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Formatting Information — An introduction to typesetting with LATEX


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 30 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 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. Playing around with fonts and formatting is highly attractive to new computer users, and great fun for a while, but it is completely counter-productive for the serious author or editor who needs to concentrate on actual writing — ask any journalist or professional writer. ‘Best-guess’ estimates by experts in the field of usability engineering are that average computer users may spend up to 50% of their time fiddling with the formatting rather than thinking or writing — and this is with the so-called ‘office productivity software’ that the major manufacturers foist on their clients!

A few years ago a new LATEX user expressed concern on the news: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 own 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.

(Heller, 2003)

More recently, an article reporting on a study of writing patterns between Microsoft Word users and LATEX users reported that it was faster to use Word (Knauff and Nejasmic, 2014). As a reviewer of that article, I asked the authors to make it clearer that the use of the proper templates (classes and packages) removed the need for LATEX users to spend the time formatting that Word users do. The publication of the article upset a number of people in the TEX field, but I hope that it will spur the critical examination of how we write, and why it’s better to do it in LATEX than in other systems.

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.

Donald Knuth originally wrote TEX to typeset mathematics for the second edition of his master-work The Art of Computer Programming (Knuth, 1980), and it remains pretty much the only typesetting program to include fully-automated mathematical formatting by default, done the way mathematicians do it. But he also brought out a booklet called Mathematical Writing (Knuth, Larrabee and Roberts, 1989) which shows how important it is to think about what you write, and how the computer should be able to help, not hinder, the author while writing.

But TEX is much more than math: it’s a programmable typesetting system which can be used for almost any formatting task, and the LATEX document preparation system which is built on TEX has made it usable by almost anyone. Professor Knuth generously placed the entire TEX system in the public domain, which meant it is free for anyone to use, but for many years this also meant that there was little commercial publicity which would have got TEX noticed outside the technical field, because there was no great corporate marketing department to advertise its existence. Even now, some people who used it in college believe that it no longer exists!

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

There is occasionally some confusion among newcomers between the two programs, TEX and LATEX, and the other versions available, so I’d like to clear this up:


The underlying typesetting program, originally written by Donald Knuth at Stanford in 1978–79. It implements a macro-driven typesetters’ programming language of some 300 basic operations, and it has formed the core of many other desktop publishing (DTP) systems. Although it is still possible to write in the raw TEX language, you need to study it in depth, and you need to be able to write macros (subprograms) to perform even the simplest of repetitive tasks.


A user interface for TEX, designed by Leslie Lamport while at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1985 to automate the common tasks of document preparation. It provides a simple way for authors and typesetters to use the power of TEX without having to learn the underlying language. LATEX is the recommended system for all users except professional typographic programmers and computer scientists who want to study the internals of TEX.


(not ‘Contest’) A system similar to LATEX, but with its own set of commands, and a much greater emphasis on producing high-function PDF output. The documentation is less accessible than for LATEX, but the author, Hans Hagen, provides excellent support at Pragma/ADE.


Extended versions of TEX and LATEX that create PDF instead of DVI files, written by Hàn Thế Thành. There are also enhancements for micro-typographic extensions, native font embedding, and PDF support for hyperlinking. It is currently (2016) still the default TEX engine in most distributions.


A recent reimplementation of TEX by Jonathan Kew which merges Unicode and modern font technologies. It is in common use in editing environments such as TEXshop (Apple Macintosh OS X), Kile (Unix & GNU/Linux), and WinEdt (Windows). Details are at the Sourceforge web site. XƎLATEX is used to produce the PDF edition of this book.


TeXinfo is the official documentation format of the GNU project. It was invented by Richard Stallman and Bob Chassell. It uses a single source file to produce output in a number of formats, both online and printed (DVI, HTML, INFO, PDF, XML, etc). TeXinfo documents can be processed with any TEX engine.

Both TEX and LATEX have been constantly updated since their inception. Knuth has now frozen changes to the TEX engine so that users and developers can have a bug-free, rock-stable platform to work with. 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 LATEX, which is what we are concentrating on here. Details of all developments can be had from the TUG web site at

  1. See, for example, the list of TEX vendors in Table 1, and the list of consultants published by TUG

  2. A guesstimate. With free software it’s virtually impossible to tell how many people are using it. 

  3. GNU’s Not Unix (GNU) is a project to create a completely free computing system — ‘free’ meaning both free from encumbrances and restrictions as well as free of charge. 

  4. Knuth still fixes bugs, although the chances of finding a bug in TEX these days approaches zero.