General Description

LaTeX, pronounced lay-tech, is a document preparation system commonly used by scientists, engineers, mathematicians and other professionals. Unlike a traditional “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) word processor, 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 customization options in LaTeX allow for the creation of a diversity of documents with precise control over layout and formatting. This system 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, the software is opened and text can immediately be typed onto the page. Some people prefer doing their formatting as they go while others do it all at the end. Either way, formatting is usually a matter of highlighting text and clicking a button to change the font, size, justification, etc.

In LaTeX, the document is written in a plain text editor (think Notepad) and run through the LaTeX compiler to produce a PDF output. This means that the look of the document needs to be defined in a section at the top of the document and any formatting is done through the use of commands.

Below is an example of a spaghetti bolognese recipe as it is entered into both Microsoft Word (left) and LaTeX (right) without formatting applied.

If formatting is applied to the Word version and the LaTeX version is compiled, we have the following outputs.

Click here for the Word document and here for the LaTeX PDF.

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