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Formatting information: Introduction

Formatting information

A beginner's introduction to typesetting with LATEX


Peter Flynn

Silmaril Consultants
Textual Therapy Division

v. 3.6 (March 2005)


  1. Installing TEX and LATEX
  2. Using your editor to create documents
  3. Basic document structures
  4. Typesetting, viewing and printing
  5. CTAN, packages, and online help
  6. Other document structures
  7. Textual tools
  8. Fonts and layouts
  9. Programmability (macros)
  10. Compatibility with other systems
  1. Configuring TEX search paths
  2. TEX Users Group membership
  3. The ASCII character set
  4. GNU Free Documentation License

This edition of Formatting Information was prompted by the generous help I have received from TEX users too numerous to mention individually. Shortly after TUGboat published the November 2003 edition, I was reminded by a spate of email of the fragility of documentation for a system like LATEX which is constantly under development. There have been revisions to packages; issues of new distributions, new tools, and new interfaces; new books and other new documents; corrections to my own errors; suggestions for rewording; and in one or two cases mild abuse for having omitted package X which the author felt to be indispensable to users. ¶ I am grateful as always to the people who sent me corrections and suggestions for improvement. Please keep them coming: only this way can this book reflect what people want to learn. The same limitation still applies, however: no mathematics, as there are already a dozen or more excellent books on the market — as well as other online documents — dealing with mathematical typesetting in TEX and LATEX in finer and better detail than I am capable of. ¶ The structure remains the same, but I have revised and rephrased a lot of material, especially in the earlier chapters where a new user cannot be expected yet to have acquired any depth of knowledge. Many of the screenshots have been updated, and most of the examples and code fragments have been retested. ¶ As I was finishing this edition, I was asked to review an article for The PracTEX Journal, which grew out of the Practical TEX Conference in 2004. The author specifically took the writers of documentation to task for failing to explain things more clearly, and as I read more, I found myself agreeing, and resolving to clear up some specific problems areas as far as possible. It is very difficult for people who write technical documentation to remember how they struggled to learn what has now become a familiar system. So much of what we do is second nature, and a lot of it actually has nothing to do with the software, but more with the way in which we view and approach information, and the general level of knowledge of computing. If I have obscured something by making unreasonable assumptions about your knowledge, please let me know so that I can correct it.

Peter Flynn is author of The HTML Handbook and Understanding SGML and XML Tools, and editor of The XML FAQ.


This book originally accompanied a 2-day course on using the LATEX typesetting system. It has been extensively revised and updated and can now be used for self-study or in the classroom. It is aimed at users of Linux, Macintosh, or Microsoft Windows but it can be used with LATEX systems on any platform, including other Unix workstations, mainframes, and even your Personal Digital Assistant (PDA).

ToCWho needs this book?

The audience for the original training course was assumed to be computer-literate and composed of professional, business, academic, technical, or administrative computer users. The readers of the book (you) are mostly assumed to be in a similar position, but may also come from many other backgrounds, including hobbyists, students, and just people interested in quality typesetting. You are expected to have one or more of the following or similar objectives:

  1. LATEX can easily be used for once-off or short and simple documents as well, but its real strengths lie in consistency and automation.

ToCSkills needed

LATEX is a very easy system to learn, and requires no specialist knowledge, although literacy and some familiarity with the publishing process is useful. It is, however, assumed that you are completely fluent and familiar with using your computer before you start. Specifically, effective use of this document requires that you already know and understand the following very thoroughly:

If you don't know how to do these things yet, it's important to go and learn them first. Trying to become familiar with the fundamentals of using a computer at the same time as learning LATEX is not likely to be as effective as doing them in order.

These are not specialist skills — they are all included in the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) and the relevant sections of the ECDL syllabus are noted in the margin above, so they are well within the capability of anyone who uses a computer.

ToCObjectives of this book

By the end of this book, you should be able to undertake the following tasks:


The original course covered the following topics as separate sessions, which are represented in the book as chapters:

  1. Where to get and how to install LATEX (teTEX, fpTEX, or proTEXt from the TEX Collection disks);

  2. How to type LATEX documents: using an editor to create files (half a dozen editors for LATEX);

  3. Basic structures (the Document Class Declaration and its layout options; the document environment with sections and paragraphs);

  4. Typesetting, viewing, and printing;

  5. The use of packages and CTAN to adapt formatting using standard tools;

  6. Other document structures (lists, tables, figures, images, and verbatim text);

  7. Textual tools (footnotes, marginal notes, cross-references, indexes and glossaries, and bibliographic citations);

  8. Typographic considerations (white-space and typefaces; inline markup and font changes; extra font installation and automation);

  9. Programmability and automation (macros and modifying LATEX's behaviour);

  10. Conversion and compatibility with other systems (XML, Word, etc.).

A few changes have been made in the transition to printed and online form, but the basic structure is the same, and the document functions as a workbook for the course as well as a standalone self-teaching guide.

ToCWhere's the math?

It is important to note that the document does not cover mathematical typesetting, complex tabular material, the design of large-scale macros and document classes, or the finer points of typography or typographic design, although it does refer to these topics in passing on a few occasions.

There are several other guides, introductions, and ‘get-started’ documents on the Web and on CTAN which cover these topics and more. Among the more popular are:

This list was taken from the CTAN search page. There are also lots of books published about TEX and LATEX: the most important of these for users of this document are listed in the last paragraph in the Foreword.

