Getting started with LaTeX

This page is intended to serve as a launching pad for the total beginner. It’s split into three parts for a reason. Take them one at a time.

Ready? Let’s get started.


You need three things: the command line, LaTeX itself, and a text editor.

  1. The command line. You’ve got it already; here’s how to use it.
  2. LATEX in some form. I use TEX Live, the cross-platform standard. There is a version configured for Macs called MacTEX. The Windows-specific implementation is MikTEX.
    • Download options: If possible, get installer versions (rather than .zip versions), and the most recent stable version for your operating system.
    • Ask a friend/mentor for help if necessary — chances are they had to do some troubleshooting at this stage too.
  3. A text editor, because Microsoft Word inserts special characters even when you tell it to save as text-only. Notepad, Wordpad and TextEdit don’t have this problem, but they don’t do syntax highlighting (automatic colour-coding) which makes a huge difference to your level of happiness when debugging. Try one of the following.
    • LyX (Windows, Mac, Linux) works like a wordprocessing program. Recommended if you have no programming experience.
    • TEXworks (Windows, Mac) and TEXShop (Mac, more features) allow simple and user-friendly switching between code and preview, and can perform most tasks without the command line.
    • AUCTEX (Linux, Windows, Mac) is good if you’re already an Emacs user.
    • WinEdt and TEXnicCenter (Windows) let you click on buttons instead of typing commands. Unfortunately WinEdt is shareware, not freeware, and TEXnicCenter doesn’t support Unicode yet (though that’s fine if you’re planning to type IPA with TIPA as many people do).

Learning LATEX

This is an excellent time to ask a friend/mentor for a tutorial. The introductions below are the best I can find, but you’ll probably have questions they don’t address.

Suggestion: Use pdflatex instead of latex. It’s faster. Also see my page on common tasks.

At this point you may want to move on to the other pages in this LATEX guide:

More advanced introductions

Fuller introductions to LATEX are widely available and they’re great if you have the patience to work through them. I just treat them as reference material.

  • The Not So Short Introduction to LATEX (PDF) is widely recommended on the Internet. I was too impatient to use this as a beginner because it doesn’t solve basic problems in a hurry, but it does introduce you to useful options swiftly and systematically.
  • The LATEX Wikibook (website) has excellent introductory chapters on topics like formatting. I think the Absolute Beginners section (command line) is the only part that’s oddly Linux-specific.

You may be able to get some ideas from this .tex file of mine, and see if you can compile it into this PDF file.

Reference material

Your best reference is often a search engine: LATEX users have asked and answered many questions all over the Internet. But I’ve often found that the best search results come from the following sources.

  • The LATEX Wikibook (website) gives clear and unintimidating introductions to tables, formatting and cross-referencing, and at least reduces the pain of learning to cite bibliography and add graphics.
  • The Visual LATEX FAQ (PDF). Click on different parts of this PDF document to get excellent explanations from the UK TEX FAQ (website). Note: It doesn’t work on Chrome for me, but it works if I download and then open in Acrobat.
  • Detexify (website) lets you look up the LATEX code for a symbol by drawing it with your mouse. Much easier than The Comprehensive LATEX Symbol List (PDF), which is 178 pages of special characters, accents, dingbats, etc. (plus a very important note about usepackage in §1.1 on Document Usage – read it or you’ll keep wondering why nothing works).
  • The LATEX Font Catalogue (website) shows off the LATEX fonts. Necessary commands appear under Usage on each font’s page, but be aware that you are changing the default font for the whole document. Also, only Computer Modern (the default) and Times have strong support from other packages like TIPA. (For non-LATEX fonts, see XƎTEX.)
  • NASA’s list of LATEX commands. Yes, rocket scientists need help too.