When I was at university, a software engineering class had a huge argument with a lecturer. It wasn’t about any high flying computer science ideal, just how people do their word processing.
My lecturer maintained that people were interested in the text and the text alone. People should be willing to use standard text mode editors to lay down the text and then use a text formatter such as TeX to print it. The text and the formatting, she said, were completely separate.
Most students in the lecture agreed that while, say, Emacs could handle much larger files than Microsoft Word, most people were unprepared to hack around with command lines and obscure key-strokes just to write a letter. Most ‘normal’ people agree with us.
Unfortunately, the former approach has many advantages when writing long, structured documents. What we could do with is a compromise. What You See Is Almost What You Get perhaps.
LyX, as you may have guessed, is just that compromise.
What does it do?
In short: long documents. Okay, it’s quite happy letting you edit a letter, in fact it comes with a number of templates to allow you to do just that, but this is not what it excels at.
To test out LyX, I converted a long document that I’ve been using Microsoft Word to edit until now (don’t get too excited, this was a manual process!). Word wasn’t having too much difficulty with the size, but I was starting to have problems with styles and cross-references.
The first thing to note is that you have to be organized. It’s tempting in Word to just change the font or its size directly, but this is a big no-no in Lyx. You should create a style for every type of paragraph that you need. In my case I used the defaults that came with LyX and applied them to my text.
All this was incredibly straight-forward and very Windows-like. You can high-light the text by dragging the mouse over it (it turns cyan), delete text with the delete or back-space key and all the usual conventions — not something to be taken for granted in Linux.
Then I hit a bit of a problem. In Word, I had all my lines of code numbered. How could I replicate this in LyX?
To cut a long story short, while I’m sure that you can do it, I have no idea how. I suspect it has something to do with the style-sheets (like in Word), but I couldn’t figure out how to change it graphically and I have no inclination to start hacking around in the TeX source files.
In fact this is the most damning criticism of the program as a whole: you still need to know about TeX. If I’d wanted to know about that I might have stuck to Emacs! It is still a very useful program, but to get the full flexibility of the system you’ll need to get your hands dirty!
From bad to worse
Having found my first problem, things started getting even worse. I couldn’t get the cross-referencing to work either. I’m pretty sure that this time it’s because I’ve been brain-washed with nearly eight years of using Word for Windows. When I say that I want a cross-reference, I expect to be able to say which heading I want to reference and how I want it to be displayed (i.e. the text or the section number or the page number, or some combination of them). In LyX what I get is a box with five buttons and a message saying “No labels found in document.”
I managed to partly solve this by creating a number of labels which I could create cross-references to. However, this was nowhere near as flexible as Word. Do I have to create a label at the source of every cross-reference? (This looks like something else that’s been carried over from its TeX heritage.)
Taking a step back from my difficulties, what’s it like?
LyX uses the XForms library, which some purists hate as you can’t get the source code for. In its favour, it does look very smart. The menu’s are a bit more ‘sticky’ than I’d like, but there’s nothing wrong with them. It makes LyX look like a modern Windows application, and I mean that as a compliment.
However, it’s not quite as intuitive as it might be. For example, many of the keyboard short-cuts are non-standard. What’s wrong with Ctrl-I to start and stop italic mode? How do I change the formatting of a style? How do I create a blank line?
It’s also fair to say that the configuration isn’t as easy as it could be. As has been mentioned before, I tend to use TrueType fonts rather than those that come with XFree86 and I wasn’t too upset to learn that I’d have to configure LyX to use them. It was good to see ‘Screen Fonts…’ under the Options menu; it was equally good to see that changing ‘times’ to ‘times new roman’ had immediate effect. What was not so good to see was that it had forgotten the setting next time I started. It turns out that the best way to keep the settings is to edit the ‘lyxrc’ file in the LYX_DIR directory. Okay, we can’t expect LyX to make global changes, but why not local changes?
As someone that writes many more structured, technical documentation than letters (sorry Mum), Lyx is just the kind of thing that I’m looking for.
It’s not as easy to use or well integrated with the print system or print preview program as Microsoft Word, but it is much better at handling tables and equations, not as though I use many of the latter.
However, for my purposes I think I’ll stick to dual-booting and Word 95. LyX shows a lot of promise and is very good at what it already does. However, I think that you’d have to be a TeX guru to get the best out of it, and that rules me out.