Friday, January 28, 2011

Switching to LaTeX

I am giving up on Word.  After many years of use, I've gotten too irritated with its many quirks.  The final straw for me was when it inserted section breaks in the middle of my novel and would not let me delete them.

So instead, I am now using Aquamacs and LaTeX.  When I started the process of converting over my novel, I was not sure if it was really a good idea.  LaTeX is great for technical papers (especially greek-letter heavy ones that we are so fond of in programming languages research), but I was not sure if it would really offer much for a fiction writer.

Almost immediately I found the benefits.  Although there are some hassles, the precise control of formatting is fantastic, and that alone makes the trade very worth while.  Also, being able to use my vi key bindings with emacs viper mode has been a true delight.  And I can actually track my changes through source control.

It has also been interesting what I have not found useful.  I had expected that variables would be a useful feature.  For instance, I could make a command for a character's name, and then allow myself to change it easily if I thought of a better one.  I tried this for one of my characters briefly, but found it to be more of an irritation than anything else.

But there is one feature that I did not give much thought, and yet has me fully committed to a life using LaTeX for all of my non-technical documents.  And that is comments....

It seems so obvious now, but before I had a wide variety of text files and hand written note-cards; all of these have been collapsed into the .tex file itself.  I use simple line comments for things like 'fix up this section' with no worries about cluttering up the document for anyone I ask to review it.  For more complex notes, like outlines and lists of my characters, I make new commands.  When I set the command to do nothing, the notes are invisible.  But when I change it to output the text, I can share those details with anyone who wishes to review it.

LaTeX is not a program for everyone.  But if you are familiar with it, don't be afraid to use it for less technical documents.  Many of the same benefits will still carry over.