By
Clemens Lode
,
January 21, 2022
Bunny sitting on an open book.

Comparing Word and LaTeX

Word usually refers to Microsoft Word. Generally, it is used as an umbrella term for all word processors that directly show you what you will get as an end result (as opposed to first having to process the file). This approach is more intuitive, but it makes editing large projects very complicated. Everyone knows Word. However, “knowing” Word mostly refers to the ease of use, as it is a “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) text editor. But if I asked how, using Word, 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 when something is not a standard command like those used in formatting, making lists, or choosing fonts.
LaTeX is a typesetting system that works more like a compiler than a word processor. While initially complicated, LaTeX allows better management of larger projects like theses or books by splitting the document into sections: style, references, and text. In LaTeX (pronounced LAH-tekh or LAY-tekh), you instead create a text document which is then translated into an actual formatted document (your book). Formatting is done through commands you enter as text into the document. To write a LaTeX document, you never have to touch your mouse, as you can enter everything by keystrokes alone.
This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX, the Agile Way.

Word and LaTeX each have particular 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 to access a special command. Sure, there are shortcuts in Word, too, but those have to be learned as well.

Because all commands are part of a LaTeX document, you can edit your text on any device with any editor you like, while Word documents require an installed editor (well, Word) that does not show the formatting and control information.

The upside of Word is its automated grammar check. LaTeX online platforms like Overleaf provide spell checks, but no integrated grammar check. We will have to wait for future releases in that regard.

Word offers integrated basic graphic functionality for symbols while LaTeX has to rely on a rather complicated vector graphics engine.

Editing a Word document using different versions of the software might lead to compatibility problems and it will certainly not look the same in all versions. 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 exist for 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?

LaTeX’ more substantial post-processing of each change allows for much more complex algorithms, which provide you with better hyphenation and professional-looking typography—both features come out of the box and require little to no tweaking. In LaTeX, the document is processed in the background with a delay (a few seconds up to several minutes), while Word has to provide any change in real-time, which requires that editing is optimized primarily for speed. While LaTeX updates the whole document with each committed change, you need to update some elements manually in Word (for example, the table of contents and the index).

In LaTeX, an element of the style of the entire document can be changed with a single line of code, while it takes 10 clicks in Word to change the style of a document. While Word does have a sophisticated versioning system, this applies only to the text itself. The style information (for example, the formatting of headers or footers) in Word is not part of the visible document. Hence, changes to the style are not directly visible in the document version history.

versioning system is a tool to track changes to a document. That means you can go back and check what has been changed and by whom.

If your document contains graphics, processing Word files 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 PDF or e-book.

LaTeX is known for its beautiful typography. For example, it supports kerning and ligatures, giving a typeface its finishing touch. Improved hyphenation, proper small caps, and proper justification are other features LaTeX offers that Word cannot do as well or without additional work.

Example of applying kerning to a typeface.

Example of a ligature.

While Word has several tools inbuilt that support multiple languages (dictionary, basic grammar check, special characters, etc.), it is not designed to handle multiple languages at the same time. If you want to produce, for example, a German and an English version of your book, the best advice would be to use two separate documents and translate and compare them paragraph by paragraph. In LaTeX, a single document can contain multiple languages. To create a multi-language project, you can put each paragraph of the second (or third) language below the original language. This makes translation work more manageable and reduces work for synchronization when making revisions. This is possible by a simple switch command that uses all entries marked with either one language or with another.

In LaTeX, you can add functionality to switch between e-book and print output without having to manage two separate documents. For example, my Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge project produces four output files: the German e-book, the English e-book, the German PDF, and the English PDF. Even if your ultimate goal is to focus on the printed version of your book, merely having a more affordable e-book version will help to increase sales as it gives your readers a choice. Those who do not have a preference about reading your book in print or as an e-book might opt for the cheaper version rather than not buying your book at all.

Because LaTeX documents are compiled, you have the option to build your document not as one huge file like in Word, but as a collection of many files. As mentioned above regarding 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 successfully copied everything and nothing was lost). Instead, you just move the reference to a section to another place. For example, let us assume you write a book about dogs and cats and first discuss dogs, then cats. In LaTeX, you would put each discussion into a separate file, and include them into your main file like this:

\input{main/aboutdogs}
\input{main/aboutcats}

Moving your discussion about cats to the front is done by simply switching the position in the main file:

\input{main/aboutcats}
\input{main/aboutdogs}

If your document contains formulas, LaTeX provides an entire 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. To manage your sources in Word, you need a separate plugin or third-party program (like Citavi), while LaTeX supports the most widely used standard BibTeX for free, with no plugins required.

Citavi is a plugin for Word (see https://www.citavi.com) to manage your bibliography and citations.

LaTeX is open source and free (even the online editor Overleaf is free if you can do without password protection), while you have to pay license costs for Word.

Comparison of Word and LaTeX depending on the complexity of the task: for natural sciences, anything more complex than articles takes more effort in Word; for social sciences, anything more complex than papers takes more effort in Word; for novels, book series takes more effort in Word than in LaTeX.

Ultimately, it 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 quickly write a few pages, Word is superior. For longer and more complex books, LaTeX takes less effort. In this book, I will help you to get your book done and published with LaTeX using the free template provided with the book. But even if you chose Word, my editor and I can help you to get your work published.

Summary Word vs LaTeX

  • Editor: “what you see is what you get” vs source file is compiled
  • Compatibility: dependent on editor vs independent of editor
  • Graphics: simple inbuilt editor, mouse-based vs powerful but complex editor, text-based
  • Typography: optimized for speed vs optimized for quality
  • Style: inbuilt stylese vs parate style document
  • Multi-platform: only via export vs possible with scripting
  • Refresh: some elements need manual refresh vs everything vs refreshed with each compile
  • Formulas: basic support needs external tools vs complete support
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About the Author

Clemens Lode

Hello! My name is Clemens and I am based in Düsseldorf, Germany. I’m an author of books on philosophy, science, and project management, and coach people to publish their books and improve their approach to leadership.

I like visiting the gym, learning to sing, observing animals, and creating videos on science and philosophy. I enjoy learning from nature and love the idea of optimizing systems.

In my youth, I was an active chess player reaching the national championship in Germany, and an active pen&paper player leading groups of adventurers on mental journeys. These activities align with my calm approach to moderating meetings, leading meetups, and focusing on details. My personality type in socionics is IEE/ENFp.

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Clemens Lode

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