# The Virtues of WYSIWYG: In (Comparative) Defense of “Stupid and Inefficient” Word Processors

Note, added 6/11/10: The title of this post is no longer a good guide to its contents–or at least to what’s of most value in its contents.  The value is in the comments, where several people who use text editing + LaTeX, or closely related processes, rather than standard word processing, to produce their papers explain the virtues of these methods, and also impart a lot of good information about the methods & give helpful suggestions about how best to do it.  Since these comments are largely directed at someone who was very ignorant of, and also a bit skeptical about, these proceedures (me), the comments may be very useful to others who have one or both of those properties.  (Hey, any time I can contribute to something valuable by bringing ignorance and skepticism [ignorance-based skepticism?] to the table, count me in.)  But there also seems to be information that’s helpful to some already quite a ways down the LaTeX-y path.

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So, a while ago I started noticing how nice some of the paper drafts looked that some people were sending me.  These were coming from people who always sent their papers in pdf format.  I at first assumed they had found some really nice settings (for font, format, etc.) for their word processing programs, and that they converted their documents to pdf format before sending them or posting them on their web pages because they didn’t want their readers’ word processing programs messing up the nice settings they had found.  I was tempted to (but didn’t) ask them about what settings they used on their word processing programs.  Now I suspect that they aren’t using word processing programs at all, but are using a text editor to produce their documents in plain text (with lots of codes typed in in plain text), and then using LaTeX to turn those plain text documents into the beautiful pdf’s that they send to me and post on their web sites, in a process described, for instance, in this widely cited web page: “Word Processors: Stupid and Inefficient,” by Allin Cottrell.

One of the advantages of this process (which I’ll call the “new” process–though it isn’t particularly new) is supposed to be that the pdf documents you end up producing look better than those produced on a word processing program.  I’m of course very ready to believe that: I had after all myself noticed how nice the documents looked, and had wished (at least a bit) that mine looked as nice.  (Though, for all I know, it’s possible to get documents produced by word processing programs to look just as nice – in ways I haven’t yet discovered!)  In this blog post, Brian Weatherson raises another potentially important advantage, as he discusses the possibility of professional journals being typeset by LaTeX, and cutting costs by having authors typeset their papers themselves (or pay to have it done by someone else).  Another considerable advantage is no longer being, in various ways, at the mercy of Microsoft, as users of Word (like me) are.

Despite these advantages, I’m disinclined to stop using a word processing program in composing my papers.  (I am very open, however, to converting my word-processing-program-produced documents at the end of the process, as Brian W suggested to me in a comment (#6) to his above-linked post.)  Let me explain why.  (There may well be ways around the problems I have with the new process that I’m just ignorant of.)

Yes, the documents LaTeXers produce do look somewhat better than the documents I send to friends and colleagues and post on my web site.  But I’m not entirely focused on how the end product looks.  I’m also interested in what the document looks like to me as I’m writing it, and, so far as I can tell, with the new process, what you see as you’re writing is an ugly mess, with no formatting at all, but instead lots of distracting codes (if that’s the right word for things like “\section{Introduction}”) written out right in the middle of your text in the very same font that your text is in.  This seems not just a little, but much, much worse than is the WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) that you’re presented with by the typical word processing program. . .

The issue of what a paper looks like as one is writing it may be more important (perhaps much more important) to me than it is to other writers.  (But maybe not.)  You see, I find it very hard to write out my papers, and to get myself to write them.  So, anything that makes the composing process nicer is important to me.  And it may be that my performance is affected by how things look to me more than is the case for other writers.  (When I played chess as a kid, I remember I was very put off by chess sets that had a significantly different look to them than I was used to—especially in terms of the ratio of the size of the pieces to the size of the board.  I think this could significantly affect my play.  Is that so for others?)

What a reader wants in the appearance of a paper she is reading lines up well, I would think, with what a writer should want in the appearance of the paper as it’s being written.  First, it’s just nicer to be dealing with a nicer-looking paper.  Second, it’s easier and faster to find your way around a paper when the section titles, paragraph breaks, long quotations, and especially important principles etc. (in a philosophy paper) visually stand out from the rest of the text.  All this is as important to me as a writer as it is when I’m reading a paper.  I wouldn’t like to be sent a paper to read that had lots of codes written out in it, especially if it were all in the same font as the text of the paper.  I similarly wouldn’t like this in what a paper looks like to me as I’m writing it.  (In fact, perhaps given my special problems with writing, I’m more concerned with the writing than the reading process.)  Yes, I suppose you would get used to it a bit – but so would readers of papers if we all consistently sent each other the ugly messes that you are looking at as you write your paper with the new process.

