“Learning LaTeX – Why should you care?” Series Part 1: Common Objections against learning LaTeX

Since some common objections why some people think learning LaTeX is not worth it or why the oppose LaTeX generally came up again in the Twitter discussion surrounding the recent post LaTeX for Philosophers? Logic and other Shenannigans, I quickly wanted to discuss the three most common objections agains LaTeX (in my experience) and why I think they’re not necessarily valid. Let’s get straight to it!

1) The “I can’t both be a good [insert job title/area of expertise here] AND spend time learning to code” aka the “LaTeX is hard to learn” objection

A common argument used against LaTeX, not only in the Humanities, is “I already need all my energy being good at my job and now you want me to learn a new technology to distract me from it?”, like expressed in the following Tweet. But it’s really an extremely common one. 

The argument is interesting to me because you also had to learn how to use a computer, how to navigate the jungle that MS Word can be (if you use anything but the most basic features). So I’m thinking that anybody who managed that should have the intellectual ability to just as easily learn LaTeX.

I think people just get scared because they’re used to WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editors whereas LaTeX “looks like code”. It’s got nothing to do with any (informed) understanding that LaTeX is actually “hard to learn” or will take a lot of time to learn.

Just to inform anybody who’s afraid of coding:

  1. First of all, coding isn’t all that scary and basically anybody can learn it. I think the biggest obstacle is people blocking their minds to it because they’re afraid or have the (mostly unfounded) preconception that for some unspecified reason, they won’t good at it.
  2. Second of all, while I strongly argue that LaTeX can be programming – I also want to stress that LaTeX doesn’t have to be programming/coding. If you just use the basic functionality, it’s really quite programming free and can be learnt in 3 minutes (really! honestly! see my post on Jumpstarting: Learn LaTeX in 3min). 

I mean, I get it – you’re overworked. We all are. But maybe that’s why you should take some time for yourself to invest in your skills to learn one skill which will serve you for a lifetime. LaTeX might be old (see objection 3) but that also means it’s not going anywhere.

Time-conscious-productivity manifestos like Deep Work or Make Time or even The Slow Professor suggest you do just that. Add one great tool to your arsenal instead of wasting time on Twitter – learn the art and craft of TeX/LaTeX!

2) The “But I need to submit / get comments as .docx” objection

The second most common – and much more justified – worry is that many people in the Humanities expect you to submit documents as MS Word .docx formats. This is true. But…

There are ways around it and you do get used to it very quickly.

However, I give you that: This is an argument against LaTeX – but in my experience, it’s much less of a problem than you might think once you make the switch.

A one-way conversion from LaTeX to MS Word is easy (see my post How to quit MS Word for good for the how-to) and mostly, if you need to submit as .docx, you don’t necessarily need to re-transform it to LaTeX.

Or, when you get suggestions in Word or Google Docs comments, you need to reflect upon them anyway and shouldn’t just “accept all”. For documents where it doesn’t matter so much, maybe the document will leave your LaTeX-based writing ecosystem at this point anyway. Like when I submit a paper, usually all the corrections are done in Word-formats and handed to the printer / typesetter like this (who, in the case of many online publications, will actually retransform it to LaTeX in the end, by the way! Rule of thumb: If the resulting PDF looks good, it probably comes from LaTeX). 

I will soon do a video for InfoDiTeX with a short intro to LaTeX, reasons why you should care and workarounds for said conversion problem which I’ll link here when it’s ready!

3) Oh and an all-time favourite, the “Didn’t all the users of LaTeX already die out?”, i.e. “LaTeX is soooo old and nobody uses it!” objection

This beauty also came up in the philosophers’ thread but I remember it being discussed very publicly by some relatively young professor who was like “Now I need to use this ancient LaTeX bullshit because otherwise my students won’t take me seriously as a tech authority” or something among those lines.

Like I said in some tweet: LaTeX might be old. But so is the automobile. Would you rather not use cars anymore because the automobile was invented a long time ago?

Maybe the fact that it’s still around means that a) it was a cool invention and b) people are still using it / there still is a demand because it’s good?

Which both are true for TeX/LaTeX! Especially if you’re in tech or you’re a friend of Deep Work: Knuth’s invention has often been praised for being a work of art (he also wrote The Art of Computer Programming though). Yes, it’s “old” (whatever that means). It was invented in 1978. Were you? 

I’m suspecting many of the people who drag the “LaTeX is old” objection out at every possible occasion are actually older than that. And even if they’re not:

Do you want to stop using the internet or even computers in general because they were invented before you were conceived? I think not. And it shows just how ridiculous an argument that one is!

List of other common accusations.. ehm arguments against LaTeX

I’ll start this little list of resources with just what came to mind and what I could find quickly (the argument of the young (I think even computer science!) professor on Twitter was nowhere to be found – maybe someone has a link?). Please contribute the link you know of!

  1. Blog post The LaTeX fetish (Or: Don’t write in LaTeX! It’s just for typesetting) with a lot of controversial discussion in the comments. I think this is maybe what lots of people are referring to and it has many common arguments. I think the main problem is that more general technical inferiority/superiority complexes are being projected onto LaTeX by people who seem to have some self-esteem issues. I personally find the “rage” which is usually part of these arguments a bit… well, too much. It’s about a typesetting system you can choose to use or not, after all. Not about abolishing freedom of speech or something actually horrible.
  2. Craft beautiful equations in Word with LaTeX from Nature/Toolbox discusses Allingtons ‘LaTeX fetish’ argument but is pro-LaTeX.
  3. Indiebio’s Is LaTeX worth learning? which argues that no, it isn’t. I wonder why nobody every asks that about anything else, like Word or Python? Why does LaTeX have this stigma that it’s apparently so hard and time-consuming to learn? This is unfounded predjudice, in my opinion. Because it totally ignores the fact that evey new gadget or technology has to be learned and people already learned all the technologies they already know. The argument makes it seem like only LaTeX takes time to learn, yet minimizes the benefit to be gained from investing the time, in my honest opinion.
  4. Discussion: LaTeX: Is it the Standard for Scientific Document Preparation?
  5. Please send me stuff you know of!

Conclusion and Resources

So, that’s it for today. I hope this helped – and as always, if you are (or have now become) a willing noobie of LaTeX, you might want to consider the following resources for getting started:

This blog offers categories for both getting started with LaTeX and also LaTeX for PhD. Maybe check out Jumpstarting: Learn LaTeX in 3min.

Also, more generally, check out the starter tutorials on http://latex.silmaril.ie/, Learn LaTeX in X minutes, and LearnLaTeX whose new fancy features were presented at TUG2020.

Best regards,

the Ninja

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

3 thoughts on ““Learning LaTeX – Why should you care?” Series Part 1: Common Objections against learning LaTeX

  1. The very simplest (in complexity, not arguments) of LaTeX documents, such as essays, really need very little LaTeX code. Just a basic preamble and the odd Section commands, along with some Bold and ALL CAPS FOR SHOUTING DOWN YOUR OPPONENTS.
    I sometimes find it easier to write LaTeX in Markdown, with LaTeX header, and process it via pandoc.


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