What if I told you that you could use a markup language to create documents, and that you wouldn’t have to rely on Microsoft Word for document creation? Yeah, I thought that was an awful idea at first too. However, I’ve been using LaTeX for nearly a year and it has been truly enlightening. It creates incredible looking documents with a ton of advanced technical features with relative ease. So, if you can manage to surpass the large barrier of entry, this modern evolution of TeX can be very easy to use, very professional looking, and very effective. So, do you want to use the tool enlightened document overlords and take pride in even the smallest creations? Read on to learn more about LaTeX!
So, what is it?
TeX was written by the legendary Donald Knuth in 1978, originally intended to be used as a typesetting language for math. His original inspiration came from his dissatisfaction in the typesetting of the second edition of The Art of Programming. Because TeX and LaTeX are typesetting markup languages, the document is created by a compiler that compiles a text file that you create. So, when you create a document in LaTeX, you literally write your content into an IDE-like code box. How cool is that?
LaTeX is a modern variation of Knuth’s original creation (written by another legend, Leslie Lamport), and is still the application of choice for academics, Math and Computer Science in particular. LaTeX provides the power of TeX in an easier-to-use package. Today, LaTeX is certainly the best typesetting language to write mathematical formulas. As an extension, LaTeX is incredible for writing mathematical proofs and for all sorts of academic applications. However, the benefits of using LaTeX over other word processors certainly make it worth giving a try no matter what you intend to use it for.
Pros of LaTeX
- Totally free
- Completely independent of operating system
- Incredible at creating mathematic typesetting
- Quickly install-able on all machines
- Fully standardized across all machines
Cons of LaTeX
- Very intimidating at the start
- Like most programming, requires tons of googling
- Difficult for those not used to markup languages
- Sometimes requires some hacking to get things exactly how you want
How you can try it
Trying LaTeX is easy! You can install an application like TeXstudio, but that might be a bit too tedious unless you’re already a power user. For a beginner to get started, I’d recommend to head over to Overleaf and make an account. There, you can access your documents from anywhere with one account, and you can even collaborate with one person for free. But, where can you start to learn? First, check out the basics of LaTeX. Then, check out some templates. Choose a template that fits your use case and modify it as needed.
The beauty of using LaTeX is that, beyond choosing a template that fits your needs and making it yours, everything that you could want is behind a package. Have a look at the package reference or simply google the description of the package that you want followed by “LaTeX”.
This is the way I use LaTeX to create all of my technical documents, academic papers, and homework assignments. For example, the IEEE has a fantastic LaTeX template that requires very little TeX skill to make into a phenomenal looking academic paper, with some awesome tools that make referencing your sources incredibly easy. After this, for any use case that I have, I simply google the package designed for it. If I want page numbering, tables, figures, images, special margins, or any other special feature, it is as simple as copying the package code into my document.
What have you got to lose?
Check out Overleaf and give LaTeX a try. The worst part about LaTeX is that it is intimidating. Once you jump in and get your template up and running, you will be surprised at how easy it is to create and edit fantastic looking documents and access them from anywhere. Whether I have access to a Linux machine, Windows machine, or Mac, and whether I am at my workstation or a mobile location, I can work on my documents in the cloud just as easily as I could in the comfort of my own home.
So, become an enlightened overlord of document creation today and step up your word processing game. Your friends will be astonished at the elegance and beauty of your documents and you will be proud that you literally programmed and compiled your paper!
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