Cottrell lists three “evils of WYSIWYG”:

1.  The author is distracted from the proper business of composing text, in favor of making typographical choices in relation to which she may have no expertise (“fiddling with fonts and margins” when she should be concentrating on content).

2. The typesetting algorithm employed by WYSIWYG word processor sacrifices quality to the speed required for the setting and resetting of the user’s input in real time. The final product is greatly inferior to that of a real typesetting program.

3. The user of a word processor is under a strong temptation to lose sight of the logical structure of the text and to conflate this with superficial typographical elements.

As you can guess by now, I find 1 and 3 completely unconvincing.  WYSIWYG makes visually apparent the same helpful things that help the reader of a paper.  Distracting?!  Very helpful, I’d say.  And it doesn’t seem to take any more distracting effort to hit “indent” in a word processing program than it would take to type out the relevant code in the new process.  What would be “distracting,” it seems to me, as I’ve already complained, is lots of codes that are no part of my text, but are mixed in with my text and appear just like my text in the screen I’m looking at as I write.

#### The Virtues of WYSIWYG: In (Comparative) Defense of “Stupid and Inefficient” Word Processors — 28 Comments

1. For me, too, how text looks when I’m writing is as important as how it looks when others read it, but I think you are underestimating the aesthetic capabilities of text editors (for instance, words that will be italicized by typesetting can be seen italicized, etc). I actually prefer writing in good text editors to writing in word processors even in terms of how it looks when I’m writing. Here’s an example: http://www.u.arizona.edu/~comesana/tex.jpg

2. The only reason I switched to using LaTeX was that it makes formatting mathematical and logical notation much easier, and would have had to end up using it anyways.

Also, there is a great deal of disconnect between Word and Open Office when it comes to how Greek letters and formal symbols are coded, which can make life difficult is someone refuses to use MS Word or Open Office.

For the record, there are also LaTeX editors that are fairly close to wysiwyg word processors. I dabbled with Lyx for a while, but I prefer writing in gedit on Ubuntu.

3. You realize that there are WYSIWYG La/TeX editors our there too, right? (Try googling “Lyx”, it’s a reasonably mature product and also free.) There’s no need to choose, you can have the best of both worlds.

TeX is, ultimately, a programming language for documents — which is what you’d expect, given that it was created by a computer scientist. Its presentation of mathematical expressions is (still, after all these years) unequaled. But because TeX isn’t so much laid out as evaluated, it has a bunch of really powerful features:
* variables
* abstraction
* imports
which make dealing with large complicated (book-sized) documents much, much easier than they might otherwise be.

It’s not just about pretty layout, and comparing TeX to a word processor is like comparing a the car in your driveway to a CAD program. Apples to oranges.

4. As someone who writes papers in LaTeX, I’m not sure I can say much to your disagreement about (1). I prefer keeping my writing phrase distinct from my editing phase (and I think LaTeX makes the latter easier). When writing in a WSIWYG editor, and the format doesn’t look quite right, it breaks me out of my rhythm. I prefer simply compiling my paper at each natural stop, and taking a quick glance over it (especially for the feeling of accomplishment!). That’s probably just a writing-style difference.

As for the points about code and natural breaks – I think these two can help each other. Many editors will give you automatic color-coding as you write (I use Kile for Linux). This makes it easy to use the coding elements to spot document structure. Further, using a program like Kile can also help – I always have a running table of contents in the sidebar, pulled from the various \section, \subsection, etc. commands. This allows me to hop to different points in the paper at a click.

On top of that, I use comments (% followed by text) to mark off the different arguments. Between the section commands and my own breaks (which do not show up in the compiled version), I find it considerably easier to find what I need than in a WSIWYG editor. So there might be some options out there to help with that part of writing in LaTeX, if the advantages are sufficient to override your preferences with regard to (1).

5. I think there are quite a few mistakes in the argumentation here.

First, unless your text is *full* of formulas and complex formatting, most of a LaTeX document is plain text, and not at all distracting. And the more you get used to composing in it, the less distracting things like \section{Introduction} become. And if these codes are really *that* distracting to you, you could try a middle of the road approach and use a WYSIWYM (what you see is what you MEAN) editor like LyX:

http://www.lyx.org

There, bold looks like bold and italics look like italics and headings look like headings, but the underlying mechanisms are still semantic, and the output still different than the editing screen. Indeed, LaTeX is used to typeset the final output.

