Daily Archives: December 19, 2010

Word is now almost 70% of LaTeX

Way back in 1997, my independent study assignment for Prof. S K Gupta at IITD was going hopelessly fast. I had 3 months of graph theory experience (and was still struggling with chromatic polynomial while having clear intentions of solving Ulam’s reconstruction conjecture before the end of the year), and being a compsci junior, I had not yet studied two advanced classes in theoretical computer science. But that was all fine. The troubling part was – I didn’t know LaTeX.  My typesetting skills were limited to a the “cutting edge” tool – Microsoft Word, from Office 97 (where Clippy makes an appearance).  Prof. Gupta suggested we make a journal article out of the work, and that involved LaTeX.  So, not creative output or graph theoretic discoveries, but it was LaTeX that was the bridge that I had to cross to get to the “published” side?

Manhattan Bridge, Photo courtesy See-Ming LeeOf course LaTeX is not WYSIWYG.  You type in a text editor, and the output is highly polished professional typeset document (for example, in PDF).  How TeX does that is really magic, and that magic is the reason TeX is still the mainstay of scientific publishing.  That said, the gap between Word and LaTeX is narrowing, to the point that I am ready to claim that Word 2007 is an almost 70% feature set of LaTeX.  The single biggest gap that still remains is that LaTeX handles floats (pictures/tables) beautifully.  Word does not.  In Word, you put a picture where you need it, but in LaTeX you put a picture “somewhere here”.  The “somewhere here” is pretty powerful, because as your article goes through versions, it continues to move the picture somewhere close by to adjust.   This is a big deal breaker for an article that is more than 3 pages long.  People do use word for long articles, but a majority of them do so because they have no choice, and no time to learn LaTeX.

There were two other deal breakers with previous versions of Word – the references and the citations.

Let us talk about references.  Your document has sections with headings, like Section 1. Introduction, Section 2. Problem Statement, etc.  (You know how to get headings to have automatic numbering, right?)  Suppose you are saying in the conclusions – “As we discussed in Section 3.1, ….”, the “3.1” is a reference.  You don’t want to actually type in 3.1, as that number may become 4.1 or 3.2 if you add another section or subsection before that.  The solution is to use references, by adding a reference (using References -> Captions -> Cross-Reference from the ribbon), and then adding a reference to heading number.  This adds a logical reference to that section, much like using a \ref and \label combination does in LaTeX.  Alt-INR is a handy keyboard shortcut, which is from Word 2003, but works in Word 2007 as well.

This however is only part of the story.  Suppose, you added a logical reference, and now as chance would have it, you did end up adding another section in the beginning.  You quickly navigate back to the conclusions to see if it says “Section 4.1”, just like magic.  But there is no magic – it still says “Section 3.1”.  What an otter wastage of time!

Otter, courtesy Mike Baird

So what went wrong?  Well, for one, you didn’t say abra ca dabra.  Secondly, whether in LaTex or in Word, you do need to tell the typesetter to “prepare” once in a while.  In LaTeX you do so by “compiling” the document.  In Word, you do this by using short-cut key F9 (refresh) on that field.  For a long document, you can just select everything (Ctrl-A) and then press F9.  So, in other words Ctrl-A F9 is the Word’s equivalent of LaTeX’s compilation.  The combination of these two things – firstly adding logical references instead of hard coded references and then using Ctrl-A F9 makes us much more efficient typesetters and authors.

The citation management in Word 2007 has improved, but there are still gaps and some tips and tricks, let us talk about them another time, ok?