LaTeX (pronounced lay-tech) is a free word processing tool that can be easily downloaded from the Internet. It has been around for at least 20 years but is only now making its way into the mainstream. LaTeX is as equally addictive to academics as its namesake is to fetishists.
Its main attraction is that you declare which template you want to use and then you concentrate on your content and leave LaTeX to set out your work beautifully. You don’t have to worry about layout – margins moving by themselves or text changing font when you accidentally delete a character – as LaTeX takes care of everything.
Latex was first developed in 1984 by Leslie Lamport and was based on an idea by Donald Knuth, the father of algorithmic analysis and author of the seminal The Art of Computer Programming. It was soon taken up by mathematicians and engineers who wanted to display their symbolic calculations in an attractive manner. Enthusiastic users soon added extensions so that everyone could maintain bibliographies (the bibtex extension), draw pictures (xfig), design slideshows (slides) and write documents in hundreds of different languages. Other extensions allow you to convert whole documents into web pages (text2html) or pdf files ready for sharing with others.
LaTeX was originally designed to run on Unix machines but when the shift to Microsoft platforms began in earnest LaTex shifted too. Nowadays it runs on Linux and MacOS as well as Windows.
Learning LaTeX is not for the faint-hearted but once you learn the basics – be warned there will be no going back. When writing a LaTeX document you put all the layout commands into the file along with the content in the same way as when you produce a web page. There are three different styles of LaTeX document which are document, letter and report. So to produce a report the myreport.tex file would look like this:
Here is my report and I am going to fill it full of facts
Sections are added like this:
and chapters like this:
Most people get started by downloading an example file full of mathematical equations, tables, and bold font commands and then using that as their template to learn by trial and error. There are hundreds of websites devoted to this software from writing a PhD thesis in LaTeX to using it inside weblog software such as WordPress. Some tutorials such as The Not So Short Introduction to Latex (http://tobi.oetiker.ch/lshort/lshort.pdf) promises that you can learn it in 139 minutes. How long did it take you to learn Word?