At the start of the 2017-2018 academic year, I, then a high school sophomore, decided to start using LaTeX for all my assignments in all my classes. This may appear a bit crazy, but I assure you that it definitely worked out for me in the end. Although I abruptly bumped against some warts with my system of managing my work with LaTeX sometimes during the year, in the end however, I can wholeheartedly say that I thoroughly enjoyed the year and I aim to keep doing nearly all my work in LaTeX for the rest of high school. Why don't we just go through a small story of how I was first exposed to LaTeX.

My First, Bad Experience With LaTeX

In 7th and 8th grade I was getting my first tastes of everything programming and computers had to offer. For me, it opened up new worlds of opportunity and information. However, due to a lack of guidance by someone more knowledgeable about the subject, I often squandered most of this time half-learning the basics of syntax in many different programming languages, but never actually making deep headway to a deeper knowledge and practical use of a language.

However I did once try to make a python script that would generate any desired digit of π. The user would enter in the index of their desired digit, and my program would spit out the digit of π at that place. I expected a user's session to look like:

$> python pi.py
Which digit would you like?
1
3
$> python pi.py
Which digit would you like?
5
5

However, I didn't want to use a massive text file that already had the digits of πto retrieve this, but rather generate it on the spot. A new browser tab and some keystrokes later I found this Math Fun Fact article about a concept that I still find quite cool. The page talks about a mathematical formula, the Bailey-Borwein-Plouffe formula, that spits out any nth digit of π, albeit in base-16. However, I had to first confront the fact that I didn't even understand what that cool 'capital E' at the beginning of the mathematical expression was. I promptly asked my 7th grade math teacher and he replied with an explanation that it was an infinite sum notation. Searching online for a more specific explanation on just that one equation, I found a great explanation on a blog.

As with nearly every online web page, and I suspect that I am not alone in this, I did a preliminary scroll of the entire webpage on that blog. That blog has a comment section that said that you could include "include LaTeX $latex like this$". I had always passively noticed that the mathematics on many websites and documents had a certain 'look' that I could never quite place upon them, including expressions on this website. But here it seemed was the answer! I immediately started wikipediaing and trying to make a 'Hello World' of sorts to just try it out. However, given that I was both very young and inexperienced with programming, I instantly struggled to grok any of the tooling or process involved in generating a LaTeX file. Not that you need an in-depth knowledge of programming to use LaTeX, quite the opposite in fact as online websites like Overleaf and ShareLaTeX have made it far more accessible. However, I was a hardcore dedicated "commandline commando", whether or not I was actually good at it, those days so whether those websites existed or not made no difference to me. Having failed at trying to get both the LaTeX markup and compilation process working, I quit. Although I immediately found interest in more shiny (at least to me) in working with C and the terminal. It would only be after I graduated from middle school would I try my hand again, but this time it would stick.

My Second, Good Experience With LaTeX

In my 9th grade biology class, one of the final, as well as most important, assignments for the year was to write a large paper on a topic of our choosing that was biology related. There was a wide variety of paper topics, but what piqued my interest was CRISPR, an upcoming and promising technique for genetic editing. Given that this was a long-term project meant to be done iteratively over a couple of months, I decided to give a second chance at using LaTeX. I had remembered it's abilities to present great-looking documents, and I thought it'd be perfect for longer project such as this. In addition, the longer period of time to work on it would allow me to reasonably learn it and use it for writing this paper. Essentially, I wanted to force myself to learn LaTeX through this project.

By now, I had realized that it was foolish to constantly shun IDEs and other more sophisticated targeted editors in favor of purely commandline based approaches. There was a time and place for everything, and for starting with LaTeX, I made the right decision this time around in choosing to work within an 'IDE' for LaTeX, Texpad. (Now however, I use TeXstudio, as I prefer a cross-platform, open source software.)

