General Description

LaTeX, pronounced lay-tech, is a document preparation system commonly used by scientists, engineers, mathematicians and other professionals. Unlike a typical “what you see is what you get” word processor such a Microsoft Word, LaTeX uses a plain text markup language which is compiled into a PDF document using optimal typographical rules. This results in professional-looking documents that are of a different class to the output from a word processor. The numerous customisation options in LaTeX allow for the creation of a diversity of documents with precise control over layout and formatting. LaTeX lends itself well to the creation of templates which do not require advanced knowledge of LaTeX to use and manipulate, allowing a novice LaTeX user to create beautiful documents and learn LaTeX as they go.

History of LaTeX

TeX was created in the late 1970’s by Donald Knuth as a typesetting program for text and mathematical formulae. It was designed after Knuth observed that the digital typesetting software at the time was not up to the typographical standard of previous typesetting techniques and set out to design such a system. LaTeX was developed in the early 1980’s by Leslie Lamport as a higher level language that uses TeX but makes it easier to use through introducing predefined document styles, sectioning, indexing, automatic cross references, automatic numbering and a variety of other useful features. This makes LaTeX a more user-friendly experience than TeX while maintaining the power of the TeX backend.

The current version of LaTeX is 2e which was first released in 1994. This may make LaTeX seem antiquated but its power lies in the numerous packages that have since been written. These packages make LaTeX itself highly expandable by providing extended functionality to the document for almost any requirement you may have.

How It Works

When using a word processor, text is entered and the software immediately displays what the document looks like. When formatting changes are required, it’s usually a matter of using menus to modify things like page margins or heading styles, or highlighting text and clicking buttons to change the font, size, justification, etc.

In LaTeX, the document is written in a plain text editor (such as Notepad) and given to the LaTeX compiler which produces a PDF output. This means that important document settings like the fonts, margins and heading styles are defined in a section at the top of the document and any local formatting (such as bold text) is done through the use of in-text commands.

Below is an example of the start of a LaTeX template for a CV/Resume. You’ll notice there are no options in the editor for how the document looks, instead, this is specified using commands. The text in red is commented, it will not be part of the final PDF but is there to explain what commands do and how to make use of the template. A typical LaTeX document will contain a mixture of plain document text, comments and commands specifying various document elements:

Template code

If the template is now compiled we end up with the following PDF:

Template PDF

Now you know what LaTeX is, have a look at why you should use it