Word Versus LaTex: Word Processing Stand-off

Word Versus LaTex

Those familiar with using word processing software may know that it replaced the typewriter, which in a way it certainly did. Back in the day, there were manual typewriters, and then electric typewriters replaced later by electric word processor machines and duplicating machines. But back when typewriters were more prevalent, there was also something in the publishing industry called typesetting.

Books, newspapers, and magazines used to have to be “typeset” by hand. In fact, they were hand set just one letter and one space at a time. News reporters were always under a deadline. They had to get the story to the typesetter with enough time left to do the typesetting and copies printed and ready for morning delivery.

So, in this article, we’ll compare Word versus LaTex but to better understand how these two programs are different, a little refresher on publishing before computers came along is in order. Here’s how that old saying “STOP THE PRESSES!” came about:

Hand Type Setting

If you’ve ever heard the term “m-space or “n-space,” those terms came from the time when typesetting was done manually. So, after hand typesetting each letter in the story, along with headlines, etc. and filling what was called the “chase,” with the typeset, you locked it all into place using wooden blocks and a “quoin” lock. Next, the chase went into the press or platen, and the printing began. It was a very tedious process, typesetters were highly skilled, and errors were a HUGE deal because it meant entire pages had to be manually redone.

Hot Metal Typesetting

With the onset of the 19th century, typesetting made a giant leap forward to hot metal typesetting. With the help of a “Keyboard,” which was more like a typewriter then, the typesetter produced the text of the story. It was faster but still tedious. Then the Linotype machine, invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler, came onto the scene in 1884.

The Linotype machine could produce a complete line of type at one time using “casting matrices” rather than just one letter or space at a time. The casting matices were more like molds for entire lines of text and could work two or three times as fast as a hand typesetter. The process still used a chase and quoin lock, but the entire letter by letter labor process was circumvented.


Hot metal and Linotype machines served the publishing industry well into the mid-1900’s when phototypesetting revolutionized the world of publishing. Linotype and hot metal printing machines were no longer needed.

Phototypesetting involved thick plastic or glass discs with the fonts you wanted to use. With this process, switching fonts became as easy as replacing one disc or strip, with a new one. It was still a highly skilled industry, but it was even faster with this automation.

Desktop Publishing

In the early 1980’s, Apple Macintosh was launched, and typesetting was gradually edged out by desktop publishing programs such as Quark Express and PageMaker. Typesetters became or in some cases moved on and made way for graphic artists who designed pages on the computer. Not long after that, in the Fall of 1983, Multi-Tool for Word which would later become Microsoft Word was invented, and it quickly began to edge out word processing machines. Today, there are children alive in the world who won’t remember a typewriter or a typesetting machine, which makes you wonder a little, what form of publishing tools could replace computers in the future?

Word versus LaTex: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to Word versus LaTex (pronounced LaTech), think of Word as the modern version of a manual typewriter and Latex as the modern version of manual typesetting from so long ago. MS Word is software designed to help writers get words on the page and formatted easily, and the outcome is a WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get) view of your document.

With MS Word software, just like with those old manual typewriters, writers don’t have to understand why clicking this button (or key) tells Word to italicize or bold the highlighted word, it just does it. Like typewriters did, the WYSIWYG view makes word processing more accessible to everyone without the steep learning curve that is involved in computer programming or was involved with typesetting. A similar metamorphosis has happened to typeset with LaTex.

What is LaTex and How Is It Used?

LaTex is not a word processing software; it’s the content side of a document preparation system. The foundation for LaTex is on coding called TeX. Formatting and the layout of pages were done in TeX first. But it uses plain text (not formatted) and “markup” tagging standards to design the basic structure of a document whether it be a letter, book, or article. Users don’t need to know TeX which is more complex programming, to create a complex document using LaTex.

LaTex helps academic writers because it already contains the macros for things such as section and chapter headings, graphics insertion, bibliographies, cross-referencing figures and tables, and indexing. It began as a writing resource for computer scientists and mathematicians. LaTex spread quickly to other scholars who had a need to include complex language text or math expressions into their documents.

LaTex is in a way like computerized typesetting. It’s helpful in books and materials that contain text that is multilingual such as Greek, Tamil, or Sanskrit. It’s primarily used in publications in academia. Areas of academia where a document preparation program like LaTex is used are chemistry, mathematics, computer science, engineering, political science, physics, economics, and quantitative psychology.

Word Versus LaTex for Writers

So, most writers, especially those writing novels, will be better served by using Microsoft Word or a similar word processor to write their story, article, or blog post. But if you are a writer who primarily writes for academia or who intends to publish in the future in one of the departments mentioned above, then you may want to give LaTex a test drive sooner than later.

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