LaTeX for the Slightly Timid

Are you used to the simplicity of your old DOS word processor, and afraid of the complexity of LaTeX? This article tells you how to write a beautiful letter—and gets you started using LaTeX.
Not Just Letters

You will probably want to do more than write letters. Other document styles are available, as mentioned earlier. This article is not the place to go into all of them, but I find “article” a good style to use in general. You can make a generic template document with the preamble and any other options you like consistently. Then, whenever you want to write a new document, copy that file to your new document, and you will be ready to go with no fuss.

Finally, good luck and have fun! LaTeX is not as difficult as some people make it seem, and the results after a little work can be truly dazzling.

Kim Johnson is working towards her PhD in Mathematics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. When she isn't studying, she is usually reading a classic British mystery novel.

LaTeX Resources
  • A new version of LaTeX, called LaTeX2e, is now available. Most (but not all) Linux distributions today come with LaTeX2e, which is able to understand the older LaTeX version 2.09 format that this article explains (“compatibility mode”), but also has a native mode which is more powerful, flexible, and extensible. This article covers LaTeX 2.09 since both LaTeX 2.09 and LaTeX2e understand the 2.09 format, so no matter what version of LaTeX came with your distribution of Linux, the examples will work.

  • However, if LaTeX intrigues you, you will want to buy a book about it, and the best books available now cover the LaTeX2e format. The differences from what you have learned in this article are not great and are explained in these books.

  • The original LaTeX documentation is LaTeX: A Document Preparation System (ISBN 0--201--15790--X) by Leslie Lamport, the original author of LaTeX. It provides a good basic introduction to LaTeX, but is sometimes frustratingly lacking in details (like this article). The second edition of this book covers LaTeX2e; the first edition covered LaTeX 2.09.

  • The LaTeX Companion (ISBN 0--201--54199--8) describes LaTeX2e in detail. By contrast with Lamport's book, The LaTeX Companion goes into more detail than any one person would be likely to use—and so will usually have the details you want.

  • Since LaTeX is built on top of the venerable TeX formatter, Donald Knuth's The TeXbook (ISBN 0--201--13447--0) provides the documentation for the underlying system, and may be useful if you wish to become a LaTeX expert.

  • The O'Reilly book Making TeX Work (ISBN 1--56592--051--1), by Norman Walsh, provides a different kind of information from the other books mentioned here. It may help you discover how to find, use, and install many of the extra pieces that make things work better in your particular situation and that fulfill your particular typesetting needs.

  • The Usenet newsgroup comp.text.tex provides a forum for discussing TeX and LaTeX.