ToCAvailability of LATEX systems

Because the TEX program (the ‘engine’ which actually does the typesetting) is separate from whichever editor you choose, TEX-based systems are available in a variety of different modes using different interfaces, depending on how you want to use them.

ToCGraphical interface

The normal way to run LATEX is to use a toolbar button (icon), a menu item, or a keystroke in your editor. Click on it and your document gets saved and typeset. All the other features of LATEX systems (the typeset display, spellchecker, related programs like makeindex and BIBTEX) are run the same way. This works both in a normal Graphical User Interface (GUI) as well as in text-only interfaces.

In the popular LATEX editors like Emacs, TEXshell, TEXnicCenter, WinShell, or WinEdt, a record of the typesetting process is shown in an adjoining window so that you can see the progress of pages being typeset, and any errors or warnings that may occur.2

ToCCommand-line interface

However, the graphical interface is useless if you want to run LATEX unattended, as part of an automated system, perhaps in a web server or e-commerce environment, where there is no direct connection between user and program. The underlying TEX engine is in fact a Command-Line Interface (CLI) program, that is, it is used as a ‘console’ program which you run from a standard Unix or Mac terminal or shell window (or from an MS-DOS command window in Microsoft Windows systems). You type the command latex followed by the name of your document file (see in section 4.1.2 for an example).

Commands like these let you run LATEX in an automated environment like a Common Gateway Interface (CGI) script on a web server or a batch file on a document system. All the popular distributions for Unix and Windows, both free and commercial, include this interface as standard (teTEX, fpTEX, MiKTEX, proTEXt, PC-TEX, TrueTEX, etc.).

ToCTypeset displays

LATEX usually displays your typeset results in a separate window, redisplayed automatically every time the document is reprocessed, because the typesetting is done separately from the editing. Some systems, however, can format the typesetting while you type, at the expense of some flexibility.

Asynchronous typographic displays

This method is called an asynchronous typographic display because the typeset window only updates after you have typed something and reprocessed it, not while you are still typing, as it would with a wordprocessor.3

Synchronous typographic displays

Some distributions of LATEX offer a synchronous typographic interface. In these, you type directly into the typographic display, as with a wordprocessor. Three popular examples are Textures, Scientific Word, and VTEX (see table below). At least one free version (LYX, see Figure 2.1 in section 2.3) offers a similar interface.

With a synchronous display you get Instant Textual Gratification™, but your level of control is restricted to that of the GUI you use, which cannot provide access to everything that LATEX can do. For complete control of the formatting you may still need access to your normal source (input) file in the same way as for asynchronous implementations.

Near-synchronous displays

There are several other methods available free for Unix and some other systems for close-to-synchronous updates of the typeset display (including Jonathan Fine's Instant Preview and the TEX daemon), and for embedding typographic fragments from the typeset display back into the editor window (David Kastrup's preview-latex package).

ToCCommercial distributions

Whatever method you choose, the TEX Collection CD and CTAN are not the only source of software. The vendors listed in Table offer excellent commercial implementations of TEX and LATEX, and if you are in a position where their enhanced support and additional features are of benefit, I urge you to support them. In most cases their companies, founders, and staff have been good friends of the TEX and LATEX communities for many years.

Table 1Popular commercial implementations of TEX systems
Product Platform Company URI
PCTEX MS-Windows Personal TEX, Inc www.pctex.com/
TrueTEX MS-Windows True TEX truetex.com/
Textures Apple Mac Blue Sky Research www.bluesky.com/
Scientific Word MS-Windows Mackichan Software www.mackichan.com/
VTEX MS-Windows, Linux, OS/2 MicroPress, Inc www.micropress-inc.com/
  1. Recent versions of some editors hide this display by default unless errors occur in the typesetting.
  2. Among other reasons, TEX typesets whole paragraphs at a time, not line-by-line as lesser systems do, in order to get the hyphenation and justification (H&J) right (see section 2.8).

ToCProduction note

This document is written and maintained in XML, using a customized version of the DocBook DTD. Conversions were made to HTML and LATEX using XSLT scripts and Michael Kay's Saxon processor.

The complete source, with all ancillary files, is available online at http://www.ctan.org/tex-archive/info/beginlatex/src/ but if you want to try processing it yourself you must install Java (from Sun, IBM, or a number of others) and Saxon (from http://saxon.sourceforge.net/), in addition to LATEX.

This document is published under the terms and conditions of the GNU Free Documentation License. Details are in this appendix.

ToCSymbols and conventions

The following typographic notations are used:

Notation Meaning
\command Control sequences which perform an action, e.g. \newpage
\length Control sequences which store a dimension (measurement in units), e.g. \parskip
counter Values used for counting (whole numbers, as opposed to measuring in units), e.g. secnumdepth
term Defining instance of a new term
environment A LATEX formatting environment
package A LATEX package (available from CTAN)
product Program or product name
typewriter type Examples of source code (stuff you type)
mybook or value Mnemonic examples of things you have to supply real-life values for
x A key on your keyboard
Ctrlx  Two keys pressed together
Escq Two keys pressed one after another
Submit On-screen button to click
MenuItem Drop-down menu with items

Examples of longer fragments of input are shown with a border round them. Where necessary, the formatted output is shown immediately beneath. Warnings are shown with a shaded background. Exercises are shown with a double border.

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