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.


As noted in this Introduction, this document accompanies a two-day introductory training course. It became obvious from repeated questions in class and afterwards, as well as from general queries on comp.text.tex that many people do not read the FAQs, do not use the TUG web site, do not buy the books and manuals, do not use the newsgroups and mailing lists, and do not download the free documentation. Instead, they try to get by using the training technique known as ‘sitting by Nelly’, which involves looking over a colleague's shoulder in the office, lab, library, pub, or classroom, and absorbing all his or her bad habits.

In the summer of 2001 I presented a short proposal on the marketing of LATEX to the annual conference of the TEX Users Group held at the University of Delaware, and showed an example of a draft brochure designed to persuade newcomers to try LATEX for their typesetting requirements. As a result of questions and suggestions, it was obvious that it needed to include a pointer to some documentation, and I agreed to make available a revised form of this document, expanded to be used outside the classroom, and to include those topics on which I have had most questions from users over the years.

It turned out to mean a significant reworking of a lot of the material. Some of it appears in almost every other manual and book on LATEX but it is essential to the beginner and therefore bears repetition. Some of it appears other forms elsewhere, and is included here because it needs explaining better. And some of it appears nowhere else but this document. I took the opportunity to revise the structure of the training course in parallel with the book (expanding it from its original one day to two days), and to include a more comprehensive index. It is by no means perfect (in both senses), and I would be grateful for comments and corrections to be sent to me at the address given under the credits.

I had originally hoped that the LATEX version of the document would be processable by any freshly-installed default LATEX system, but the need to include font samples which go well beyond the default installation, and to use some packages which the new user is unlikely to have installed, means that this document itself is not really a simple piece of LATEX, however simply it may describe the process itself.

However, as the careful reader will have already noticed, the master source of the document is not maintained in LATEX but in XML. A future task is therefore to compare the packages required with those installed by default, and flag portions of the document requiring additional features so that an abbreviated version can be generated which can be guaranteed to process even with a basic LATEX installation.

If you are just starting with LATEX, at an early opportunity you should buy or borrow a copy of LATEX: A Document Preparation System which is the original author's manual. More advanced users should get the The LATEX Companion or one of its successors. In the same series there are also the The LATEX Graphics Companion and the The LATEX Web Companion. Mathematical users might want to read Short Math Guide for LATEX.

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