Next, the claim that it’s “easier to find” section breaks in a Word Processor is simply empirically false. In LaTeX you can simply *search* for the characters “\section”, which you can’t do in Word. But moreover, nearly every LaTeX editor uses syntax highlighting which will put sectioning commands in a distinct color, or even a distinct font if you wish, so they’re just as easy to see. And unlike WYSIWYG, you’re not limited to these appearing exactly as they do in the output.

If you’d like, I’d be happy to send a screenshot of how a section label looks in the color scheme I use in Kile (my favorite LaTeX editor). It is in fact, MUCH more distinctive than it would be in WYSIWYG.

It should also be noted that nearly every LaTeX editor comes with, or can be configured to use a preview panel side-by-side with the editing panel so you get both the advantages of WYSIWYG *and* semantic mark-up. Heck, gummi has a live updating preview panel. And most of the others allow SyncTeX, so by clicking in the preview you can zip back and forth to the corresponding part of the mark-up instantaneously.

Another advantage not noted is the sheer ease of converting and reformatting that exists when form and content are separated, as they are in LaTeX or other semantic mark-up languages. In the age where some people want to read on their portable devices, and others on paper, and others on screen, conversion between formats must be made easy. But if the document was initially prepared to look exactly-a-certain-way (the way it shows in a WYSIWYG tool), this is going to be very difficult to do.

One thing that is true is that LaTeX has a steep learning curve, and requires some effort to learn. This entire blog post smacks to me of someone who is simply wanting to justify to himself not putting in the effort to learn it.

It seems to me that a good way to determine whether or not it’s worth the effort is to ask people who have significant experience using both word processors AND LaTeX, and ask which one they prefer, and I don’t think there’ll be any contest.

I will note, however, that the laudable goal of moving away from reliance on Microsoft can be obtained in other ways, especially by switching to a Word Processor that supports open standards and open source, something like OpenOffice or AbiWord, and many of the nice goals of semantic mark-up can be achieved by using “Styles” over direct formatting commands in your word processor.

Even better, let me advocate wholescale switching of one’s computer system to something with an open model, such as switching from Windows to linux, which contrary to the propaganda M$pays for, is actually easier to use than Windows. And think of the long term savings from using free software to our universities and libraries, getting off the upgrade treadmill permanently, and giving you complete ownership of your own work! 6. Dear Keith, I’m another LaTeX user, so I’d like to offer two of my reasons for preferring it. First, I write my papers using the Emacs text editor. Emacs, like other specialised text editors, is extremely efficient at editing text. To give just the smallest example, there are simple keyboard shortcuts for moving around by word, sentence, visible line, and paragraph, and for searching using either simple or complex searches. To be able to navigate quickly and easily, and without using the mouse, is a major timesaver and removes a major interruption to my thinking. That’s just one reason why I think Emacs+LaTeX makes writing philosophy faster and better. Proper text editors offer so much more than most WYSIWYG word processors to make composition efficient and effective. Second, the file format for LaTeX is ordinary plain text. That means my files will basically last forever and be accessible on any computer forever, without needing special software to read them. It’s a huge plus to think that my files are so accessible and so longlasting. 7. Here’s a M$ Word feature that I (begrudgingly) admit is handy for collaboration: version tracking. SVN works great, but was a challenge (bureaucratically) to setup on a university server, and DropBox is very good for sharing but is not so great at version control. Things change fast, however, so I ask: do others know of a good, free file-share system that has reasonable version control?

In exchange, might I offer this neat site listing LaTeX fonts? http://www.tug.dk/FontCatalogue/ I particularly like that they have an explicit list of fonts with math support.

8. This is interesting; I just posted on how much I prefer LaTeX over word processors. I just started using it, but I don’t mind the learning curve. One great advantage it has over Word is its citation and bibliographical ability, especially using Chicago format (which I just figured out how to use). Word 07’s citation feature only seems to be good for MLA and APA-type parenthetical citation. It comes with BibDesk, a bibliography management software (also free), which works by keeping all bibliography references handy so that when they’re needed, only a few codes are need throughout the paper to have them show up (as opposed to Word 07, which has a bulky list in a menu, and they must be inserted manually by clicking around and through menus). All that is needed in LaTeX is \cite{cite key}, and a few other commands to make LaTeX see the BibDesk file.

And of course there is the fact that Word probably wouldn’t be able to handle a 350-page document, while LaTeX easily could (and did; I tested it. So could TextEdit, by the way).

I agree with the idea that if you really don’t feel like learning LaTeX, you could try LyX, although I haven’t yet found the need to switch to LyX. Word really does have a really horrific-looking output, and I couldn’t imagine trying to write a professional-looking thesis on it.

