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Down with WYSIWYG?

I've been using LATEX (la-tek) lately to produce some nicely typeset documents.  The reason I'm using it is because it is free.  I do not wish to pay $900~ for QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign.  I also do not want to use cheaper page layout or word processing software like MS-Publisher or MS-Word.

I must say that I am amazed at how easy it is to use LATEX.  It took me maybe a minute to read the documentation on how to start a basic document.  From there it is simply typing the document in a normal ascii text editor, running it through LATEX and then viewing or printing it out.

The output is fantastic.  I was amazed at how much better it is that Word or Publisher (or any Windows product I have used).  The best part is that I concentrate more on what I'm doing because I type the article first and then mark it up using LATEX.  There's really not much to it.

Now maybe I'm an exception to the rule, but the way I see it is that no WYSIWYG tool can even come close to the ease of use and the quality produced by LATEX.

This is a phenomenon I see often.  Someone tries to use a WYSIWYG tool to perform a task and can't quite get it right.  Is this the fault of the tool?  Perhaps the tools interface is not quite as accomodating as it should be and that may be the reason the tool does not work for the task.  I believe that the interface just gets in the way sometimes even for experienced users.

When marking up text you have to be able to visualize what you want done and how you want the output to look.  This may be hard for some and easy for others.  Personally, I know what I want and I can easily visualize it.  This may be the reason non-visual tools work for me.  I regularly code HTML without WYSIWYG tools.  I can honestly say that I have never used a decent visual editor for HTML.

To sum up all this rambling I would say that WYSIWYG tools generally  produce lower quality output and IMO are basically very "clunky" tools to use.  (To be fair, I'm not damning all WYSIWYG tools, as I do use my fair share of them and of course using the right tool for the right job does come first whether it's WYSIWYG or not.)

Sunday, February 15, 2004

I'd have to agree TeX and friends seem extremely powerful, if you're willing to learn it. It doesn't really seem quite the appropriate tool for more complex layouts, not because it's not powerful enough, but because I don't want to figure out how ;) I do use it for all my papers, because I don't require anything complex.

Mike Swieton
Sunday, February 15, 2004

many people think visually. and literally. can't do that abstraction thing.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

I don't know if it is related to (La)TeX directly, but I can tell whenever I see a postscript file of (typically) a technical report that was authored in TeX.  The layout may be fine, but the quality of the output always seems poor when printed (office class HP laser printers).  The font spacing doesn't seem right.

Anyone else notice this or know which tool in the food chain is producing the degradation in quality?

Rob Walker
Sunday, February 15, 2004

I remember putting together my PhD thesis via LaTeX, using a combination of MiKTeX and WinEdt32 on my PC. Latex is certainly nice and speedy when you get used to it, but after typing X million pages you do have to go tracking down all those macro errors. (It also distances the proofreading and entry processes - I am not sure whether that is a bad thing or a good thing.)

And the graphical placement stuff is a pain sometimes, it's a slow process getting something in your head to work out through the TeX macro language. (aaargh why won't it go on the same line)

It's a lot better than HTML/CSS though - at least you don't have browser incompatibilities!

Joel Goodwin
Sunday, February 15, 2004

Actually the best bit about LaTeX is the ability to create contextual macros: For example, I've been typesetting some rules recently and having batches of text labelled with things like "\DesignNote" and "\Example" and "\Rule" makes wandering about the rules body a lot easier.

Coupled with Make, it's an immensely powerful system. Latest trick: putting a little note into each chapter to say when it was last modified for the playtesters to check (which is not the final output file's modification date!!). It required some jiggery-pokery and a sed script to process the output of "ls", but it wasn't a trauma.

I have to say -- LaTeX's error messages SUCK abysmally. It seriously needs a grammar checker that will say "Bracket missing" rather than incomprehensible output from the TeX engine indicating an error a hundred lines later.
Oh and that NASTY habit of dropping into an interactive mode, instead of just bailing... that bites and I've no idea how to stop it.

Katie Lucas
Monday, February 16, 2004

Has anyone looked at the sourcecode of TeX?

It is quite famous in the programming world..

i like i
Monday, February 16, 2004

That's good to hear,

I agree with what you're saying, but another way of looking at is how you use your tools. For example in adobe or whatever you'd use your mouse allot more, you don't right now.

Mice suck. I use them once, when moving about in firebird. It's slow, annoying and wastes so much time. I can't believe people use them so much


Monday, February 16, 2004

LyX is great as a frontend, too.

Monday, February 16, 2004

I went through a phase of using LaTeX to try to write scientific papers, and then later spent some time in Lyx, using Lyx to vaguely lay something out quickly, then using the whole lot as a template for doing a mail merge.

The one thing I found interesting and non-obvious was that I was actually programming my documents.  I imagine this is a step that doesn't come easily.  It's certainly valid to an extent to say that LaTeX et al let you concentrate on what you are trying to say, but is this really as true as properly using styles in a tool such as word?  In Word I don't have to view my text alongside the formatting rules.  I just view my text.  Certainly in Lyx this doesn't apply so much but the impression I get is that Lyx isn't used as much.

Maybe I'm just one of the people that didn't 'get' LaTeX =)

Monday, February 16, 2004

Rob: It might be the fonts. By default, (La)TeX documents use a series of fonts called "Computer Modern", based on, um, "Monotype Modern 8a" or something of the kind. The reason why this can produce nasty-looking documents is a bit complicated...

1. The design of these fonts is the kind sometimes called "Modern", with a very strong contrast between thick and thin strokes. Fonts with very thin strokes tend to look bad when typeset at low resolutions.

