Should I be using LaTex instead of MS Word?
November 13, 2007 10:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm currently writing a novel. Should I use LaTex instead of MS Word?

I've been writing a novel this month, and found some stuff online about LaTex and Lyx. I've gotten tired of constantly wrestling with styles and formatting in Word and OpenOffice.

So I have a few questions for the MeFi community:

1. Is it worth it to learn LaTex if I'm doing non-scientific and non-academic writing?

2. What are some good resources to help learn how to get started?

3. What exactly is the difference between LaTex and Lyx?

4. Is there a way to be able to modify my LaTex output in MS Word if needed? This might come in handy if I'm at another person's machine and don't have LaTex/Lyx installed.

5. I've heard about templates in LaTex. Are these strictly for academic use or are there templates for regular documents like letters, resumes, etc.

Thanks for all your help!
posted by reenum to Technology (41 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
In point of fact, if you're writing a novel, you probably shouldn't be bothering with styles and formatting at all. Linebreaks, italics, and bold, and you're done. Writing means words, not formatting them.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:04 AM on November 13, 2007


1. No, not really.
2. The Wikibooks article taught me everything I know.
3. Lyx lets you use Latex style formatting without knowledge of Latex.
4. Yep. Latex is like HTML. You can use any text editor/ word processor to mess with it.
5. There are templates for everything, but again Latex wasn't really designed for letters and the like.
posted by dkleinst at 10:07 AM on November 13, 2007


As far as I understand it, LaTex is essentially a loose collection of tools that let you edit raw text and then turn that into really beautifully prepared, gorgeous looking documents.

As said above, if you're writing a novel, you don't need this. Be aware also that in the fiction world, MS Word is the standard for exchanging working manuscripts with editors. You have really basic formatting needs when you're preparing a fiction manuscript.

If you're on Mac, I heartily recommend Scrivener as a drafting tool.

To be honest, you could draft in Notepad for all the difference it makes. Futzing around with tools is just futzing around with tools, and if anything, learning to use LaTeX is just a really, really good way to avoid writing and get even more hung up on formatting.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:12 AM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Seconding Tomorrowful.

To answer your questions in order.

1. No.

2. http://www.maths.tcd.ie/~dwilkins/LaTeXPrimer/

3. Lyx is kind of like a WYSIWIG LaTex. Sorta.

4. You can, but you would probably be better off using a vanilla text editor.

5. Most are for academic use, but there are others, but are not really worth it.
posted by nedpwolf at 10:13 AM on November 13, 2007


1. Yes, if you're the kind of person that likes to work this way. You will have pain interfacing with other people though, it's not as common outside academia.

2. The Not So Short Introduction to Latex2e (pdf). After that, Lamport's book.

3. LyX is essentialy a graphical front-end for LaTeX - I haven't used it, don't know much about it.

4. Some hacks existed last time I checked, but you're asking for trouble. Don't do this.

5. The base templates (called classes in LaTeX) are called article, report and book. There's lots more, most (if not all) of it free. You can roll your own, but it's best to leave that for later, when you have more experience.
posted by the number 17 at 10:13 AM on November 13, 2007


If you're writing a novel with a David Foster Wallace-esque number of footnotes, LaTeX might be useful. Otherwise, it's pretty much a wash between LaTeX and any other word processor—and I say this as someone who would never use anything other than LaTeX for all his academic writing needs.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:20 AM on November 13, 2007


I use LaTeX a lot, but I don't think I'd use it for this. Nor would I use Word -- I've seen it eat long documents way too often. I spent a terrible weekend rescuing an entire finished novel from its binary document format.

I'd just get a nice text editor you're comfortable with, and use that. And make backups. Then some more.

Someone else is going to be paid to worry about how the novel looks, and both LaTeX and Word are somewhat focused on presentation.

There's always emacs
posted by bonaldi at 10:20 AM on November 13, 2007


bonaldi is spot on, I just deleted my entire follow-up comment on preview.

