Have You Considered TeX?


I’d been digging around for a new, better, way to write documents for my research. Previously I’d worked in Markdown: simple but inconsistent. Word: ubiquitous but proprietary. For a period I’d even dabbled in Groff: reliable but severely limited. And of course, LaTeX: the defacto standard for academic writing. LaTeX had served me well for the years I’d been using it but minor complaints had gradually snowballed into grievances that got in the way of actual work. Whether it be missing packages when working across machines, obtuse errors that offered little guidance, or compile times that wrecked flow, I needed something better.

However, to focus solely on LaTeX is to neglect the latter half of the name: TeX. For many, TeX is but a footnote in their LaTeX journey, described simply as the foundations from which LaTeX is built without another word given. But with few other options available, I decided to give it a go. A few weeks with a slightly worn copy of the TeXbook later and I found that TeX just didn’t cut it either. TeX was certainly faster but was a step too far in the other direction; features I desperately needed were no longer available. During this period I also sampled eplain, the suggested next step which adds some extra functionality but that was also lacking.

Some further digging and I finally settled on OPmac - something more akin to a LaTeX-lite, or a high-end Markdown if you will. OPmac, or extended PlainTex Macros, are a series of macros implemented by Petr Olsak which greatly expand TeX’s capabilities while keeping things straightforward, fast, and extensible. It adds supports for including images, enhanced citation formats, and even a lightweight version of Beamer-like presentations.

Setup is minimal, requiring just a single download or a basic (La)TeX installation. Getting up and running with OPmac is as simple as:

\input opmac 

Subsequently getting to grips with OPmac was also surprisingly painless. The documentation is short but covers almost every eventuality, while the ‘tips and tricks section’ features advice on every possible use case and feature you might ever need.

An immediate thumbs up has to go to the much faster to type commands which are generally shorter than their LaTeX equivalents: \section becomes \sec, \subsection becomes \secc, \includegraphics becomes \inspic etc.

I’m also a particular fan of the Groff/Markdown-like command structure. Rather than LaTeX’s cumbersome begin/end structure or wrapping everything in parenthesis (\section{Example}), OPmac instead adopts a much cleaner approach of issuing a command and then taking everything on the rest of the line as an argument:

\sec Introduction

\inspic some_image.jpg

Best of all, because we’re still working in TeX, compilation times are near instant. Even larger documents with dozens of references and images took less than 5 seconds to build from scratch.

So consider TeX (and especially OPmac), it offers a cleaner, faster, and portable means of writing documents. While it may not support all the fancy features of LaTeX, it isn’t intended to. Tex with OPmac instead offers the essentials you need in a format that’s convenient, letting you spend more time focusing on getting things done.