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Getting Started with LaTeX

[This is a guest post by Bryn Lutes, who is in the last months of being a doctoral student in Organometallic Chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis.  She also co-teaches workshops on using technology in teaching, research and professional development for graduate students.  You can follow Bryn on Twitter: @technobryn.) -- JBJ]

First, a disclaimer: I do not use LaTeX on a regular basis.  In fact, I didn’t even know this program existed until I was enlisted to present it at a Using Technology to Support your Research workshop as a part of the Graduate Student Technology Workshop series…and then I fell in love with beautiful documents.

I also fell in love with perfectly formatted images and captions that don’t mysteriously disappear between pages, automatically generated (including page numbers) tables of contents, appropriately formatted equations without using an outside program, and using simple commands to insert footnotes.  The documents had a much more “polished” look, partially due to output as a pdf, that made me feel like my document was really something important.

What is it?

To start with some of the basics, LaTeX (pronounced “lay-tech” or “lah-tech”) is a free typesetting program–it takes text and formatting commands, which are written in a plain text editor (TeXnicCenter shown here, and a comparison of editors can be found here) and creates a document. LaTeX was created with the idea that the author is an expert on the content, and not formatting or visual presentation. In creating the document, the author labels the text with commands such as table, figure, quote, and displaymath, and LaTeX uses those commands to format the document appropriately. The project site can be found here.

Why is it useful?

LaTeX is designed to create consistent, aesthetically pleasing documents, and can easily handle very long documents. It can easily apply the same formatting throughout a book, journal article or dissertation.  In fact, many of these templates already exist.  The only requirement is the author is inserting content. The engineering department at my university provides a LaTeX template that meets the dissertation formatting guidelines, and the American Chemical Society provides templates for all of its journals, for example, the Organometallics template can be accessed here.

How does it work?

The set up of the document is similar to computer programming in some ways (This made it more fun for me, and hopefully not anxiety-inducing for others).

Basic set up for composing a document in TeXnicCenter. (Click the picture for a full-size screenshot)

Parameters for the document are indicated in the preamble, content is added after starting the document, and when finished, the end is indicated.

Anatomy of the TeX file. (Click for full-size)

And some result documents…the first set of code produced this document.

And the second set of code produced this document.

How do you get it?

The various components of the program can be downloaded through the project site.  The project site also provides a help page with links to outside sources of help.  The Starting Out with TeX site lists very basic instructions for obtaining the software and also provides links.  For fair warning, I spent nearly an hour just downloading the files.

And, in case you need any additional testimony, a band of science nerds has even written a song about it. Also, check out the comments section for a glimpse at the most controversial part of this program: pronunciation.

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