But do use emacs
posted by the number 17 at 10:23 AM on November 13, 2007


I second Scrivener if you've got a Mac--I love it.
Currently writing a graphic novel script in it and the layout is fantastic for jotting down ideas, rearranging snippets, etc!

If I didn't have Scrivener I'd just use TextEdit or Notepad though honestly.
posted by actionpact at 10:23 AM on November 13, 2007


I'm sure you're aware that you're just procrastinating by worrying about this. Go write something. On the back of butcher paper with a piece of charcoal, if that's all you can get. Transcribing it prettily is a trivial matter by comparison to generating actual content.
posted by Coventry at 10:32 AM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I can't imagine trying to write anything substantial with Word, I'd go mad.

I've used LaTeX for pretty well everything I've written since high school. The main thing is just focus on your writing, not the formatting. Using chapters/section in LaTeX can be helpful, but anything more is just taking time away from your actual writing.

I tend to use a basic text editor, either vi or gedit depending on the day, with separate files for each major section / chapter that I then include into a master LaTeX file that handles the preamble and basic formatting bits.
posted by jjb at 10:42 AM on November 13, 2007


Again not directly answering the question, but here is a review of 14 word processors. I guess you would particularly want to take note of how well they handle large documents, and .doc exporting.
posted by wilko at 10:43 AM on November 13, 2007


I love LaTeX to pieces, as my replies to previous LaTeX questions might indicate.

1. No.
2. Someone who already uses TeX is the best resource.
3. LyX makes (arguably bad) LaTeX. LaTeX is a typesetting engine that converts source code into finished, typeset documents; LyX is a sort-of-WYSIWYG program that generates source code behind the scenes.
4. Yes (latex2rtf), but it's messy, and it *won't* do anything to the source to your document.
5. There are templates (classes and styles, in TeXspeak) for everything from articles in specific academic journals to letters to Klingon calendars.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:44 AM on November 13, 2007


I've been typesetting and designing books for 10 years and I will tell you this:

please don't format. we're going to strip it all out anyway. If you must, use italics. But no bolds, please. section headers, small cap leaders, formatting etc. will all be decided by the publisher and are all defined by a number of other things (paper, ink, font, binding, color, cost, audience, marketing, etc).

i can guarantee you that 99% of the formatting you do will be removed prior to typesetting.
posted by luriete at 10:56 AM on November 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


If you intend to submit the novel to agents and/or trade publishing houses, they will have no idea what to do with a LaTex document. Word is standard. RTF is fine, too. If formatting is somehow essential to your presentation, PDF it, but have a Word or RTF file available for copyediting. On preview, luriete has it. If you must indicate special formatting, tag it up for structure, not presentation.
posted by libraryhead at 11:04 AM on November 13, 2007


hey, for novels try scrivener.

you'll never want to use word again.
posted by krautland at 11:10 AM on November 13, 2007


Use whatever you want, but when it's time to show it to a publisher, strip out all the formatting except underlining and page numbers, and save it as a double-spaced Word document. Anything else guarantees that the first reaction of any editor evaluating your manuscript will be annoyance.
posted by gum at 11:24 AM on November 13, 2007


Scrivener seems wonderful. I'm going to do my next book with it. Keeps notes and outlining and links all in one place. And you can have two windows with different text open.

Jer's Novel Writer looks fun, too.

Playing with software, ie procrastinating, is the essence of writing novels.
posted by jennydiski at 12:03 PM on November 13, 2007


Well, it seems like the overwhelming majority of the folks here think LaTex is a bad idea for a novelist like me.

So, let me twist the question a little bit:

1. Which text editors are the most stable, meaning won't crash if I have huge documents?

2. Are there any that have an auto-save function? This is a big plus for me with OpenOffice right now. I'd hate to be typing for 2 hours, forget to save, and then lose thousands of words as a result.
posted by reenum at 12:21 PM on November 13, 2007


P.S. I'd love to use Scrivener, but I'm sadly on a Windows PC.
posted by reenum at 12:22 PM on November 13, 2007


I wrote a 15 page paper for Old Testament in LaTeX, back when I was a sophomore BME/EE major. That was dumb as hell.

