Getting Started with LaTeX

LaTeX Beginner's Guide

March 2011


When there’s a scientific or technical paper to write, the versatility of LaTeX is very attractive. But where can you learn about the software? The answer is this superb beginner’s guide, packed with examples and explanations.


LaTeX Beginner's Guide

LaTeX Beginner's Guide

Create high-quality and professional-looking texts, articles, and books for Business and Science using LaTeX

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What is LaTeX?

LaTeX is a software for typesetting documents. In other words, it's a document preparation system. LaTeX is not a word processor, but is used as a document markup language.

LaTeX is a free, open source software. It was originally written by Leslie Lamport and is based on the TeX typesetting engine by Donald Knuth. People often refer to it as just TeX, meaning LaTeX. It has a long history; you can read about it at For now, let's continue by looking at how we can make the best use of it.

How we can benefit

LaTeX is especially well-suited for scientific and technical documents. Its superior typesetting of mathematical formulas is legendary. If you are a student or a scientist, then LaTeX is by far the best choice, and even if you don't need its scientific capabilities, there are other uses — it produces very high quality output, it is extremely stable, and handles complex documents easily no matter how large they are.

Further remarkable strengths of LaTeX are its cross-referencing capabilities, its automatic numbering and generation of lists of contents, figures and tables, indexes, glossaries, and bibliographies. It is multilingual with language-specific features, and it is able to use PostScript and PDF features.

Apart from being perfect for scientists, LaTeX is incredibly flexible—there are templates for letters, presentations, bills, philosophy books, law texts, music scores, and even for chess game notations. Hundreds of LaTeX users have written thousands of templates, styles, and tools useful for every possible purpose. It is collected and categorized online on archiving servers.

You could benefit from its impressive high quality by starting with its default styles relying on its intelligent formatting, but you are free to customize and to modify everything. People of the TeX community have already written a lot of extensions addressing nearly every formatting need.

The virtues of open source

The sources of LaTeX are completely free and readable for everyone. This enables you to study and to change everything, from the core of LaTeX to the latest extension packages. But what does this mean for you as a beginner? There's a huge LaTeX community with a lot of friendly, helpful people. Even if you cannot benefit from the open source code directly, they can read the sources and assist you. Just join a LaTeX web forum and ask your questions there. Helpers will, if necessary, dig into LaTeX sources and in all probability find a solution for you, sometimes by recommending a suitable package, often providing a redefinition of a default command.

Today, we're already profiting from about 30 years of development by the TeX community. The open source philosophy made it possible, as every user is invited to study and improve the software and develop it further.

Separation of form and content

A basic principle of LaTeX is that the author should not be distracted too much by the formatting issues. Usually, the author focuses on the content and formats logically, for example, instead of writing a chapter title in big bold letters, you just tell LaTeX that it's a chapter heading—you could let LaTeX design the heading or you decide in the document's settings what the headings will look like—just once for the whole document.

LaTeX uses style files extensively called classes and packages, making it easy to design and to modify the appearance of the whole document and all of its details.


LaTeX is available for nearly every operating system, like Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and many more. Its file format is plain text—readable and editable, on all operating systems. LaTeX will produce the same output on all systems. Though there are different LaTeX software packages, so called TeX distributions, we will focus on TeX Live, because this distribution is available for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.

LaTeX itself doesn't have a graphical user interface; that's one of the reasons why it's so portable. You can choose any text editor. There are many editors, even specialized in LaTeX, for every operating system. Some editors are available for several systems. For instance, TeXworks runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. Another very important reason is that it's probably best-suited for beginners.

LaTeX generates PDF output—printable and readable, on most computers and looks identical regardless of the operating system. Besides PDF, it supports DVI, PostScript, and HTML output, preparing the ground for distribution both in print and online, on screen, electronic book readers, or smart phones.

To sum up, LaTeX is portable in three ways—source, its implementation, and output.

