Honestly, I don’t really know the best way to describe it. Wikipedia does a nice job. In a nut shell, it is a markup language, like HTML, for type-setting fancy documents.
Why would you want to use it? Well, if you’re writing anything that involves mathematics, this is why:
Of course this equation makes no sense at all, but the point is the same. It only took me 30 seconds to write this, and that was mostly due to trying to think up random elements. In the TeX document, this equation would also be automatically numbered, and the number would change if you inserted a new equation before it. You can also generate a table of equations in your document that lists the page of every equation. LaTeX does the same thing with tables, figures, and sections/chapters. Wouldn’t it be nice to never have to worry about numbering things? Also, you can set things to reference other things so that the number will also change automatically.
For example, let’s say that above figure was “Equation (1).” Underneath the figure I have said something like “As you can see from Equation (1), the meaning of life is 42.” As I’m going along, writing my document, I suddenly realize I need an equation before this one. So I put one in. Now my sentence is referencing the wrong equation! Oh no! Or is it?
Not at all! I would have added a command that makes my reference automagically change to the correct equation number.
Not convinced? How about bibliographies? Those are always a pain to write. With a TeX component called BibTeX, all you have to do is give it all the info (author, title, etc) and tell it where to site that source. LaTeX will then do the rest for you. It will set up your bibliography in whatever format you tell it, without you having to worry about spacing, what is bold, what is in quotations, etc. It even alphabetizes it! Then the citations are (by default) numbered within the document, and will automatically change when you add more sources. For a long document with a huge bibliography, LaTeX will remove a lot of stress.
Just like with HTML, you need something that can read the markup language and give you some sort of interesting output (in HTML’s case, a browser). For example, if you were to write an HTML document that had these tags: <em> content </em>, your web browser would see the stuff in the middle as emphasized (in italics). So you use tags in HTML to tell the browser how to make the content look.
LaTeX works the same way (and yes, it is written with alternating caps!). You have a markup language that looks quite cryptic and then software that reads this cryptic code and follows the commands. This software is the TeX typesetting program (as you can read in the Wikipedia article). So, in order to make a beautiful TeX document, you need these things:
- An editor to write your content with the appropriate LaTeX commands; and
- A TeX program to read your edited documents and convert them into output; and
- Software that can read the output.
The output can be postscript, dvi, or pdf. I only use pdf output, and this can be read with Foxit Reader. Or, of course, Adobe Acrobat. However, Foxit is smaller, faster, cuter, the life of the party, and doesn’t try to dominate your system the way Acrobat does. Can you sense the bias? If you wanted to go even smaller and faster yet (with necessary cuts in capabilities) you could also use GSview or Sumatra, but I’ll discuss these options later.
Anyway, my purpose with this LaTeX category is to show a novice Windows user how to get a functioning TeX system on his/her computer and then to show anyone the basics of making it work. I’ll add tips and tricks as time goes on.
I’ve spent an enormous amount of time learning how to fiddle with TeX documents to make them do what I want, so perhaps I can save you the same effort of trial and error!