Another reason I switched from word-processors (I have Bean for Mac, though I’ve used Word and Mellel for a while [I’d still use Mellel because it looks promising, but the cost of it and its bibliography software would be \$150]) is because I hate clicking through menus and highlighting things with the mouse to make things bold and having to manually block off quotes and so on. I’m coming to realise that with more knowledge of LaTeX comes much more ease.

9. @Gregory,

I am happy using git as my VCS. I think setting up a remote repository is easier with git, though I’m not certain. But you can get free hosting from a number of places, including github, so you don’t have to worry about using the university server.

I haven’t tried it, but I hear good things about mercurial as well (I recall hearing that it is an easier to switch from SVN to mercurial than to git, but cannot verify that). Again, with mercurial there are ample free hosting options.

If you are merely looking for a way to track changes in different versions of a document, rather than a full-blown VCS, you might be interested in some of the suggestions from this thread on the OSX-TeX mailing list. I haven’t tried these out, but they look interesting.

Keep us updated if you find a solution that meets your needs.

10. Thanks to all for the suggestions. Cottrell was citing the evils of WYSIWYG as a main part of the problem with standard word processors, while it was seeming to me much better (so far as display while writing goes) than the alternative he was describing. That there are text editors with displays that might be more to my liking than what I was imagining is (good) news to me. On the other hand…

One thing that is true is that LaTeX has a steep learning curve

If that’s true, I’m out–at least for a while (until I’m through with the book I’m writing). Just no time. I was enticed by the “it’s really pretty quick & easy to pick up” line, as, for instance, here. But the suggestions here might be very helpful to others with similar tastes to mine–and to me, too, later on (or sooner, if it turns out there are options that are quick to get up to speed on).

11. I guess I have a very different mindset — in terms of what’s important to me — than seems to behind remarks like this (from comment #5):

And the more you get used to composing in it, the less distracting things like \section{Introduction} become. And if these codes are really *that* distracting to you…

I mean, what would you think, Kevin, of an option that left stuff like \section{Introduction} in your final draft, what you send to and receive from colleagues and put up on your web site? Would that be “really *that* distracting” to you? As I wrote in the original post, I imagine we’d get used to that, too. But my guess is it would bother you enough that you would seek another alternative. As I tried to explain, the display to me as I’m writing is as important to me as the appearance of the final product. Given that, it shouldn’t be mystifying that I wouldn’t go for an alternative that had stuff like that in the display.

…Which is why alternatives like those that Kevin and other commenters here have been nice enough to inform us of might be just what writers like me need.

12. Hi Keith,
Thanks for the link, but I don’t recall ever saying that LaTeX was “really quick and easy to pick up”. My guide is aimed at making the learning curve a bit less steep. It doesn’t make LaTeX as easy as you seem to want.

13. ouch. was hoping it really was quick & easy.

14. “I mean, what would you think, Kevin, of an option that left stuff like \section{Introduction} in your final draft…”

Of course, I’d dislike that, but of course you’re also right that I could get used to it.

But what I want while composing is not the same as what I want in my final output.

The process of grading student papers has also made me used to reading papers with inconsistent font sizes and styles, no pair kerning, inconsistent whitespace (thanks to having no end-of-line-hyphenation or rubber lengths/typographical feathering), no typographic ligatures, and visible pixelation/rasterization of characters.
I don’t like the output of my papers to look like THAT either, so, as you say, I choose a different approach, one that gives beautiful output.

But I sure as heck don’t want ligatures and feathering and kerning/hinting and sophisticated end-of-line hyphenation to be enacted in my composition window. That would be incredibly distracting, not to mention ugly (…heavy font hinting for example looks much better on paper/e-Ink than on screen…) and computing resource-draining.

What I want my output to look like, and what I want shown to me as I compose, is different. In the latter case, what I want shown is the structure and meaning of my document, and \section{Introduction} shows me that structure. When I read something, on the other hand, I want proper and aesthetically pleasing typography, without nothing distracting from the message.

You seem for some reason to have the same desiderata for “the way things should look” while writing and while reading. But is it really a priori plausible that these desiderata should be the same? Prima facie, it seems very unlikely that they should be the same.

It’s well known that people often assume that because something is unfamiliar that it’s less ideal than what is familiar. And this has consequences, especially in the digital world. I’ve heard some experts say that it’s unlikely that any start up will ever replace Facebook, for example, because people have become so used to its layout and interface that nothing else will ever seem “as good” to people, even if they’d have preferred that something else if exposed to it first. Microsoft will always own our wallets if people are unwilling to *try* methods that are different from the ones they’ve patented.

