(Emacs+Org-Mode) Choosing The Best Writing And Publishing Software

In regards to writing and publishing literature (mostly articles, books, essays, and dissertations) there is a lot of discussion about choosing the right (software) tools for the job. And for good reason—literary endeavors are mentally laborious difficult work. As anybody would expect the software should help you a lot. At best you only want to worry about choosing the right software to help you write.

Yet the sad and all too common reality is that you are really worried about choosing the software that is the least-worst painful impediment to your creative process. Discussions that praise particular tools are pretty difficult to take any value from until you’ve suffered greatly at the hands of the tools deemed inferior by them. When people are suffering that is the worst time to get their feedback. First get them better, then find out what works and what doesn’t.

This post is what I’ve got to share with you, when I am feeling pretty great about life, and have something good to share about the topic, in regards to \(\LaTeX\) and Org-Mode.

If you are considering using \(\LaTeX\) and Org-Mode for some reason then please read on:

Read Me First

Here is my take on it, and it is as brief as I can make it. It took years and years of effort and pain and help from others and more effort and pain to get to the point where my feedback can be this brief—and it is still too long. Please know that the volume includes the abundance of clarity that I’d already gained. Sorry for it being longer because I didn’t make enough time for it to be shorter.

The Tools Compared

\(\LaTeX\) is a typesetting system. Org-Mode+Emacs is a knowledge (text, writing (literature), notes, schedules and more) management system built inside of a text editor. They are incomparable. Finding acceptance is essential to moving forward and finding a place for them in your workflow, because there is a good place for them to work together.

How To Move Forward With Them Together

First take enough time to learn and enjoy each of them individually. Internalize their strengths and identify their place in your workflow. Have fun, writing is hard.

If you find value in both of them, then you will enjoy using them together—where their unique strengths are magnified by each other.

Org-Mode+\(\LaTeX\) Utilization Failure Risk Mitigation

It can be daunting considering making the transition from \(\LaTeX\) to Org-Mode+\(\LaTeX\) in one fell swoop. And rightly so! Each is powerful and simple but not simplistic. It can be like “drinking from a firehose”! A lot of us fail here, “rage quitting” and abandoning the whole effort, and that is worth addressing because using Org-Mode can be a very wrong choice, so the trick is to discover if it is or not (and that is different for everyone because of their unique creative process):

A reasonable demand for any software (or any tool for that matter) is to get the most benefit out of it from the least effort. Here is a reasonable way to do that here:

Decide How To Publish

Publishing isn’t easy. Read up on it. Talk to your publisher and collaborators and friends and strangers online. One way to publish is using using \(\LaTeX\). If you made that choice, then read on.

Learn \(\LaTeX\)

Take enough time to learn and enjoy \(\LaTeX\) basics but nothing more. For content just write a little bit, maybe a few pages that contain most of the elements for your writing style (paragraphs, lists, pictures, tables, references, whatever) keep it non-trivial but very simple. Learn how to include content in other files and include them into your main file as a way to simplify managing different chapters or sections, a simple and powerful tool for abstraction. Be forewarned that the basics are many so get all the help you can.

Study, read books, play around, setup a good editor. This is where Emacs+AucTeX are mandatory. Definitely setup Latexmk. Get jumping back and forth between your editor and your code working. You don’t need to be a wizard to learn the basics, but by learning the basics, non-tex’ies will view you as a wizard. That is a big problem: the loudest voices exclaiming the difficulties in learning \(\LaTeX\) come from those who have never learned the basics of \(\LaTeX\). Do your best to ignore them and focus on your writing process: it is your responsibility and no-one else’s.

By now you are comfortable with a good typesetting system and text editor in which you can write content. At this point you’ve got everything that you need. Were you to stop here you can produce any kind of literature with the least time and effort required and in fact enjoy the entire experience.

When The Entire Experience Becomes Less Pleasant

A lot of us run into projects that are less simple. Managing them becomes too painful. Handling deadlines, notes, references, ways to break down sections of the text—you name it, they become too painful. And this isn’t unique to publishing: it is a problem for everybody taking on a large project. That is how a lot of people end up with Org-Mode.

If you ended up here and you already wanted to publish using \(\LaTeX\) then you are in a win-win situation because

  1. Your publishing problems are solved with \(\LaTeX\)
  2. You already know \(\LaTeX\) so no more effort is required
  3. You already know Emacs, and there are so many great resources about Org-Mode out there, and it is very easy to ease-into it, that learning Org-Mode is very pleasant and even fun
  4. Org-Mode can export to \(\LaTeX\) and you can set it up in a very less powerful way or a very powerful way: whatever gets you the most value faster.
  5. Whatever way you choose: rage-quit risk mitigation is critical here

Rage-Quitting Org-Mode+\(\LaTeX\) Mitigation Approach

Having heard a lot of amazing claims about the benefits of using both a lot of people hit a wall pretty quickly and quite painfully. Nobody deserves that especially in the face of their literary endeavor. This article tries to help avoid that experience, because that was my personal experience, but no article is perfect. Trying to make this process failure-proof, here is how I would do it:

  1. Learn the single feature of Org-Mode that solves your most painful problem. That might not have anything to do with generating \(\LaTeX\). This is really important because you need to start collecting positive experiences with Org-Mode early on.
  2. Create a new Org file from scratch. Export it to \(\LaTeX\) just to see that it does work. Then look at the code it generates. Study it. You will be very familiar with it since you already learned \(\LaTeX\) by this point.
  3. Add some font formatting and tables then do the same thing. Everything should look familiar. If it doesn’t then go back to learning more about \(\LaTeX\).
  4. Now take some parts of your main document and copy paste them into this document. Try to publish it. Whether or not it worked look at the code. Does it make sense? Does it look right? Now make it compile and publish correctly.
  5. This should take some effort and you should start to feel whether it is useful or not. Since you are solving problems in your workflow, making your life better, and you are using \(\LaTeX\) that you already know, this should be a relatively pleasant process. But maybe not. You haven’t invested much at this point, so consider stopping now. It might not be work it to go any further.

If you go any further from here then you are probably convinced that it is worth learning more about using Org-Mode to manage your content and \(\LaTeX\) to publish it.

Know that it is a really pleasant, fun and easy way to do it. It is simple! But it isn’t simplistic. I would never argue that anybody learn either of these tools, but if they asked what worked for me, and why it helped me, and how I found them both to be useful—then the process I documented here is what I would tell them.

Best wishes to you and all of your literary endeavors!

3 thoughts on “(Emacs+Org-Mode) Choosing The Best Writing And Publishing Software”

  1. I use Org Mode to publish ebooks. my template includes the cover, front, main and back mater, etc etc. One Org file – one complete ebook with minimal LaTeX.

    1. Hi Peter. Thanks for sharing your experience. Looking back over this article, it does come off as pretty intense. That reveals my bias and experience how I use it, and to your point doesn’t reflect the breadth of ways to work with Org-Mode and LaTeX: how simple it can be!
      Thank you for sharing your experience and getting another voice out there!

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