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.


Many people discover LATEX after years of struggling with wordprocessors and desktop publishing systems, and are amazed to find that TEX has been around for over 25 years and they hadn't heard of it. It's not a conspiracy, just ‘a well-kept secret known only to a few million people’, as one anonymous user has put it.

Perhaps a key to why it has remained so popular is that it removes the need to fiddle with the formatting while you write. Although playing around with fonts and formatting is attractive to the newcomer, it is completely counter-productive for the serious author or editor who wants to concentrate on writing — ask any journalist or professional writer.

A few years ago a new LATEX user expressed concern on the comp.text.tex newsgroup about ‘learning to write in LATEX’. Some excellent advice was posted in response to this query, which I reproduce with permission below [the bold text is my emphasis]:


No, the harder part might be writing, period. TEX/LATEX is actually easy, once you relax and stop worrying about appearance as a be-all-and-end-all. Many people have become ‘Word Processing Junkies’ and no longer ‘write’ documents, they ‘draw’ them, almost at the same level as a pre-literate 3-year old child might pretend to ‘write’ a story, but is just creating a sequence of pictures with a pad of paper and box of Crayolas — this is perfectly normal and healthy in a 3-year old child who is being creative, but is of questionable usefulness for, say, a grad student writing a Master's or PhD thesis or a business person writing a white paper, etc. For this reason, I strongly recommend not using any sort of fancy GUI ‘crutch’. Use a plain vanilla text editor and treat it like an old-fashioned typewriter. Don't waste time playing with your mouse.

Note: I am not saying that you should have no concerns about the appearance of your document, just that you should write the document (completely) first and tweak the appearance later...not [spend time on] lots of random editing in the bulk of the document itself.

(11 March 2003), comp.text.tex

Learning to write well can be hard, but authors shouldn't have to make things even harder for themselves by using manually-driven systems which break their concentration every few seconds for some footling adjustment to the appearance, simply because the software is incapable of doing it right by itself.

Don Knuth originally wrote TEX to typeset mathematics for the second edition of his master-work The Art of Computer Programming, and it remains pretty much the only typesetting program to include fully-automated mathematical formatting done the way mathematicians want it. But he also published a booklet called Mathematical Writing which shows how important it is to think about what you write, and how the computer should be able to help, not hinder.

And TEX is much more than math: it's a programmable typesetting system which can be used for almost any formatting task, and LATEX has made it usable by almost anyone. Professor Knuth generously placed the entire system in the public domain, so for many years there was no publicity of the commercial kind which would have got TEX noticed outside the technical field.

Nowadays, however, there are many companies selling TEX software or services,1 dozens of publishers accepting LATEX documents for publication, and hundreds of thousands of users using LATEX for millions of documents.2

To count yourself as a TEX or LATEX user, visit the TEX Users Group's ‘TEX Counter’ web site (and get a nice certificate!).

There is occasionally some confusion among newcomers between the two main programs, TEX and LATEX:

Both TEX and LATEX have been constantly updated since their inception. Knuth has now frozen development of the TEX engine so that users and developers can have a virtually bug-free, rock-stable platform to work with.3 Typographic programming development continues with the New Typesetting System (NTS), planned as a successor to TEX. The LATEX3 project has taken over development of LATEX, and the current version is LATEXε, which is what we are concentrating on here. Details of all developments can be had from the TUG at

  1. See, for example, the list of TEX vendors on Table , and the list of consultants published by TUG.
  2. A guesstimate. With free software it's impossible to tell how many people are using it, but it's a lot.
  3. Knuth still fixes bugs, although the chances of finding a bug in TEX these days approaches zero.

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