What are TeX and LaTeX?
TeX is a low-level markup and programming language used to typeset documents, created by Donald Knuth. TeX is a powerful typesetting tool, but can be difficult to use because of the time it takes to create custom text formatting macros. To get around this difficulty, there are programs, like LaTeX, that come with pre-built macros. LaTeX is more user-friendly, but lacks the flexibility of TeX.
Installing a TeX System: MiKTeX
MiKTeX is an implementation of Knuth’s TeX system. You’ll need a TeX system on your computer so the LaTeX commands are recognized by your machine. My decision to personally use MiKTeX is based on its compatibility with the WinEdt software we use in the Reed group, you can also use TeX Live as your TeX system, but I have no experience with that software. Once you have a TeX system installed on your computer, you can compile LaTeX documents using a command line and text files (saved with the proper file extension). Most people find this difficult, which is why many people use a TeX editing software.
Installing a TeX Editor: WinEdt
The software that we have a license for in the Reed group is WinEdt. There are other free options such as TeXnicCenter and many, many others. For a whole discussion on pros and cons of different editors see Wikipedia’s article comparing different TeX editors. Once you’ve installed WinEdt, you can go to Documents -> Current Work (Samples) within the program to compile one of the sample documents included in the program to ensure your software is properly installed/configured.
(Reed Members: Talk to Josh for license information. I believe the Reed license is only valid for WinEdt 5.5, which is not the latest version.)
Learning some Basic Commands
Luckily, there are MANY MANY sources for learning LaTeX commands. A good place to start is Wikipedia’s LaTeX Wikibook. Starting under the tab “Absolute Beginners” will walk you through very simple document creation. Another good place to start is Andre Heck‘s short course in LaTeX called Learning LaTeX by Doing. Within this course, there are 24 exercises designed to get you familiar with commands, and typing your own LaTeX documents. If you’re just interested in trying out these exercises without installing software, you can use Latexlabs.org to compile your LaTeX documents online. Once you become familiar with the commands, a good place to start with a unique document is putting together a LaTeX resume/CV. This will get you familiar with simple document commands such as tables and lists.
Winston Chang has written a comprehensive document that compresses most of the major LaTeX commands to two pages: http://www.stdout.org/~winston/latex/latexsheet.pdf.
There’s even a LaTeX template that makes your documents look like MS Word!