15. No worries, Keith. Once you wrap up the book, if you’re still interested in learning LaTeX, it sounds like lots of us are here to answer questions and help where we can — I know I am!

16. You seem for some reason to have the same desiderata for “the way things should look” while writing and while reading.

Some things could work better on paper than on a screen & vice versa, that’s true. Then there’s also things like notes to yourself as you write that for obvious reasons one might want to be showing up on one’s display as one writes but not on the final product. So, yes, the desiderata are different: some things you would want in one setting but not the other. I just don’t see why having stuff like \emph{} in the middle of one’s text would be one of those things. Of course, I’ve only dabbled extremely briefly in the world of text editors, so I’m no expert at all, but that would seem, at least to the uninitiated, the kind of thing that (as opposed to just displaying the relevant text in itallics) would be equally distracting in the two settings. Yes, my suspicion is that some bias in favor of the familiar may be at least part of what might explain, at least sometimes, why people who have become used to such things appearing in their display as they write but who themselves wouldn’t dream of letting it in their final product (and can generally be extremely fussy about the appearance of their final product) can seem mystified as to why someone else might not want that mixed in with their text in their display as they write.

17. Keith,
There is something of a middle ground that you might be interested in.

There are a number of markup languages that are designed to be easy on the eyes (and have a less steep learning curve than LaTeX, etc.), but that convert nicely into something like LaTeX. The most popular is probably markdown, but multimarkdown, pandoc, and textile are all in the same vein.

Where in LaTeX you would write
 \section{First section} Some \emph{italic} text. 
in markdown, for example, you would write
 # First section Some *italic* text. 

Once you write up a document using markdown, you can convert it to LaTeX (or directly to a PDF using LaTeX), and have the pretty finished product without all the messy code.

As is often the case with middle grounds, this has some of the disadvantages of both alternatives. You don’t have as much control as you would with straight LaTeX, for example. And some of the markup is still kind of unsightly (e.g., for a footnote you’ll end up doing something like this.[^fn1])
[^fn1]:The footnote text.

This syntax certainly seems prettier to me, and it is much easier to write. Once you throw in one of these great text editors with syntax highlighting that others have mentioned, you might end up with a nice compromise.

I should note that I’ve never written a long paper with any of these. I did write the first version of my guide to LaTeX using pandoc, in large part because I could easily convert it to LaTeX *and* to HTML with a simple command. But I’ve never tried a full philosophy paper with it.

18. I meant to mention that you can try out pandoc online here and you can try textile online here.

19. Charlie – thanks! These resources are new to me. I think github would work great, but they charge for private hosting; mercurial looks promising too if all my collaborators are comfortable with working from command line. (This is a tricky constraints problem!) Fortunately, most of the papers/projects I’m running now are with a single co-author, and that’s much easier to manage by splitting parts of the paper into files and using \input, and sending messages telling each other to get out of the way. But, with four authors, this is (was!) crazy-making, and SVN was necessary.

I mentioned DropBox, and this thing is great: i use it for shared files with collaborators, and I’ve gotten rid of using a USB thumb drive between the office and work. Anyone can sign up by going straight to the site, or you can click on this link, https://www.dropbox.com/referrals/NTE4MzA2OTY5. The only difference is that the above link adds free memory to my account for recommending new users :-).

As for the running thread, I wonder whether the heat of Cottrell’s rhetoric might be getting in the way of the more basic point about the difference in writing in a WYSIWYM environment versus WYSIWYG. There is a bigger difference here than moving from the typewriter to word processors, I’d argue, and one really needs to have a grip on how to work in both environments before being in a position to make an informed judgment. I agree with Kevin’s point that you’d be hard pressed to find informed users preferring WYSWYG word processors, although there are some. (I’ve found that they tend to be the folks who work with a lot of data, particularly if it appears in tables.)

Perhaps the larger point to WYSIWYM is the flexibility that text editors afford: that there are so many different ways to set up a system for writing that fits your needs, and this is a different relationship to your machine than learning someone else’s idea of how you should work. Some are happy to read source files as is, even for typeset mathematics; others use two windows, one for the source file and the other for the typeset text, or use the other just to check that the math is set right; and others still use an editor to color the code or hide it altogether, such as lyx. And I have a colleague, a computer scientist of my generation, whose LaTeX’d papers are written in Scientific Workplace, which seems to have a button for everything: it is like the microsoft equation editor on steroids. (He wears out a lot of mice). I think he is completely crazy to use this, but that is another story.