However, if you need to include a lab report in your epilogue or something, yeah, use LaTeX.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 12:40 PM on November 13, 2007


God, no.

I'd go with Word and save each chapter as a file (I did this with my 350+ page dissertation. A good alternate would be TextMaker.

But don't waste time learning LaTex--you'll just end up delaying your writing.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:47 PM on November 13, 2007


Have you given yWriter a look?

I'm using it for National Novel Writing Month this year, and it's pretty handy. In addition to text editing, you can do outlines with it, character sketches, multiple scenes in chapters, scene summaries and all sorts of other handy stuff, and it'll autosave if you want it to.
posted by cog_nate at 12:57 PM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I would use OpenOffice and do some serious automated backups, with SyncBack or something else. The main problem I see with Word for novel writing isn't lack of features (it has too many) or a cluttered interface (you can pare it down nicely), but instability and insane file formats. Avoid those problems.
posted by tmcw at 1:03 PM on November 13, 2007


If you're going to be publishing it yourself then you will want the kind of structure and styling that LaTeX gives you. As others say though if you're sending it to a publisher then they'll discard that formatting, so you should only add as much structure as you'll need for your own use.

1. If you're making structured text that's getting large and unwieldy, yes. I think that this is the case as you're saying that you find styles in MSWord/OOo awkward then I suspect you'll appreciate the control. It's not as user friendly, and it will take a while to learn, but it will soon make sense.

4. Not in the way that you probably mean. You can't write arbitrary LaTeX and then view that as formatted text in MS Word and then convert that back to LaTeX ("format roundtripping" as they call it). There are tools out there that claim to do this but they're only using a lowest common denominator of features between the two so compare features and see whether that's workable for you. (note: although MSWord can view the plaintext of LaTeX files it's not like MSWord would be anything more than a glorified notepad when used this way, and so it's not worth considering).


...mostly though we're all guessing about how much structure you need based on the term novelist. If your future novel will have a lot of footnotes or math or any features that LaTeX has an OOo/MSWord doesn't then LaTeX would be a good idea. Otherwise, it might be overkill. You'll need to go into some detail about the document structure for us to really understand your requirements.
posted by holloway at 1:11 PM on November 13, 2007


1. Which text editors are the most stable, meaning won't crash if I have huge documents?

I've used OpenOffice.org an average of maybe five hours a day (75% Linux, 25% Windows versions) since early 2005 and do not recall it crashing or corrupting a file, ever.

That said, I'd still break a novel down to chapter-sized files, for editing speed more than for safety. Make one huge document at the very, very, very end (right after you strip out all the fanciful formatting to create the plain manuscript an evaluator wants) -- or knit the component files together using whatever they're calling a Master Document nowadays.

(I remember Word 6 and Word 1997 crashing and wrecking files, but used Word 2000 and Word 2003 a lot before moving to OpenOffice.org. I don't recall crash problems with these later versions, either.)
posted by gum at 1:17 PM on November 13, 2007


"1. Which text editors are the most stable, meaning won't crash if I have huge documents?"

I've opened log files going into the hundreds of megabytes with Vim.
posted by PenDevil at 1:30 PM on November 13, 2007


if (still) in doubt... try asking on the typesetters forum
posted by lapsang at 2:00 PM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Apparently 5 megabytes is enough to store the works of shakespeare, so hundreds is a little overkill ;)

Pepper can open gigabytes of text.. unfortunately that software was discontinued.
posted by holloway at 2:03 PM on November 13, 2007


if you are planning to submit this to a publisher, you should NOT be using latex. just plain word. just plain text. don't format stuff with auto-outlining or auto-numbering. bold and italic are fine, no underlining. etc.

if it ever gets published all formatting will be stripped out anyway, and style files applied (much like css, if you know anything about that).

