Software: LaTeX

I am doing a series of posts on software that I think is useful for students and graduates. I’ll discuss what it’s useful for, where to get it from, and any tips or resources I have.

This week I’ll be talking about LaTeX.

Uses

Have you ever used Microsoft Word to write a long report? And then you

  • Tried to consistently number your headings, tables or figures
  • Tried to NOT have a page number on the title page
  • Changed your mind about the order or layout
  • Tried to move a figure or table, with its caption
  • Tried to use more than 15 or so equations in one document
  • Or any number of other things that Word hates

and everything fell apart?

Some of these issues can be mitigated by a good knowledge of how Word works. Others are just fundamental to the problem of writing a long document in a program like Word.

Microsoft Word, OpenOffice Writer and other word processors are all GUI (graphic user interface) programs. This means they look really pretty while you’re editing your document, but they can be tricky to use well with long, complex documents.

LaTeX uses a different strategy. You can basically ‘code’ your document, in the same way that people ‘code’ apps (but a lot easier). This means that you can’t really see what it looks like as you go, but it tends to be a lot more consistent in its results and easier in the long run.

Unlike GUI word processors, you have to learn how to use LaTeX. This means it can be a lot slower in the short term. But, you never end up spending hours trying to edit all your headings to be in the right font/size/colour – all that is done for you by the program.

Here is a document I put together, using an existing template. The nice thing is that, if I wanted to make it longer, the only extra work I would have to do would be adding more text – all layout issues are dealt with already. You can also have a look at the Latex Article and Latex Article Code.

An article I put together in Latex
An article I put together in Latex

If you are writing an important report/thesis/miscellaneous document for university, they will probably have a LaTeX template or .sty file that will format your document for you – all you need to do is add your text.

The major benefits of LaTeX are:

  • Equations are a lot quicker, because instead of pushing Insert→Equation→Fraction→[choose a fraction]→d→[find the theta symbol]→[move to the denominator]→d→t you can just type \frac{d\theta}{dt}
  • Inserting figures is much easier, as is referring to them in the text and ensuring they fit into the text nicely
  • Inserting citations and a bibliography is a piece of cake

Cost

Latex is free, open-source software.

Where to get it

You can download Latex from a number of different places on the web, but I use the MiKTeX download which is great for LaTeX beginners because it will do parts of the code for you automatically and has a good help function.

Tips

It’s always best to start with a template. You can find a whole lot of LaTeX templates free to download here.

There is plenty of advice available. The best site to start with is the Wikibooks site.

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