What Is LaTeX? A Guide for Students
  • 3-minute read
  • 3rd June 2018

What Is LaTeX? A Guide for Students

LaTeX is a document preparation system used in the sciences and engineering. What makes LaTeX different to other systems, though? And what do you need to know about it as a student?

Don’t worry. This is a very different kind of latex.

What Is LaTeX?

LaTeX (pronounced ‘lay-tech’) is not a WYSIWYG word processor. This means that it uses plain text instead of the formatted text you see on screen with Microsoft Word or Pages.

Formatting is instead handled via markup tags, which you can use to produce a pre-typeset document, ensuring professional presentation. LaTeX is thus most useful when writing highly structured documents, especially ones that contain complex mathematical formulae.

How Does It Work?

Since LaTeX is a plain text system, you can write a document in any text editor. If you use a basic text editor such as Notepad, however, you will not be able to see how it will look until it is finished. You may therefore want to use a dedicated LaTeX editor, which will usually offer a preview option.

The LaTeX Base editor, with document preview.

In practice, all you need to do is type your document as you would in a word processor. The only difference is that you need to use markup tags to organise it instead of formatting. Typically, this will involve selecting a tag and adding information in brackets. For instance:

chapter{Markup for Dummies}

The tag here defines a chapter title. This will start a new chapter on a new page, using the text in the curly brackets as the chapter heading. You would then do this for each chapter in your document.

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When you have finished writing, you will have a .tex file. This will need to be ‘compiled’ and converted into a different file type for reading, such as a PDF. You can do this via your LaTeX editor.

Common Markup in LaTeX

Markup, as mentioned above, is an essential part of writing a LaTeX document. And though we don’t have space to explain markup in depth here, we will outline a few common tags below.

Markup Tag



documentclass Defines the type of document you are writing (e.g. article, book, report) documentclass{article}
title Sets the title for the document title{A Guide to Preparing a Document}
author Sets the author name for the document author{Harry Styles}
date Sets the date of the document date{May 2018)
begin Starts a new ‘environment’ (i.e. a particular style for a passage of text) so you can format different parts of your text, such as an abstract or chart, appropriately begin{document}
end Marks the end point of an environment end{document}
maketitle Inserts a title page (except in the ‘article’ document type, where the title appears at the top of the first page) maketitle
section Begins and sets the title for a new numbered section section{A Quick Look at Tagging}
subsection Begins and sets the title for a new numbered subsection subsection{Getting in Depth with LaTeX}

The best way to learn how markup works is to try using it yourself! Start simple until you get the hang of it, and you should find yourself creating great looking documents in no time.

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