Protection for your work

LaTeX documents are stored in human readable text format, not in some obscure word processing format, that may be altered in a different version of the same software. Try to open a 20 year old document written with a commercial word processor. What might your modern software show? Even if you can read the file, its visual appearance would certainly be different than before. LaTeX promises that the document will always be readable and will result in the same output. Though it's being further developed, it will remain backwards compatible.

Word processor documents could be infected with viruses, malicious macros could destroy the data. Did you ever hear of a virus "hiding" in a text file? LaTeX is not threatened by viruses.

Comparing it to word processor software

We've already described some advantages of the typesetting system LaTeX compared to word processing software. While LaTeX encourages structured writing, other word processors may compel you to work inconsistently. They might hide the real formatting structure and encrypt your document in some proprietary file format. Compatibility is a big problem, even between versions of the same software.

There are some interesting articles available online comparing LaTeX to other software. Of course, they are expressions of opinion. Some are years old and therefore do not cover the most recent software, but they discuss important points that are still valid today.

What are the challenges?

The learning curve could be steep, but this article will to help you master it.

Though writing LaTeX looks like programming, don't be afraid. Soon you will know the frequently used commands. Text editors with auto completion and keyword highlighting will support you. They might even provide menus and dialogs with commands for you.

Do you now think it will take a long time until you would learn to achieve creditable results? Don't worry; this article will give you a quick start. You will learn by practicing with a lot of examples. Many more examples can be read and downloaded from the Internet.

We shall continue with the setup of LaTeX on our computer.

Installing LaTeX

Let's start off with the installation of the LaTeX distribution–TeX Live. This distribution is available for Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and other Unix-like operating systems. TeX Live is well maintained and it is being actively developed.

Another very good and user-friendly LaTeX distribution for Windows is MiKTeX. It's easy to install like any other Windows application, but it's not available for other systems like Linux or Mac OS X. You can download it from

At first, we will visit the TeX Live homepage and take a survey of the installation possibilities. Feel free to explore the homepage in depth to study the information offered there.

Open the TeX Live homepage at

Getting Started with LaTeX

We will cover two ways of installation. The first will be online and requires an Internet connection. The other method starts with a huge download, but may be finished offline.

Let's check out the two installation methods.

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Time for action – installing TeX Live using the net installer wizard

We will download the TeX Live net installer and install the complete TeX Live distribution on our computer.

  1. Click on downloading over the net or navigate to

  2. Download the net installer for Windows by clicking on
  3. Extract the file using your favorite archiving program. For example, WinZip, WinRar, or 7-Zip can do it for you.
  4. Open the folder install-tl-* and double-click the Windows batch file install-tl:

    Getting Started with LaTeX

  5. The net installer will automatically detect your language. If it's showing the wrong language, you can force the choice of the language using the lang option at the command prompt such as install-tl –lang=en:

    Getting Started with LaTeX

  6. The installation wizard will pop up, as shown in the following screenshot:

  7. Click on the Next button, now it offers to change the installation folder, but it's fine to retain it. In our article, we will refer to this default location:

  8. Click on the Next button. As shown in the following screenshot, choose one of the options, for example, for the creation of shortcuts:

  9. Click on the Next button. You can then confirm the settings and actually start the installation by clicking on the Install button:

  10. The next screenshot shows how you can monitor the installation progress:

  11. Finally, click on the Finish button and you're done.

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What just happened?


You have completed the installation of TeX Live 2010. Now your Start menu contains a folder called TeX Live 2010 containing six programs:

Getting Started with LaTeX

  • DVIOUT DVI viewer—a viewer program for the classic LaTeX output format DVI. Today, most people choose PDF output, so you probably won't need it.
  • PS_VIEW—a viewer program for the PostScript format; again you probably won't need it, except if you would like to use the PostScript language or read such documents.
  • TeX Live documentation—well, that's useful regarding setup and use of your software!
  • TeX Live Manager—that's your tool for package management, for example, installation and update of LaTeX packages.
  • TeXdoc GUI—it's a graphical user interface offering access to a huge amount of LaTeX-related information. There's a lot of it stored in your computer by now. Use it to gather information whenever needed; it could be quicker than searching online.
  • TeXworks editor—this is an editor developed to create LaTeX documents comfortably. We will make extensive use of it.