20. Charlie – thanks! These resources are new to me. I think github would work great, but they charge for private hosting; mercurial looks promising too if all my collaborators are comfortable with working from command line. (This is a tricky constraints problem!) Fortunately, most of the papers/projects I’m running now are with a single co-author, and that’s much easier to manage by splitting parts of the paper into files and using input, and sending messages telling each other to get out of the way. But, with four authors, this is (was!) crazy-making, and SVN was necessary.

I mentioned DropBox, and this thing is great: i use it for shared files with collaborators, and I’ve gotten rid of using a USB thumb drive between the office and work. Anyone can sign up by going straight to the site, or you can click on this link, https://www.dropbox.com/referrals/NTE4MzA2OTY5. The only difference is that the above link adds free memory to my account for recommending new users :-).

As for the running thread, I wonder whether the heat of Cottrell’s rhetoric might be getting in the way of the more basic point about the difference in writing in a WYSIWYM environment versus WYSIWYG. There is a bigger difference here than moving from the typewriter to word processors, I’d argue, and one really needs to have a grip on how to work in both environments before being in a position to make an informed judgment. I agree with Kevin’s point that you’d be hard pressed to find informed users preferring WYSWYG word processors, although there are some. (I’ve found that they tend to be the folks who work with a lot of data, particularly if it appears in tables.)

Perhaps the larger point to WYSIWYM is the flexibility that text editors afford. There are so many different ways to set up a system for your needs, and this is a different relationship to your machine than learning someone else’s idea of how you should work. Some people are happy to read source files as is, even for typeset mathematics; others use two windows, one for editing the source file and the other for viewing the typeset text, or they use the viewer just to check that the math is set right; another option is to use decorations within an editor to sort code from content, or use something like lyx to hide it altogether. And I have a colleague, a computer scientist of my generation, who writes LaTeX through Scientific Workplace, which seems to have a button for everything: it is like the microsoft equation editor on steroids. (He wears out a lot of mice). I think he is completely crazy to use this, but that is another story.

21. Hi Keith,

I began using LaTeX this year. It was tough at first to compose “in code”, but after a couple of weeks I got used to it… and I think my writing (or at least my thinking as I’m writing) has improved.

One huge advantage in using LaTeX (which I don’t think has been mentioned here because your main concern is with the composing aspect) is that it can automatically format your bibliographies, and your citations, by plugging in a different style guide. What you do is fill out a huge database (I use JabRef) with all the articles, books, etc. that you cite; and you’ll continue to add this to as the literature grows. But you only have to do this once: the bibliographies and citations are managed for you, and generated automatically… and it streamlines the citation process while you’re writing. So you never have to do what I used to do – copy and paste references or bibliographies from earlier papers, being sure to remove some things which you aren’t citing, etc…

This can be a great help for sending papers to journals -if you send a paper to Phil Review, you just use their style guide, and it conforms everything to their style. Plus (if you’re working on a book or a dissertation) it can generate an Index, etc, quite easily.

22. “…So, yes, the desiderata are different: some things you would want in one setting but not the other. I just don’t see why having stuff like \emph{} in the middle of one’s text would be one of those things.

Actually this is a perfect example of the difference between a WYSIWYG approach and a semantic mark-up approach.

\emph{…} means emphasized; it doesn’t mean italics. (There’s actually a distinct command specifically for italics in LaTeX for italics.)

While it’s true that LaTeX defaults to italics for singly embedded emphasis (using one \emph within another will unintalicize it), this can be changed to underlining or bold or color in different environments.

Yes, when I’m composing, what I want to focus on is the fact that I want to emphasize a certain word, not that I want it in italics. That same command can then be shaped or redefined to do different things in different contexts: italics for printed text, color for a projected Beamer presentation (LaTeX’s answer to powerpoint) or a webpage, a different pitch if the file is being fed to a text-to-speech system. And I might want it to handle, e.g., italicized titles (inside or outside of a bibliography) differently, even if both were in italics.

But as I said earlier, you can accomplish much the same in a Word Processor by using “Styles” (which can be changed globally) rather than direct formatting commands. (But of course if you do, it only makes sense for the editor screen to show you the styles, not just their alterable effects… take this to its logical conclusion and you end up with LaTeX.)

23. I’m glad that someone mentioned markdown. I generally write the first couple of dratfs in markdown, and then convert to LaTeX using pandoc (which, by the way, is not a markup language, but a conversion tool). Pandoc, by the way, was created by John McFarlane.

24. Hi Juan,
I’ve always been sort of confused about what to call pandoc. It is certainly a conversion tool, but the markdown you convert with it can include markup that goes beyond standard markdown. (McFarlane detials the differences here.) I like using pandoc because of some of these extensions (esp. the extended code blocks), though the bulk of the markup is clearly just markdown. I guess those extensions make me think of it as a bit different language, but it certainly isn’t different in the way textile is, say. Maybe the situation is parallel to TeX/LaTeX/XeLaTeX?

