What is LaTeX?

LaTeX is a document-formatting system based on the TeX language. The LaTeX language is a tag-based markup language for typeset documents, just as HTML is a markup language for Web documents. It provides a powerful, relatively easy-to-use, method for preparing large documents which might include tables of contents and figures, several chapters and appendices, index, and references. LaTeX allows these various portions of the document to be created and numbered with minimal fuss, allowing the author to concentrate on the content rather than the formatting of the document. Because of its extensive mathematical formatting structures, it has also become a publishing standard for scientific and mathematical publications.

LaTeX is implemented by a number of programs that work together to produce a typeset document. These programs include a text file editor of your choice, the latex and pdflatex processors that interpret the markup and formats pages of output, document previewers, and various post-processors that convert intermediate device-independent (DVI) output into Postscript, PDF, or other formats.

Where can I find LaTeX?

LaTeX as a web (cloud) service

The simplest and most convenient way to use LaTeX is through a Web (cloud) service. The service takes care of running LaTeX for you and provides storage for your documents. Perhaps the most useful features of running LaTeX in the cloud are:

  • sharing your files and collaborating with other authors in a unified environment
  • being able to access and edit your documents easily from multiple devices
  • avoiding the hassle of installing LaTeX and an editor.

Starting in September 2018, UW entered into a site license with Overleaf, a leading cloud provider. This agreement provides UW graduate students, staff and faculty with Pro+ accounts. Sign up via UW's Overleaf portal. Undergraduate students are not part of this site license, but they can still get free, but less feature-rich accounts through Overleaf's home page (first link above).

Installing your own copy of LaTeX

LaTeX is based on open-source code, so is available on most computing platforms as free software. Like Linux, there are various “distributions” of LaTeX. These distributions package up, in various configurations, the suite of programs that make up LaTeX.

  • On Unix/Linux platforms on the UW campus we use the TeX Live distribution. Linux/Unix users may have heard of a visual editor for LaTeX called LyX. We do not recommend this. See the discussion of Scientific Workplace and LyX below.
  • Under MacOS, the most popular distribution is Mactex, which also uses TeX Live and supplies the free editor TeXShop.
  • Under all versions of Windows, we recommend using the MikTeX distribution. TeX Live is also available. MikTeX is not currently available on the Waterloo Nexus (Windows) network, but can be installed easily on your own computer. There are many LaTeX editors and graphical "front-ends" for Windows. Most of these are freeware or shareware. Popular ones are Texmaker (cross-platform freeware) and WinEdt (Windows-only shareware). Windows versions are generally designed to work with MikTeX. These editors provide equation and table editors, etc.

There are also some commercial versions of LaTeX. These usually provide some kind of editor or graphical user interface, and integrate the various programs that make up a distribution. Scientific Workplace is a commercial program for Windows that provides a quasi-WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interface to LaTeX, and so does a good job of hiding the LaTeX markup from the user. This is fine until you have a problem. We believe it's a good idea to understand how LaTeX works first. So if you use Scientific Workplace, please also review the LaTeX course notes. This same advice holds for LyX, a program similar to Scientific Workplace that is available (for free) on Linux systems. Use of SWP and LyX also make collaboration with other LaTeX users more difficult because they require exporting to, and importing from, standard LaTeX format. It's better to collaborate in a cloud service such as Overleaf.

Of the various types of editors for LaTeX, we recommend Texmaker, or its non-free cousin WinEdt. These editors provide quick access to the various LaTeX commands through drop-down menus and simple interfaces for creating the tricker structures like equations, tables, etc., while not hiding the LaTeX markup. They also provide one-click buttons for processing your document into PS or PDF (once properly configured).

The main repository of TeX and LaTeX source files and packages is the Comprehensive TeX Archive Network (CTAN).

LaTeX notes

Getting started with LaTeX for a UWaterloo thesis (PDF)

Notes on creating a UWaterloo E-Thesis with LaTeX (PDF)

University of Waterloo template

  • Our UW thesis template has been uploaded to Overleaf; please search for it there.
  • The following files may also be used as a template for a UWaterloo electronic (PDF) thesis if you have installed LaTeX on your own computer. They can be processed as is to create a complete example of a formatted thesis. The text files, .tex and .bib, contain the markup commands and helpful comments about what they do.
  • In both versions of the thesis template, please read the comments in the text files for helpful tips. Also note that the example thesis provided is for a PHD thesis, and Masters students should remove the committee page in the front material.
  • This template uses the "pdflatex" program to process the "source" text files, and to create PDF directly as the output. Make sure you modify the PDF metadata (in the uw-ethesis.tex file) to identify yourself and your thesis title, since this information gets embedded in the PDF document produced by this template.
  • Pdflatex supports the use of TIFF, JPEG, PNG, and PDF embedded graphics.
  • Use of pdflatex requires that "pdftex" be specified as the graphics driver option in the "hyperref" and "graphicx" add-on packages. Hyperref provides hyperlinking within your document, and graphicx provides the "\includegraphics" command for embedding graphics.
  • You may want to maintain Encapsulated Postscript (EPS) versions of your illustrations as well, since print publications may require those. The "latex" program requires EPS graphics, and this formatter is often used (along with the "dvips" graphics driver) to create Postscript output.

Thesis template files

Put the below text files in the same folder and process with "pdflatex" and "bibtex".

Free LaTeX Wikibook

Who wouldn't want a free LaTeX reference book?

PowerPoint-style presentations with LaTeX

Why waste time re-typing equations in PowerPoint? Try using the Beamer document class to create slide presentations. Beamer is also available in Overleaf and at the Comprehensive TeX Archive Net­work (CTAN) repository.

Scientific workplace (SWP): A commercial LaTeX front-end

SWP is no longer actively distributed or supported at the University of Waterloo.

Processing your LaTeX documents

When using an editor such as TeXmaker, WinEdt, TeXShop, TeXworks, etc., installed on your computer, place all of your .tex and .bib files in the same folder, then run pdflatex on your "master" .tex document. Then run other auxiliary programs: bibtex and makeindex that are used to process your bibliography, glossaries and index (if used). Then run pdflatex several more times until all numbering and cross-references warnings are resolved.