Although the basic compilation process for getting a pdf document ready from raw LaTeX markup isn't exactly terribly complicated anyhow, often literally just a pdflatex awesome_paper.tex away, my research process for the CRISPR assignment required many paper citations that I did not want to keep citing by hand. This is one of the shining highlights of LaTeX for me, its ability to automatically generate citations and bibliographies, a task that I generally view as a waste of time to do by hand. LaTeX has a multitude of packages that allow you to easily automatically manage your citations. Although there are capabilities for Microsoft Word to do citations for you as well, and many doctorates and seminal theses have been written using that system, I don't think it can come close to the flexibility and portability of the LaTeX ecosystem. All I had to was compile a .bib file of my sources, which Google Scholar so helpfully helps generate for me, and call a \cite{} in the LaTeX file when necessary.

Although writing and citations were fluid, the real trouble came when I tried to do design while editing the paper. In hindsight, this was the biggest error that I encountered, not a fault of the language, but rather my own. LaTeX was designed to separate the content from the layout and design, and here I was up at 12 AM trying to get an image exactly where I wanted on the page. I would often succeed, only to be disheartened and frustrated by the layout conflicts when I inserted more graphical elements or edited previous text the next working session. Trying to place images and design as I wrote the paper and learned LaTeX was something I wanted to do in order to see immediate results. But what I should have done, and urge anyone else that may be learning LaTeX while writing a paper to do, is just focus on writing the paper, and don't make the mistake of going too into positioning graphical elements and trying to make a very good design. Although your basic markup should still be there, leave time for the image processing and aesthetic decisions at the end of the paper. Believe me, in the long run of writing your paper, you will save a significant portion of time and mental resources in not trying to multitask learning the subject of the paper, writing about it, and also designing the final paper. This separation of content from layout & design is one of the strengths of LaTeX, so fully utilize it. Although I still find myself falling into this mindset every once in a while, a snap out of it reminds me why the separation was made in the first place.

However, that effort eventually resulted in a final product that I was extremely proud of. Various compliments about the look of the paper were a dime a dozen, and I felt extremely proud of my efforts. Looking back at the .tex file and the paper itself however, I can of course see glaring issues and things I could have done better, but I can still acknowledge that for a middling 9th grader who hadn't touched LaTeX before, it was good. So much so, that I decided to try this for every single paper I would write in 10th grade.

Commitment to LaTeX

For any and all assignments in 10th grade where it was within some reason possible, I used LaTeX. This included my Chemistry papers and lab reports, English papers, and History papers as well. I can confidently say that LaTeX made my life easier in each of these situations. However, I did encounter some warts during niche edge cases with my system from time to time. Before going on to list the ultimate pros and cons with using LaTeX, I'll just describe my basic note-taking and organizational system, since it may factor in to whether or not some of these pros and cons may actually apply to your situation as well.

I used OneNote 2016 for all my in-class note-taking, with LaTeX backing me up if at any points I needed to write down a crucial equation during chemistry class. One thing that may be unique to my situation was the fact that I synced my work across two different computers. One of them was a MacBook Air from late 2013 that was provided by my school which I used in school (yes, I realize how lucky I am in this aspect!). However, I also had a home laptop that ran Windows from which I preferred to work generally. Since LaTeX files are actually just plain text, I used git to sync a directory that contained all my school work, doing a git commit on the home laptop whenever I finished the night's work and a git pull on my school laptop to have all my documents with my for printing. OneNote 2016 synced my in-class notes automatically anyway, so I didn't need to worry about that. Without further ado, let's list the pros and cons of using LaTeX for all your classes!

Pros

Cons


I think there is clearly an evidence of far more pros than cons to using LaTeX as your document writing and managing system. Once you get over the initial learning curve of LaTeX, believe me, the benefits are very much worth it and will act like compound interest in rewarding you for your efforts as you get more proficient in LaTeX and your documents continually look better. I find that I eventually settled in a certain 'style' of formatting my documents that my teachers often found find very distinguishable.

Looking Ahead to the Future

Next year, I am definitely going to take more of a pencil and paper approach to classes to my science and math classes, for the speed and ease of writing down the equation without having to miss valuable lecture notes due to fiddling around in my LaTeX snippet generator to get the correct equation. But for everything else, I can confidently say that I will continue to use LaTeX in all my assignments that will be turned in, and hopefully become even better. One of my goals to further advance my usage of LaTeX would be to start learning more of how the programming language side of LaTeX works, and leveraging it to make more powerful reusable macros rather than just the more simplistic ones I have right now.