2. They're bitmap fonts! More precisely, they're defined using another Knuth creation called METAFONT, which reads in a very high-level description of a font (as a computer program) and produces a set of bitmaps at the right resolution for your typesetting hardware. This is absolutely the Right Thing in some sense, but it's not so good when you're creating a document that you want to be able to distribute, because ...

2a. ... all the clever hardware-specific stuff may be right for *your* printing/typesetting hardware but wrong for other people's -- or right for their printer/typesetter but wrong for their CRT, or vice versa;

2b. ... All those bitmaps are big, so PostScript or PDF documents generated from (La)TeX originals tend to be bulky, and therefore

2c. ... you may be tempted to build those fonts at low resolution to save space, in which case they'll look really nasty when printed.

I happen to think the Computer Modern fonts are pretty ugly even when typeset optimally (as, e.g., in the TeXbook), but they don't need to be nearly so bad as they often are.

Gareth McCaughan
Monday, February 16, 2004

“I would say that WYSIWYG tools generally  produce lower quality output”

A greater share of the population can use WYSIWYG tools and thus those who have a worse sense of design than you are also able to produce documents. Overall these documents are of a lower quality than what you produce. Is that what you are saying?

You said that you would not pay for professional design programs. If you did pay for them, could you produce equal quality output?

Monday, February 16, 2004

“I would say that WYSIWYG tools generally  produce lower quality output”

To be fair, the one app I ever found which did produce good output was the html editor called amaya.

I really hate when 'professional' web designers don't create valid HTML, so they could easily produce better output using amaya.

Monday, February 16, 2004

The crudy font situation comes from a defective or outdated installation of LaTeX.  Documents that come from a LaTeX source intended for distribution should be converted to a PDF document.  dvipdfm is my preferred tool for that, although there are others that work as well. 

With a good installation, scalable versions of the Computer Modern fonts get embedded in pdf and postscript documents.  The output looks as good as if the output came natively from LaTeX.

Most LaTeX distributions also include the basic 14 postscript fonts.  Most PDF viewers and postscript engines already have these fonts available. This means that you don't need to embed the fonts in your documents.

To prove my point, take a look at

This document was produced exclusively with LaTeX and dvipdfm.  There are no font rendering problems, and it takes advantage of the hyperlinking and navigation features of PDF documents.  Also, even though this layout is moderately complex, I had to put relatively little work into my LaTeX programming.  Things like placing tables and footnotes happen automagically with LaTeX.  That's good, because I hate fiddling with them in GUI layout programs.

Mind you, don't take this as a slam on a good page layout program.  I own them, and I like them for a lot of things.  But I like the way that LaTeX takes a lot of the hassle out of it for me.

Clay Dowling
Monday, February 16, 2004

Yes, I like the 'type and leave it' approach of latex, trusting the system to just do it right but I have always found it quite complex to get into and not easy to remember arcane usage if you don't do it regularly.

For example, to this day and despite a fair amount of googleing etc, I can't seem to globally override the fonts to only use a arial style san serif for all default text and headings (we just changed corporate look here and hence the sudden change). This kind of thing is easy to find in Word but until I find this thing, I need to keep making excuses as to why I am not getting the corporate look!

Jon C
Monday, February 16, 2004


As long as the oss world is missing something equal the QuarkXPress or InDesign _industry_... it's no competition.
Comparing latex with quarkxpress (base install) is nothing more than trying to strike down a straw man, it takes years to master QXP and it's not effort wasted.

Li-fan Chen
Monday, February 16, 2004

Systems like Latex, Nroff, troff, and Runoff (Vax) have been around for over twenty years. There has been plenty of time for end users to experience an epiphany and embrace the simple, platform agnostic, and deterministic world of text based markup languages.

The big challenge with all text based markup language word processors is learning curve and the time and patience that it takes to get output to look just as you require it. I recall spending hours getting page breaks, paragraphs, spacing, and non orphaned titles to look "just right".  I actually got pretty good at it, too.

In the late 80s I worked alongside a couple of techies/programmers who had their own VAX accounts who did their best to act dumb & play dumb about the existence of RUNOFF  tools. I think it was simple insecurity, they simply did not want to believe that there was something useful that they could not grasp in 5 minutes. So instead, they "formatted" their work related stuff in text files. And this was not a singular case. I worked at other places in those days where engineers just ignored the issue of producing good quality formatted docs - "let the department secretary handle it."

Myself - I would probably not bother with DTP quality output if tools like Word didn't exist. And I'm passionate about my written product looking good. For many users, WYSIWYG DTP is the sweet spot of useful technology.

Bored Bystander
Monday, February 16, 2004

The big problem with LaTeX is that any customization of the predefined format is horrendously difficult, even once you've mastered document markup.

LaTeX is great when you only ever want the default styles but as soon as you want _anything_ else, like using different fonts or a different page layout, you're in hell. I've written a few LaTeX styles myself, it's a very involved process with a steep learning curve and long debug cycles. And for font support you're at the mercy of your particular TeX program because you only get the couple of Metafont abominations by default. Don't even get me started about Unicode...

I don't have a problem with tag-based DTP in general, either for content or display markup. I do have a problem with (La)TeX in particular. It was a great achievement for its time, but the only reason it's still around is because academics were too cheap to buy FrameMaker. :-(

Chris Nahr
Monday, February 16, 2004

What would a comment about an open source product be without a bunch of people jumping in to say how open source sucks? 

Clay Dowling
Monday, February 16, 2004

There has been exactly one comment about OSS a couple of posts back so I don't know what you're talking about. Or have the elves deleted a bunch of posts since I last visited?

Chris Nahr
Tuesday, February 17, 2004

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