I am involved in a Twitter discussion about this classic article about why one should eschew Word processors and instead choose to use a markup language like TeX. The basic argument is that creating a text is and should be a separate task from typesetting it, but programs like Microsoft Word spuriously combine the two. The result is crappy typesetting and a constant distraction from the document’s logical structure to how it looks.
Fair enough! To all those who use TeX, I wish you nothing but the best. But I agree with Voyou that TeX does not actually solve the stated problem — instead, it adds a whole additional layer of making you learn a clunky mark-up language. I tried to use TeX for a while and found it to be incredibly frustrating, not to mention the fact that it’s a pain in the ass to set up on a Windows machine (since you have to set up a Postscript translator to actually print your document). And I’m kind of a best-case test here, since I have always been fascinated by the more hands-on aspects of computers and in fact used Linux as my sole operating system for a long time in college.
Word processors might not force you to think about logical structure, but I assume that the TeX mark-up language does not actively disallow “manually” formatting headings in detail rather than using a heading style. The solution to not thinking about logical structure is just to think about logical structure, and all standard word processors provide tools adequate to the task: namely, styles. If average users don’t use them, the solution can’t be to make them learn how to use this much more complicated system, but rather to convince them to use them. I use them consistently, and the results are of course absolutely amazing.
Similarly, the solution to worrying too much about formatting during composition is not to worry about formatting during composition. I leave all styles in their default state, then I can easily manipulate them for printing.
Finally, for the vast majority of documents like class papers, etc., there’s no need for good typesetting. The fact that double-spacing is the standard should be a hint that camera-ready “beauty” (and don’t even get me started about how obnoxious it is that the party line on TeX is that it produces “beautiful” results) is not desired.
For those documents that do need typesetting, i.e., published texts, most often your publisher is going to take care of that. My experience with books is that the copyeditor will put in the markup relevant to the publisher’s particular system. They could give it to me in advance, but then they’d still have to check it, right? Nothing would really be gained. (Things may be different in math or natural sciences, but it’s notable that none of the people I’m debating with work in either.) Why not just use the good old “Heading 1″ and “Heading 2″ styles in Word and be done with it?
People might lament the fact that publishers often require submissions to be in Word format when they could have the beauty and elegance of TeX, but maybe that’s their way of saying that they prefer to take care of the typesetting element on their own — which they should, since they’re the experts.
So other than people who are self-publishing or those who are using it for something that it’s particularly great for (such as math), I don’t see any advantage to using TeX. I mean, use it if you want! For the stated reasons, however, it seems to me that it’s no better or worse than Microsoft Word — and using Word requires less intellectual overhead than TeX, which in turn seems to provide no genuine value-add for the majority of uses to which humanities scholars would put it. (There is the matter of citation management, but that’s not inherent to TeX itself — Word has add-ons that can do the same thing.) That is to say, it doesn’t seem to me that the time spent learning the TeX mark-up language would ever “pay for itself.” If you tell me that I can use an automated system, then it seems like you’re just telling me to use a word processor again, and thus there’s nothing to keep me from following the path of least resistence and manually formatting headings.
There is, in short, no necessary connection between using TeX and focusing on the logical structure of the text. Indeed, for most users it’s initially going to add a significant additional amount of distraction. The payoff, on the other hand, is unnecessary (at least for scholars in the humanities) — if you have something that needs professional-grade typesetting, 99% of the time you’re going to have a professional typesetter doing it for you.
For my own personal purposes — and as readers know, I’ve worked on a lot of fairly large-scale writing projects — Microsoft Word 2003 is more than adequate. It’s customizable and it provides all the organizational tools I need. (I refuse to upgrade to later versions because they’ve removed the macro features.) Turn off all the auto-formatting options (which honestly should be off by default), use the pre-defined “Heading X” styles consistently, and you’re golden. Or if you don’t like using the tacky corporate software and really like the hands-on aspects of computers and programming, use the mark-up language. Either tool is more than adequate to the task, however, if properly used. Pitting TeX properly used against Word sloppily used is stacking the deck.