I think pandoc is pretty fantastic, but it struck me as excessively difficult to install (at least the way I did it was difficult!). I think that is sort of a shame, as it is a bit of a deterent to more people using it.

A quick question for you: do you use any sort of reference management when you write those drafts, or do you enter BibTeX cite keys by hand (or not use BibTeX)? I hadn’t looked into it, but I was under the impression that there wasn’t a ready integration between markdown files and bib files (at least not as smooth as there is between tex and bib files). I’d be very interested in hearing what you do if you get these two to play together!

25. One thing I’m realizing as I discuss the importance of display is the extent to which writing involves reading the very document you are writing. (A way to make this vivid is to imagine writing on a device that didn’t show you the document at all while you wrote.) I guess the reason the display is so important to me — perhaps a bit more than the look of the finished product is — is that while I’m writing, I want as much of my attention as possible directed at the material I’m (hopefully!) about to write, which means I want to be able to take in the already-written material around that as smoothly & efficiently as possible. I’ve been urging that–and it still seems to me that–much of what you want in the appearance of a good finished product would seem carry over to what you want in the display as you write — with exceptions like those I mention in 16. It still seems to me that having stuff like having emph{} in the middle of one’s text is not one of those exceptions. The differences KK (to distinguish him from the Kevin of comment 2) alleges aren’t working–for me, at any rate:

What I want my output to look like, and what I want shown to me as I compose, is different. In the latter case, what I want shown is the structure and meaning of my document (14)

Well, yes, but that — the structure and the meaning of the document — is also what I want shown & apparent as I’m reading someone’s finished product. (Maybe there’s something more specific here: different aspects of structure & meaning, or different ways one wants those things shown?)

Yes, when I’m composing, what I want to focus on is the fact that I want to emphasize a certain word, not that I want it in italics. (22)

Yes, but that is also what I want shown & what I want to focus on (at least a bit (& to about the same extent)) while reading someone’s finished product: that the word is emphasized, not that the emphasis is being achieved by italics in particular.

Like most people (I suppose, since the device is so popular), I like italics as a device of emphasis. It seems to draw about the right amount of attention to the fact that a word or phrase is being emphasized. Because they seem to me a bit more subtle, I like italics a bit more than underlining. This may be just a matter of what I’ve become used to, but underlining, for me, anyway, seems to be too attention-grabbing: While I want to be made aware of the emphasis, I want to concentrate even more on what word(s) are being used, and underlining seems to focus too much of my attention on the matter of emphasis. (This preference, though, is slight, to the point that I’m feeling too precious in even expressing it.) I prefer both italics and underlining to a device like emph{} , which would seem to be considerably more distracting than underlining. In either setting (while composing or while reading a finished product), I want some device that makes readily apparent that a word or phrase is emphasized without being too distracting. In either setting, italics is the winner for me.

There does seem to be a whole lot of room for personal differences in matters of display. For instance, Jeff in 4:

When writing in a WSIWYG editor, and the format doesn’t look quite right, it breaks me out of my rhythm.

Well, that’s not me, but it’s easy for me to understand. One of Jeff’s temptations while writing seems to be focusing on details of the appearance of the finished product, when he should be thinking about what words to be using, etc. And, yes, I can see how WYSIWG would make that worse. And maybe that’s so for other LaTeX users. It wouldn’t be at all surprising that that process would tend to attract people who tend to be more concerned about fine details of the appearance of their finished products, and so might be more tempted to worry about such things while they’re writing (& shouldn’t be worrying about such matters).

And I don’t think I would prefer the display Juan (1) links to, but I can relate to why Juan might. In attempts to get myself to write, I have often fiddled with the display: it at least often seems to help to make things look, well, just different from what I’m used to. For a while way back when, I chose to write on a blue screen with white letters, while I had an option for a display that looked like a sheet of paper with black type on it. The white-on-blue succeeded (alas, only for a while) in creating a very different visual setting that said “You’re writing now” to me, and at least seemed to help get & keep me writing. (Though I sometimes wonder whether my various tricks ever really worked. Maybe I was just ready to write, and mis-attributed that to whatever feature of my environment grabbed my attention during these productive periods.) Anyway, the nearest variant of me that uses Juan’s display is one for whom that visual environment gets positively associated with successful attempts to write. (Which of course is not to say that’s why Juan likes it.)

