Get Started with TeX and LaTeX: Still Relevant?

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TeX is a programming language designed for digital typesetting. It was invented by Donald Knuth, professor of Computer Science at Stanford. LaTeX was original created by Leslie Lamport as a framework for using TeX to produce properly formatted text. It's probably easiest to think of LaTeX as a template system for TeX.

Donald Knuth published the first edition of volume one of his seminal work The Art of Computer Programming in 1968, with subsequent volumes coming in 1969 and 1973. In 1976 he was working on a second edition. In the intervening time, the publisher had switched over from hot metal typesetting to photographic typesetting. Knuth was not pleased with the results. He decided to devise his own digital typesetting system. Originally, he thought he could create something serviceable in six-months or a year with the help of a few CompSci graduate students. It actually took ten years of work, and the end result — the TeX typesetting system — changed digital publishing. TeX, along with LaTeX developed in the late 1980s, is now the standard document preparation system for science and math publishing, and is used in a wide variety of industries and settings.

About Code-based Digital Typesetting

If you are used to working with a visual document editor — Microsoft Word or Adobe Publisher, for example — TeX and LaTeX may seem very strange. You don't move images of letters around on a screen, you edit source code like a computer program. It can be a little tricky at first, but it is ultimately faster, and produces more reliable results.

If you have ever used HTML with CSS, you have a better understanding of how TeX and LaTeX works: source text, along with styling instructions, are edited manually and then interpreted by an application to produce visual output for end-users. TeX is a low-level language that specifies both content and style, down to the character level. LaTeX separates style, content, and layout, creating sometime roughly like a document content management system and markdown language.

Getting TeX and LaTeX

The following are the recommended TeX/LaTeX Distributions:

(Note to Linux users: Many Linux distributions come with TeX Live, or another TeX/LaTeX distribution, already installed.)

All three of these provide a full TeX implementation along with LaTeX. For information on other TeX implementations, see the list maintained by the TeX User Group.


If you plan to use LaTeX for typesetting math or science material, you'll want to read:

Video Tutorials



  • BibTeX, a tool for producing bibliographic references with LaTeX; see the Tame the BeaST (PDF) tutorial for more information;
  • TeXShop, a TeX/LaTeX file editor and GUI rendering utility for the Mac OS X;
  • TeXnic Center, an IDE for LaTeX document preparation;
  • CONTeXT, a TeX-based document engineering system — an alternative to LaTeX;
  • Pandoc is a document preparation system that allows you to easily convert documents into and out of many different formats, including several TeX-related formats;
  • PythonTeX, a LaTeX package that allows Python code to be included and executed in a LaTeX document (see A Gentle Introduction to PythonTeX (PDF) to get really excited about this);
  • MathTeX, a server-side tool for converting LaTeX-styled math content into images and embedding them onto a page;
  • For a (mostly complete) list of TeX and LaTeX add-on packages, see the Comprehensive TeX Archive Network Package Catalog;
  • For a huge list of tools and online resources, see the TeX User Group's TeX Resources on the Web page.

Community and Continued Learning

Books on TeX

  • The TeXbook, by Don Knuth — this is the definitive guide to the core TeX typesetting system, written by its creator; if you want more depth on the topic, you may also be interested in Knuth's other works on typography:
    • The Metafont Book, which covers the font-creation system he invented along with TeX;
    • Computers & Typesetting, a five-volume set of books for the dedicated TeX enthusiast; The TeX Book and The Metafont Book are two of the five volumes, two more volumes are actually the annotated source code of TeX and Metafont, the fifth book provides highly-detailed definitions of hundreds of letters, numerals, and other symbols — this is not a set for the technical lightweight;
    • Digital Typography (Lecture Notes), a fascinating collection of lectures from Knuth, exploring the relationship between computers and typesetting;
  • Tex for the Impatient, by Abrahams, Hargreaves, and Berry — a great book for people who want to understand the core TeX program but don't have the time (or math background) to understand Knuth's books;
  • A Beginner's Book of TeX, by Seroul and Levy — another great guide to TeX, for beginners but also intermediate users;
  • A Plain TeX Primer, by Malcolm Clark — "plain" in the title could refer to "Plain TeX," not LaTeX or another variant, or to the primer itself, written in a plain and easy to read style;
  • TeX in Practice is a four-volume series by Stephan von Bechtolsheim:
  • Making TeX Work, by Norman Walsh is an essential and practical book focus on the various pieces of software, system setup, and workflow needed to actual use TeX in real life;
  • The Advanced TeXbook, by David Salomon is one of the few advanced, practical guides to TeX; (friendly warning: the Amazon page for this book displays the cover of the wrong book).

Books on LaTeX


TeX and LaTeX provide a way of generating beautiful books and documents of the highest quality, and allow advanced users to automate many aspects of document preparation and styling. The learning curve is a bit steeper than it is for visual-based desktop publishing programs, but the possibilities are much more exciting.

Further Reading and Resources

We have more guides, tutorials, and infographics related to typesetting and publishing:

The best thing about LaTeX is that if you use it properly, you will create timeless documents — ones that will never look tacky. If only the same thing could be said of the web! In our infographic Web Design Trends You'll Never Forget we run through decades of designs that were once thought to be the height of coolness.

Adam Michael Wood

About Adam Michael Wood

Adam specializes in developer documentation and tutorials. In addition to his writing here, he has authored engineering guides and other long-form technical manuals. Outside of work, Adam composes and performs liturgical music. He lives with his wife and children in California.


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