Writing with LaTeX in under five minutes

LaTeX requires learning code. Word processors like Microsoft Word or Apple Pages carry appeal for writers because you can just write. You sit down, pull up a blank document, and start typing. What could be better for producing words on a page, right?

Let me tell you what I’ve figured out about many aspects of life in my brief stay on this mortal coil: time invested on the front end of a project pays greater dividends in the long run than just getting to work out of the gate. Putting more income toward retirement savings earlier on will make you feel more wealthy than having all the stuff you could have bought today with those extra few hundred dollars. Your food budget is much cheaper buying groceries weekly and having a meal plan than picking a fast food joint or a “groceraunt” after the sun’s gone down.

Your writing practice works the same way: putting in more time at the start will save much time later on in your projects. Take this example:

I responded:

A few minutes later, I received this reply from a follower:

Making edits on the fly that completely change the style and look of your documents is relatively easy with LaTeX. Last year I wrote two articles for an encyclopedia. In Political Science, we stick to Chicago’s author-date system, but the encyclopedia’s editors wanted citations like the journal Nature, where references are listed sequentially according to citation order in the manuscript, and the references are structured differently as well. For my colleague down the hall, who had also submitted an article to this encyclopedia using a word processor, this meant learning a different citations style and changing each citation and reference by hand. Also, imagine if you went back during revisions and added or removed a citation: that would mean renumbering every following citation and the reference list!

For me, it took changing just one line of code for the entire document. That’s just one example of how LaTeX can make writing, revising, and editing much simpler and quicker. Multiply the time spent each and every time you’ve submitted a document to a different journal or publisher, and pretty soon the time it took to make all those edits greatly exceeds the time it takes to learn the basics of LaTeX.

Starting to write with LaTeX

To write with LaTeX, you need know a little code and have some starting code to get your document ready. That bit of original code sets up the document for compiling the text and code you write into your plain text editor so that you get the output you want. This is like having the raw ingredients for a cake on the countertop before you start mixing the batter. Compiling usually means having software that does that work for you. If you’re just getting started with LaTeX though, or even if you’ve been using it for a while, there’s a simpler approach that has some benefits on its own. It’s called ShareLaTeX.

Software-free LaTeX

Getting started with ShareLaTeX has several advantages:

  1. You don’t need to download any software on your computer or device. ShareLaTeX exists entirely within your browser.
  2. ShareLaTeX keeps all your files organized by project. You can stay focused on a single paper or book, but you can also easily switch between projects in an instant.
  3. Compiling on a computer produces several auxiliary files that you don’t have to worry about with ShareLaTeX.
  4. ShareLaTeX offers all the functionality of a LaTeX program on your computer that you will likely ever need.
  5. ShareLaTeX allows for collaboration: you and coauthors can write, revise, and edit the same exact file.
ShareLaTeX offers a simple, clean way of organizing your LaTeX projects

My project in ShareLaTeX, which offers a simple, clean way of organizing your LaTeX projects.

ShareLaTeX provides the basic code necessary for getting started with a new document

ShareLaTeX provides the basic code necessary for getting started with a new document. All you have to do is start typing!

Starting an account is free and easy, and once you have an account you can have as many projects as you need. You can also have one collaborator with a free plan, and if you want to learn more about LaTeX, I’d be happy to help!

Customizing your writing

ShareLaTeX also allows the same customizations—called packages—in your documents that any LaTeX software will. I’ll have more posts in the future about packages, and I can help you get started with your own customizations.

These customizations are fun to play around with, but LaTeX produces great looking documents right out of the box. When you do need to make a stylistic change for a publisher or journal, packages come in really handy.

I hope you’ll give LaTeX a spin if you haven’t tried it already. Let me know how it goes, what you like or don’t like about LaTeX, and if I can help in any way.

Jeremy L. Wells

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *