# If TeX, why Markdown?

edited June 2020

Good morning,

I work in two fields: literature/humanities and GIS. Both require an attention to detail with typesetting. Eventually, this led me to switch to plain text, then to learn Markdown, and finally, learn (La)TeX. TeX has been especially helpful for me in producing PDFs of my work in both fields without having significantly different workflows. I don't see myself going back, really.

When talking to a friend of mine who uses TeX for math but otherwise uses word processors and the like, I was trying to explain the value of Markdown. This post I read today synthesized with my personal discussion nicely. Clearly Markdown is useful for things like The Archive or forum posts like this one 1. There's a basic assumption, of course, that a Markdown user prefers or requires a plain text approach.

But the question remains, if one can use TeX for longer documents (in my case, like the course pack I make for my humanities students or the reports I produce for GIS work), what is the purpose of Markdown in that context? Does Markdown reach the limits of its purpose in short notes or online posting?

1. Micro-rant: I am still beyond annoyed that the forums at my university don't support Markdown. I'll synthesize a post from my ZK, only to have to spend time formatting the damn thing. The posts for those class discussions aren't short, either. ↩︎

Post edited by Sascha on

• I know people who write books in Markdown, me included, so that works

But for most of @Sascha's books, we reached a point where finer-grained control over the layout was needed, and we converted from Markdown to LaTeX and then worked on the LaTeX code until publication. That's an annoying process because when you work on a 2nd edition, you have to manually adjust everything all over again -- changes to the LaTeX code will not affect the underlying Markdown, and the MD-to-TeX conversion will overwrite the 1st edition's code. So it's not great for incremental writing at all.

Scrivener does a good job: you can put LaTeX commands in the text directly and have them render into the final LaTeX code. A downside is that you have to deal with LaTeX code.

I think it's a problem of convenience. I don't find LaTeX to be as readable as Markdown, that's it. So I wouldn't want to take LaTeX-formatted notes.

Re: your Uni's forum software, maybe it supports BB code and you can use https://mm2bc.ustc-zzzz.net/ to convert your posts quickly? (I have stuff like this as part of my global macOS Services for automation.)

Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

• Thanks, @ctietze. This brings up a few more questions for me.

One, is there something akin to the Marked app for Tex? I'm using Overleaf when I need to check work, but it would be nice to have a desktop app to do the same. (I don't mind reading TeX myself, but that's I think a function of being so detail-oriented. Still, periodic recompiling is useful for seeing with fresh eyes.)

@ctietze said:
... when you work on a 2nd edition, you have to manually adjust everything all over again -- changes to the LaTeX code will not affect the underlying Markdown, and the MD-to-TeX conversion will overwrite the 1st edition's code. So it's not great for incremental writing at all.

When you say "It's not great," do you mean writing in MD and converting, or writing in TeX?

Lastly, I'll be writing a thesis starting in a little under a year. Given the level of precision I will need, what are your thoughts on deciding ahead of time to write a book in TeX vs. MD? My document will include multiple diagrams, as well as some maps written in R (so I will be using knitr, too). I guess my question is partly on the relative merits of R-Markdown vs. TeX, if anyone has thoughts...

PS: I'll look into the BBCode.

PPS: I just noticed that my post got filed under "Introduce Yourselves!" but I can't seem to change it. In case that's an issue for organizing the forum.

• @Sociopoetic said:
One, is there something akin to the Marked app for Tex? I'

I only know WYSIWYG editors, not viewers per-se: LyX (open source, cross-platform) and Compositor (macOS, paid).

On Mac, you can use Preview for some non-PDF output files that LaTeX creates. .dvi or what it was called. I do think they are created a bit quicker than PDFs, if that helps, and Preview updates automatically when the file changes -- to some extent; in the worst case, it moves your scroll position back to page 1.

I also remembered the tool Madoko. It does the Markdown → LaTeX → PDF conversion for you.

@ctietze said:
... when you work on a 2nd edition, you have to manually adjust everything all over again -- changes to the LaTeX code will not affect the underlying Markdown, and the MD-to-TeX conversion will overwrite the 1st edition's code. So it's not great for incremental writing at all.

When you say "It's not great," do you mean writing in MD and converting, or writing in TeX?

The workflow overall, sorry. @Sascha and I got in the habit of collaborating on Markdown drafts for as long as possible, then convert to LaTeX, and from that point forward not touch the Markdown draft again. It essentially becomes obsolete so we can tweak all the TeX.

Writing in TeX is fine with a proper editor. I don't mind writing a paper in TeX. I would mind writing all day, every day, because I don't like the syntax for the actual writing part.

In my mind, TeX is a printer's tool. Instead of movable type and paper, you work with TeX syntax to lay out page after page.

But the equivalent of a hand-written manuscript of yore is Markdown. (Which is a typescript, because no hands were involved, I know )

Lastly, I'll be writing a thesis starting in a little under a year. Given the level of precision I will need, what are your thoughts on deciding ahead of time to write a book in TeX vs. MD? My document will include multiple diagrams, as well as some maps written in R (so I will be using knitr, too). I guess my question is partly on the relative merits of R-Markdown vs. TeX, if anyone has thoughts...

Now that's a specific question I cannot answer from experience.

Factors to consider:

• will you collaborate with others?
• will you give parts of the text to others for proof-reading? Will you do it often? Does it have to look "final" for your peers to deal with it? (Humanity seems to have forgotten how to deal with typescripts that people used to crank out from their type writers. Those did not look like a printed book at all.)
• do you have any experience with the general R-Markdown to TeX to PDF workflow, or any alternative to it, that would at least guarantee you can succeed?

I moved the discussion to another category.

Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

• I'm using Overleaf when I need to check work, but it would be nice to have a desktop app to do the same. (I don't mind reading TeX myself, but that's I think a function of being so detail-oriented. Still, periodic recompiling is useful for seeing with fresh eyes.)

I use TeXworks. Very similar to overleaf, you have a source window and a PDF window. If you want you can edit your .tex files using your favorite editor as well. ⌘T/^T will typeset the source. On the mac you can do brew cask install mactex -- IIRC it installs TeXworks along with all the tex packages -- it is quite huge though.

• I know this is my own thread, but seeing as I am increasingly working in RStudio (at a professor's direction for a course), I thought I would add this:

https://www.bookdown.org/

I have not tinkered with it yet, but it seems to be another way to typeset long manuscripts using RMarkdown instead of TeX. I'm not sure where I will fall on this yet. Perhaps someone else here will find it useful. One noteworthy example, Kieran Healy wrote his book on Data Visualization using bookdown -- he's the same fellow who wrote the "Guide to Plain Text Social Science" that so many of us have cited in these forums.