    TeXworks is also shipped with MiKTeX 2.8 and higher.

If you would like to stay in control over what should be installed on your computer, start the install-tl-advanced batch file instead of install-tl:

The TeX documentation available online contains more information for advanced users.

Now, we will go through the offline installation of TeX Live 2010.

Time for action – installing TeX Live offline

We will download a compressed ISO image of TeX Live 2010 with a size of about 1.2 gigabytes. After extraction, we can choose to burn it on DVD or to extract it to our hard disk drive and run the installation from there:

  1. Visit the download area at
  2. Download texlive2010.xz. If possible, use a download manager, especially if your Internet connection is not stable.
  3. Extract texlive2010.xz and you will get the file texlive2010.iso. If your archiving program doesn't support the .xz file format, obtain, for instance, the program 7-Zip version 9 or later from and use it for extraction.
  4. Either burn the ISO file on a DVD using a burning software supporting the ISO format or extract it to your hard disk drive. 7-Zip is also capable of doing that for you.
  5. Among the extracted files or on your DVD, you will find the installer batch files install-tl and install-tl-advanced that we've already seen. Choose one, start it, and go through the installation like in the previous installation.

What just happened?

It was similar to the first installation, but this time you've got all the data and you won't need an Internet connection. This complete download is especially recommended if it's foreseeable that you will do another installation of TeX Live later or if you would like to give it to friends or colleagues.

After an offline installation, it's recommended to run an update of TeX Live soon, because packages on a DVD or within an image could already be outdated. Use the TeX Live Manager to keep your system up-to-date if you are connected to the Internet.

Installation on other operating systems

If you work on Mac OS X, you may download a customized version of TeX Live at http:// Download the huge .zip file and double-click on it to install.

On most Linux systems, installation is easy. Use your system's package manager. With Ubuntu, you may use Synaptic, on SUSE systems use YaST, with Red Hat a RPM frontend, and on Debian systems use Aptitude. In the respective package manager, look out for texlive.

If you want to stay on the edge, you could download and install the most current version of TeX Live from its homepage, instead of the version from the operating system's repositories. But be aware that installing third party sources may harm the integrity of your system.

Now that we've prepared the ground, let's start to write LaTeX!

Creating our first document

We have installed TeX and launched the editor; now let's jump in at the deep end by writing our first LaTeX document.

Time for action – writing our first document with TeXworks

Our first goal is to create a document that's printing out just one sentence. We want to use it to understand the basic structure of a LaTeX document.

  1. Launch the TeXworks editor by clicking on the desktop icon or open it in the Start menu.
  2. Click on the New button.
  3. Enter the following lines:

    This is our first document.

  4. Click on the Save button and save the document. Choose a location where you want to store your LaTeX documents, ideally in its own folder.

    Getting Started with LaTeX

  5. In the drop-down field in the TeXworks toolbar, choose pdfLaTeX:

    Getting Started with LaTeX

  6. Click the Typeset button Getting Started with LaTeX.
  7. The output window will automatically open. Have a look at it:

    Getting Started with LaTeX

What just happened?

You have just seen the first few minutes of the life of a LaTeX document. Its following hours and days will be determined by editing, typesetting, and so on. Don't forget to save your document frequently.

As announced in contrary to the classic word processor software, you cannot see the effect of changes immediately—but the result is just one click away.

Have a go hero – checking out advanced LaTeX editors

Do you have experience in working with complex programs? Do you like using a feature-rich and powerful editor? Then have a look at these LaTeX editors. Visit their websites to find screenshots and to read about their features:

The mentioned editors are free open source software.


We learned in this article about the benefits of LaTeX. It will be our turn to use the virtues of LaTeX to achieve the best possible results.

Furthermore, we covered:

  • Installation of TeX Live
  • Using the editor TeXworks
  • Creation of a LaTeX document and generation of output

Further resources on this subject:

Books to Consider

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