LaTeX for the Rest of Us

I really like LaTeX. So much so that I bought a used copy of the original LaTeX “blue book” just so I could write a class file to print my freshman English papers in MLA format, which requires breaking most of the typesetting rules that make LaTeX output look so professional to begin with.

But there’s no question about the ugliness of LaTeX (or plain TeX) source. At times it borders on incomprehensible. LyX helps, but only if you like LyX’s editor.

When I was an office temp I saw dozens of people struggle to typset 100+ page documents in Microsoft Word. Word is a pretty powerful tool, but it’s just not up to the task. Small, maddening inconsistencies appear that are difficult to correct. Large documents require a lot of memory and cause crashes. And when you have multiple people working on the same document, only one of whom understands how to use styles properly, it becomes nightmarish.

The trouble with WYSIWYG is that what you see is all you get. Why should an author — who should only be thinking about the content, not the presentation — be faced with decisions about line and page breaks while working on a first draft?

So here’s what I want: an editor that looks and feels like Microsoft Word, but that only permits structural editing — section headings, emphasis, etc. Then use TeX or a similar typesetting system to generate printed documents. To make this useful to a general audience, one would also need a “style editor” to modify the behavior of the typesetter.

The problem with this is that the idea of “structural editing” seems quite alien to a lot of computer users. People like WYSIWYG. They want to work on screen with something that looks like a finished document. I believe this is actually a very inefficient way to work, since one is distracted by formatting concerns from the actual writing, but I don’t know how to convince anyone else of this. But if the “structural editor” could be styled to match the user’s expectations of what the final document will look like, we could have the best of both worlds. Writers will be able to work in an environment they already know and feel comfortable with, and editors and publishers will be spared the frustration of fixing formatting inconsistencies introduced by writers.

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