Of course, this is all irrelevant to the main issue here, since, as many of you have been very helpfully pointing out, there are many display options for those who take the text-editing/LaTeX path, some of them very much to the liking of someone like me. (Still, it’s a bit helpful, for me anyway, to pay explicit attention to display, for the reasons I’ve been giving.)

Thanks to everyone for all the very helpful information. It may be a while before I personally act on any of it (though I think it will have at least this immediate effect: that I’ll take the little trouble involved to mark my headings, and do a few other things, with an eye toward being better able to convert my documents later), but in the meantime, it will be nice to be able to refer possibly interested people to this comment thread. I do think it would be good for our discipline (& others, too), for the reasons Brian W gives in the post I link to in the post above (& also for anti-Microsoft & related reasons), if we all started producing our documents in way you guys are urging.

26. Hi Charlie,

You are right, pandoc does include an extension of markdown, so to that extent it would be right to say that you write “in pandoc”. It just sounded strange to me because pandoc is primarily a conversion tool, but I take it back. You are also right about pandoc installation. I finally installed the Haskell framework and then pandoc from there, which was really easy.

About bibliography management: when I write in markdown I usually leave the citations out unless I remember the exact citation (like, say, \cite{Quine:1960}), in which case I just write them out and pandoc passes them untouched to LaTeX. I use Textmate, so when I’m writing more stable drafts in LaTeX I use Textmate’s bibliographic completion tool, which works like magic (for instance, I type “\cite{DeRose}”, press alt-escape and I am presented with a list of all the DeRose papers I have in my bibliography, and I just click on that list the one I want and the citation is inserted.

All of this reminds me of a document that Kieran Healy produced a while ago on workflow applications: http://www.kieranhealy.org/files/misc/workflow-apps.pdf Keith may find this passage amusing:

For instance, like me my wife is an academic — a philosopher. Unlike me, she is very well-organized and highly productive. Her task-management system consists of a calendar and some bits of scrap paper with to-do lists scrawled on them. Her work environment is comprised of Microsoft Word, email and a secret drawer full of candy. No context-dependent Getting-Tings-Done system, no bibliographic software, no revision control, nothing. Her hidden trick is that, when she has a project, she thinks about what needs to be done, writes down a list of tasks on a piece of paper, and then — this next bit is the tricky part, and you may find it hard to follow — actually completes these tasks one by one in a systematic fashion, beginning right away. I know, I didn’t understand that last bit, either.

27. Well, this thread is definitely proof that philosophers will talk anything to death… Of course, I enjoy it personally.

You write:
Well, yes, but that — the structure and the meaning of the document — is also what I want shown & apparent as I’m reading someone’s finished product. (Maybe there’s something more specific here: different aspects of structure & meaning, or different ways one wants those things shown?)

I have no problem with the idea that your computer might actually use italics to show you that it knows that you want a certain word to be emphasized the way that LyX does, for example, rather than using rather than showing \emph{} with color. But the key is that it ought to know that you are emphasizing, and not doing something else with italics.

The point is that there is not a 1-1 correlation between semantic categories and formatting categories. Yes, when we read, we are looking for structure and meaning too, but it’s not hard for us to differentiate when italics is being used for emphasis and when it is being used for a title, for example, from context. But it is difficult for your computer to understand the difference unless you communicate to it carefully, and what you’re doing when writing a paper or book is communicating your intent to the computer.

I guess I’m a bit biased by experiences working with certain projects. If you visit my website for example, you’ll see that I am working on distributing electronic copies of certain Public Domain titles. I am distributing Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy in ten different formats on my website, and (so far) five different formats of my Side-by-Side-by-Side version of the Tractatus.

Of course, I don’t maintain fifteen different documents. I use one source and convert. This would be impossible if the source file didn’t semantically differentiate the parts of the book, and instead was created to look just a certain way in just one certain format, which is what WYSIWYG encourages.

To be fair, it is possible to do it with a WYSIWYG word processor if you use stylesheets rather than formatting commands, as I’ve noted, but it’s a pain.

I also have a strange possessiveness over my work, and like to know exactly what a paper of mine “is”, and then it helps to have a plain text format, where nothing is hidden. But I’ll admit that’s an idiosyncracy.

Anyway, screen-capture of my desktop, shrunk to 75%, of what the screen looks like to me when composing. On the far left, you’ll see the structure outline you can use to jump around, which another commentator mentioned. Normally I have that hidden, leaving more room for the editor window, but can pop it up at will. (You can also open up a Symbol menu and some other stuff over there.) In the middle, you’ll see a pretty blue composing window, with colors and bold used for syntax highlighting (and of course you can use whatever colors you want), and on the right, a preview of the output, which can be refreshed with a button.