LaTeX in itself is actually not a standalone language – it’s built on top of TeX, one of the first systems created to mark up documents.
TeX is a programming language that contains a bunch of very general and complex functions, which is why LaTeX was invented to simplify it. Not surprisingly, it’s often said to stand for Layman’s TeX; TeX for the non-geniuses. LaTeX provides a larger set of specific functions that are easy to use and understand, which translate to something in TeX. But, you don’t need to know all of that to be able to use it, you only need to understand that you need to install TeX on your computer to be able to do anything.
If you want, of course, you can look into TeX, or other languages built on top of it. But LaTeX is by far the most popular one, and in my opinion easiest to use, so I recommend starting with it.
Installing TeX is a very difficult and tricky business, which is why so-called TeX distributions have been created, which can install everything for you with a single click.
- For Mac OS X, I recommend Mac TeX
- For Linux, I recommend TeX Live
- For Windows, I recommend MikTeX
Choosing an Editor
TeX files are nothing more than simple text files. This is useful, because, unlike Word documents, you can open them with a text editor to edit them and see what’s inside.
To compile them into actual PDF files, however, you need a specialized editor. Such editors usually also provide syntax highlighting, quick buttons to set up certain environments such as tables or images, and a symbol library from which you can pick any special characters.
The most popular (free) ones are TeXmaker and TeXstudio, which are supported on all platforms.
I, personally, use WinEdt, but it is paid software, so you might not want to start with it.
If both installations have succeeded, you should now be able to write and compile LaTeX files. Simply create a new file within the editor, or create a new text file and give it the extension .tex.
How to compile documents depends on the editor you chose, but there’s usually a big button you can search for.
As you compile a file, you’ll notice that lots of other files are also created. These are not essential to your document – just the TeX file is enough for everything to work correctly – but can add something extra once you get into the more advanced parts of LaTeX. But, nothing to worry about now.