LaTeX + TeXnicCenter + MikTex + JabRef

After many years of putting it off, I finally decided to give LaTeX a proper go for writing some academic articles. For those that may have heard the term but are still unclear as to what LaTeX actually is, I like to think of it as a HTML syntax for creating PDFs and professional looking documents.

In other words, LaTeX is a markup language, so when writing a LaTeX paper you have to add LaTeX tags throughout to define how the document should be rendered at a later stage, but the document itself is always written in plain-text with no formatting, no indentation, no justification, no images, etc.

As a final comparison, typical word processors such as MS Office, OpenOffice and Google Docs are what you'd call WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) editors, whereas LaTeX is merely a syntax for formatting documents, not even an editor.

Thus, much like HTML, if you want to start creating documents and articles, you'll first need an editor. While Notepad and WordPad would do the job, they're highly not recommended from a productivitiy perspective, especially for LaTeX beginners. For Windows, I've found TeXnicCenter to be quite good (I've also tried LyX but don't like it's non-standard LaTeX WYSIWYG mix).

Additionally, while TeXnicCenter will let you write your LaTeX documents and offer syntax highlighting, tag shortcuts, auto-complete, etc., to compile the documents you'll need a LaTeX compiler with all the packages, APIs and font's that you're using. This is where MikTeX comes in. Simply download and install MikTeX and you'll have the base collection of fonts and packages you need. If you then write a LaTeX document in TeXnicCenter that requests a non-installed package, MikTeX will be smart enough to give you a pop-up allowing you to download it from one of many different online LaTeX repositories.

Sound pretty crazy? That's because it is. Definitelly not as easy or accessible as opening Word going nuts with it. LaTeX is a programming language, for which you need a programming IDE and a decent compiler with a package manager. This is not for everyone and I'd only recommend it for those that actually need to publish academic papers or journals and need consistent professional layouts adhearing to certain standards, etc.

Once you have everything up and running, you need to start writing a paper and trying out all the different things. There's a lot to learn, especially when it comes to inserting images, creating tables and using referencing. Google is your friend as always, and learning by example seems best. I managed to get the hand of it in about four hours or so. I'll post a template of my article with all the important bits a little later.

The benefit from all the effort with LaTeX is mostly in creating hassle-free, consistant referencing and in writing mathematical expressions. I don't have much experience with the latter, but referencing and numbering always gives me headaches in MS Word (numbered lists always seem to continue when I don't want them to, or reset when I don't want them to, etc.). Also, if you're in academia you've probably heard of BiBTeX as a way of managing your reference library. LaTeX allows for easy integration with this, and I've found TeXnicCentre integrates quite well with JabRef for this purpose.

When using TeXnicCentre, remember that you need to create a project before you can enable BiBTeX. After doing so, you need to reference the location of your .bib file and then use the \cite{key} command to insert your references. I put up an example of this later. Also remember that you may need to compile 2 or 3 times before everything works correctly (LaTeX is a one-pass interpreter meaning that order of commands matters, seems a little poor in my opinion).


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