now, if you're writing for a scientific publisher....
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:52 PM on November 13, 2007


Keep in mind the latest version of Office can output PDF files.
posted by jeffamaphone at 4:38 PM on November 13, 2007


It’s a bad idea to use LaTeX to write a novel. Here’s a blog post by Kieran Healy from the Crooked Timber website explaining what happened when he tried submitting his manuscript to the University of Chicago Press in LaTex format—they don’t accept LaTex format documents. Converting LaTex documents to MS Word format seems pretty hellish. You should just stick to MS Word or Open Office. MS Word is really stable and everyone will accept MS Word documents.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 5:08 PM on November 13, 2007


Very interesting, Jasper. I've also taken luriete's comment to heart.

I guess I'll look into perhaps just using OpenOffice and generating a text file for my manuscript. If I don't have to mess with the formatting, I won't.

One question for the creative writers here: If you send in a manuscript and have dialogue in there, do you have to indent said dialogue? Or is it just left unformatted, save for the apostrophes?
posted by reenum at 5:54 PM on November 13, 2007


Also, I was looking at emacs. Is it required that I learn the commands that seem to be associated with it, or can it function as a pure text editor, a la Notepad?
posted by reenum at 5:57 PM on November 13, 2007


For people who are used to “modern” mouse-and-menu-based software, programs like Emacs and vi are difficult to use. You have to remember a lot of weird key combinations. Heavy use of Emacs can even lead to the dreaded Emacs Pinky. MS Windows comes with two editors, NotePad and WordPad. Both are good for typing lots of text. Unfortunately, neither has a spellchecker. If you’re worried about being distracted by all of formatting options inside of MS Word, just turn off all of the toolbars and you’ll just have one piece of paper in front of you (but you can still spell check). You can buy add-on software (usually in the $20 range) that’ll autosave your MS Word documents based on the time interval you want.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 6:43 PM on November 13, 2007


Converting LaTex documents to MS Word format seems pretty hellish.

It's not. latex2rtf will do it just fine if you use plain-vanilla latex.

Its output will be ugly, but by that point in the editorial process it's no longer relevant.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:06 PM on November 13, 2007


... what happened when he tried submitting his manuscript to the University of Chicago Press in LaTex format—they don’t accept LaTex format documents.

For what it's worth, the U of C Press is now moving towards using LaTeX; I road-tested a custom class that they were cooking up about a year ago. I don't know if they're actually using it yet, though. You're probably still better off doing it in plaintext.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:37 PM on November 13, 2007


My friend works for a huge textbook publishing company. She has several authors whose work she supervises. Some of them use LaTeX. Whenever she say LaTeX she sighs. Apparently LaTeX has some visual property that book designers despise. I don't know what it is, and she is unable to express it verbally, but she's convinced that it's awful.

Now, I personally like LaTeX a lot. But for something without even one greek letter I would use OpenOffice.

Don't use Word. I've been on committees that created large specifications for Software. The problems with Word are enormous for anything more complicated than a letter to your grandmother.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 10:04 PM on November 13, 2007


Write it in whatever format you like. Then when it's time to send it in to a publisher, provide it in ASCII text, RTF, Word, LaTeX, and whatever else floats your boat.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:47 PM on November 13, 2007


Adding to the chorus: produce your manuscripts in whatever text editor feels comfortable. (I'm a TextMate user on OSX.) Presentation is important at this stage only to the extent that it helps you get writing done; if you can't bear to look at the screen then, y'know, you won't. I find fullscreen editors helpful - they take away distractions. Others feel otherwise, unsurprisingly. Worry about manuscript later. It'll be pretty easy to convert a document from your homebrew markup to SlushPileMarkupLanguage later.

Have you considered writing longhand?

Good luck writing!
posted by waxbanks at 5:35 AM on November 14, 2007


Thanks everyone!

@waxbanks: I normally write my first drafts longhand, but with NaNoWriMo, that's proven to be impossible.
posted by reenum at 5:02 PM on November 14, 2007


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