Comparing Word vs LaTeX

This is an exerpt of the upcoming book “Better Books with LaTeX, the Agile Way.” The book will come with a LaTeX template the reader can use to easily create your own books.

Everyone knows Word. Although “knowing” mostly refers to the ease of use, as it is a “what you see is what you get” text editor. But if I asked how to refer to another document’s text block and add that as a citation in a footnote, most people would have to look on the Internet to find out how that could be done. While most of the functionality is available through icons, you still need to know where to look if it is not a standard command like those used in formatting, making lists, or choosing fonts.

In LaTeX, you instead write a text document which is then later translated into the actual formatted document. Formatting is done through commands you enter as text into the document. To write a LaTeX document, you never have to touch your mouse, you can enter everything by key strokes alone. This different approach has a number of advantages:

If you know the commands, creating a LaTeX document will be quicker than writing a Word document. You never have to break your concentration because you need to access a special command. Sure, there are shortcuts in Word, too, but those have to be learned as well.

Because of the split into two steps, editing and document compilation, you can edit LaTeX document on any device with any editor you like, while Word documents require a separate installed editor (well, Word). The upside of Word is certainly its grammar check. LaTeX online platforms like Overleaf provide also spell checks, but no integrated grammar check. We will have to wait for future releases in that regard. Also, Word offers integrated basic graphic functionality for symbols while LaTeX has to rely on a rather complicated vector graphics engine “tikz.”

In addition, editing a Word document in different versions of the software might lead to compatibility problems and it will certainly not look the same by version. While there are collaborative online editors for Word, you are then on the same level as LaTeX online editors like Overleaf and you lose the ability to work on your document while on the road without Internet connectivity. Compatibility issues are especially problematic if you are co-authoring a book or working with an editor, or when relying on exact page numbers. Do not forget that books can live quite a long time. Will your Word file still work in 10 or 20 years when it’s time to release a new edition of your book, or use parts of your book in a new book or article?

In LaTeX, the document is processed in the background while Word has to provide any change in real time. This demands that editing is optimized primarily for speed, which is for example obvious by the fact that the table of contents and the index have to be updated manually each time after making changes. The post-processing of LaTeX allows for much more complex algorithms which provide you with better hyphenation and professionally looking typography—both features coming out of the box and require little to no tweaking.

In Word, fonts can be managed through the style. In LaTeX, an element of the style of the whole document can be changed with a single line of code, while it takes 10 clicks in Word to change it. While Word does have a sophisticated versioning system (meaning you can go back and check what has been changed by whom), this applies only to the text itself. The style information in Word is not part of the visible document. Hence, changes to the style are not directly visible in the document version history.

If your document contains graphics, processing Word files editing can become really slow or the program might even crash. Why? Because while you are editing, all the images have to be cached somewhere which takes a lot of memory. When editing LaTeX documents, images in the editor are visible only by their text reference and are only later—one by one—compiled into a complete PDF or ebook.

In addition, LaTeX is known for its beautiful typography. If you’ve never heard of kerning, common ligatures, or glyph variants, those give a type face the finishing touch. Improved hyphenation, proper small caps, transparency, and proper justification are other features LaTeX offers that Word cannot do as well or requires additional work.

In LaTeX, if you want to do a multi-language project, you can put each paragraph of the second language below the first language. This makes translation work easier and reduces work for synchronization when making revisions. This is possible by a simple switch command that either uses all entries marked with one language or with the other. Word has many language tools inbuilt, but no possibility to see both languages but actually generate only one of those languages for the actual document. You can even add functionality to a LaTeX project to switch between ebook and print output without having to manage two separate documents. Even if you plan to focus your publishing efforts on only either ebook or print, merely having a more affordable ebook version will help to increase sales as it gives your readers the choice.

For the very reason LaTeX documents are compiled, you can build your document not as one huge file, but as a collection of many files. As already mentioned above with the images, you can also include text files at any part of the document (as opposed to copying the whole text into one huge file). This makes it easier to divide the work and proceed section by section, as opposed to having to locate the part you are currently working on each time you open the document. It also makes rearranging sections easier: you no longer have to copy and paste pages over pages (never being sure if you have really copied everything and nothing was lost), you only have to move the reference to the text file.

If your document contains formulas, LaTeX provides a whole scientific library of functions to edit and display them directly in the document. While you can create basic formulas in Word, for any complex mathematics, you need to use a separate program to create and embed an image. Likewise, especially non-fiction books rely heavily on citation. While there are plugins and third party programs (check out https://www.citavi.com) that can help you with managing your sources, LaTeX comes with a bibliography management out of the box that is used in the scientific community.

Finally, LaTeX is open source and free (even the online editor Overleaf is free for public projects), while you have to pay license costs for Word.

So, ultimately, it really depends on your needs. If you want to write a complex document like a book, the advantages of LaTeX outweigh those of Word. If you want to just quickly write a few pages, Word is superior. In this book, I will detail how you can get your book done and published with LaTeX using the template I provide.

2018-06-13T00:36:19+00:00