More Than Word(s)

Ways to deal with MS Word documents using Linux and tocreate platform-independent documents.
A Classic: ASCII

As I have mentioned repeatedly, the information contained within the majority of documents is plain text. At times some fancy formatting may be nice, but it's optional. The main interest of the person writing the document should be to communicate the information.

Simple, plain ASCII text is usually sufficient to send information from one person to another—that's exactly why e-mail, for example, is still a text medium. HTML in e-mails does not add anything to the content. ASCII text can be read from anywhere with any editor (and not just with “any editor, including Microsoft Word...”). By structuring the text clearly, by using paragraphs and horizontal lines constructed out of hyphens, maybe even by using *bold*, /italics/ and _underlined_ text as used on Usenet, one can write clear, easy-to-read and understand and, most importantly, portable documents.

LyX and LaTeX

While plain ASCII text should be the choice for most cases, it cannot be denied that occasionally one might need or want more formatting. Well, no need to dig out the old word processor again. Just use LyX, the graphical front end to LaTeX.

LaTeX is an astounding typesetting engine derived from TeX. It takes a .tex file as input and typesets it, generating a .dvi file. It is available for a large variety of platforms, and documents typeset with LaTeX look incredibly professional. Yet, you can use your favorite editor to create the input files because LaTeX is a command-line tool.

When using LaTeX, one can concentrate on the content of the document instead of the way it looks because the typesetting engine will take care of the layout. A .tex file contains a few tags (which may remind you of HTML) to determine the way the text will be displayed.

This is a completely different way of writing a document from word processors; no more pointing and clicking and highlighting and reconsidering and so on. But, it may be daunting to someone who is used to using a GUI.

Now this is where the good guys from LyX come into play. They developed a GUI for LaTeX, enabling the inexperienced user to take advantage of the power of TeX without having to learn it from scratch (yet).

Upon first glance, LyX may look similar to your average word processor, but if you follow the tutorial, you will quickly see the difference and how you can increase productivity by concentrating on your work and material, rather than on the visual representation.

Figure 3. A Screenshot of LyX

If you often connect to your machine remotely to get work done, you don't always have the ability to export your display or to forward X. This is when you learn to appreciate the power of the command line—you find that everything you will ever need is right there at your fingertips. By using your favorite editor (vim, in my case) and LaTeX, you can get all your work done easily through a single terminal to your machine.

Another advantage of LyX and LaTeX is that you can easily export your files into platform-independent formats such as PostScript or PDF. By combining the power of make with the power of LaTeX, this can be done with just a few commands. Take, for example, this document—I turned the input file into a beautiful PDF (Figure 4) simply by using the command make pdf.

Figure 4. This Document in Source and in PDF Format

Even though the Makefile itself (see Listing 1) is simple, it allows me to convert my document easily into a large variety of output formats using several different command-line tools, such as ps2pdf and latex2html.

Listing 1. The Makefile for This Document

Finally, LaTeX is extensible—you can write your own styles to achieve different results depending on the kind of document you are writing. But most likely, someone else has already done so and uploaded it to the Comprehensive Tex Archive Network (CTAN, TeX's equivalent to Perl's CPAN).

Conclusion

In brief, whichever way you choose to handle your word processing, the importance of conveying the information in a portable document format needs to be expressed. Just try to make it clear to the people with whom you correspond, to the people who continually send you MS Word documents and then insist that you “fix your computer” when you tell them that you can't open them or that some formatting got lost. I have found that if one explains in a friendly way how a PDF or a PS, for example, can be read by anyone on almost every platform, occasionally one can educate all but the most stubborn citizens of Winworld.

Personally, I'm sure you will find that LaTeX is far superior even for these little everyday tasks when it comes to creating professional (looking) documents. In order to take advantage of LaTeX, however, it is necessary to free your mind from what you may be used to. This may take awhile, but don't be afraid, there is a lot of helpful documentation out there. Maybe the most important document for a LaTeX beginner might be “The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX2”, available from Comprehensive TeX Archive Network (www.ctan.org).

After a short time of going through a tutorial and, most importantly, giving it a try and taking a look at some examples, you will never want to go back. You can take my Word for it.

Resources

email: jschauman@netmeister.org

Jan Schaumann (jschauma@netmeister.org) was born in Iserlohn, Germany. He grew up in Altena, Germany and studied for two years toward a Master's in Modern German Literature and Media and American Studies in Marburg, Germany. He moved to New York City in 1998.

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