back to you, edited again, and finally, typeset for publication, give them MSWord using the style guidelines they specify. What they want is a file with minimal markup that can be slurped into Scribus, Quark or InDesign with minimal work.

If you are in academia, just give up on the idea that your papers should look good. You will be expected to deliver a variant of the style demanded by APA, MLA, ACM, etc., etc.. This will be painfully ugly double-spaced copy on one-inch margins, headings signified by bold and italics, and lots of "insert Figure 1 about here" notes. If you are lucky, you can typeset your thesis in this same format using a system that at least understands the proper kerning around an apostrophe.

Editors don't care about whether your text is well-hyphenated, good spacing within lines, rivers of whitespace running through your paragraph, or proper ligatures and kerning. The editor's job is to assess how how much work publishing your text will require. Consistently using styles, avoiding unnecessary line-breaks, and cleaning your text of double-spaces after a period generally make editors happy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:27 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I disagree with that last.

First, it assumes that the only reason someone would use LaTeX is to make purty pages. I stick with it primarily because it doesn't fuck up and eat your work all the myriad ways that Word does. I don't have to worry that Word is going to mysteriously eat all my footnotes, or turn an equation stack into pure gobbledygook. Likewise, I don't have to worry about what formats Office 2015 will read and write correctly, because I have source in plain-jane ascii.

Second, this sort of assumes that you're going straight from idea to submission. But, at least in my field, most papers spend a year or more being dragged around to conferences, where nobody gives a damn what format the files are in or whether they meet some journal's style guide. Here, LaTeX is nice if it better suits your writing style, and it easily converts between paper and presentation. Likewise, at least in my field journals don't care in the slightest what format you submit your paper as -- they don't start caring until the paper is accepted and passed along to the production editor. At which point, fuck it, just dump the LaTeX through latex2rtf.

I'd suggest that if you like LaTeX, just keep writing in that and dump to latex2rtf as needed. At the point that you're dumping, nobody gives a damn what it looks like.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:09 AM on December 22, 2008

Best answer: What I want to know is what typographical principles LaTex (or just TeX) uses, so I can replicate that behavior when designing my styles.

I think the question you're actually asking is "how can I learn that typographical stuff that LaTeX does for me so I can do it by hand in Word or any other program?". And the answer to that is The Elements of Typographical Style.
posted by bonaldi at 8:47 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

That's a lot of "at least in my field" ROU. At least in my field it was pretty much all electronic submission with MSWord expected and RTF and PDF tolerated. Conferences, editors, faculty, colleagues, reviewers and employers all demanded MSWord and were reluctant to deal with PDF.

I'll certainly agree with MSWord's technical shortcomings, so personally I'd rather use Mellel or OpenOffice.org. But in many fields MSWord documents have become a de facto standard and that's not going to change in the next few years.

latex2rtf is really only viable if you use a very limited subset of LaTeX and BibTeX. It fails in ugly ways when dealing with non-standard document classes and BibTeX citation styles. LaTeX on its own has some serious problems for collaboration. If everyone doesn't have the same build environment the results can be ugly.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:16 AM on December 22, 2008

Ok, it seems that latex2rtf now offers limited and admittedly imperfect support for apacite and natbib, which mitigates at least one of my criticisms.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:02 AM on December 22, 2008

My professional field insists upon Word documents
Honestly, and I mean no disrespect to your work, but that doesn't sound very professional.
posted by vsync at 5:59 PM on December 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

You may be shocked to discover that professional work occurs outside of academica math, computer science, and physics departments.
Word is probably the worst piece of widely deployed software ever. I've been relatively impressed with Openoffice.org 3.0 from what I've seen of it so far, and there's a decent chance that (given the bar is so low) oo.org is a better piece of kit.

I still like LaTeX quite a lot, especially for maths and quick templates for pdfs though.

In answer to the OP, I religiously use styles, accept whatever crappy defaults Word gives me, spend quite a lot of time fixing table layouts manually and work in a text editor with markdown wherever possible. Pandoc might be a good middle ground for you, I intend to look at it, myself in time.
posted by singingfish at 12:28 AM on December 23, 2008

Response by poster: If I wanted to pursue the LaTeX -> RTF route, to what subset of LaTeX would I restrict myself in order to improve the chances of successful conversion?
posted by philosophygeek at 5:05 AM on December 23, 2008

b1tr0t, any field where you cannot get work done without buying a certain piece of software seems less like a professional field than an industry niche. There's a difference between "everyone I work with uses this software and I have to exchange documents for editing with them", and "the work I do cannot be done without this piece of software".

People used typewriters for years, and pens for years before that.

Now, as to the ease-of-use argument, I'm not going to go there. I will stipulate that LaTeX may not be the answer for all. But Word certainly isn't it either.
posted by vsync at 9:19 PM on December 23, 2008

I'd say collaboration is the major issue here. If your writing solo, you may always send the journals both pdf and latex. If you start solo, you can always convert using tex2word if you add coauthors. But I can't imagine converting back & forth between latex & word repeatedly.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:12 AM on April 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

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