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Return to FAQ Index.

These are FAQs about LaTeX.

Before anything else, I need to define some terms. You can think of LaTeX workflow as having three components:

  1. A text editor that you type your content into, like gedit, Sublime, Vim, or Emacs. (See tech briefing for details.)
  2. A LaTeX compiler (aka LaTeX distribution) that converts the source into a PDF. See question L-10 for recommendations.
  3. A PDF viewer, the same one you use for normally viewing PDF’s. See question L-12 for recommendations.

What you need to know right now is that these three components are disjoint. Some text editors may let you invoke a compiler directly, and others may be designed specifically for LaTeX editing, but it is a mistake to confuse the editor with the compiler. Any text editor will work with any compiler will work with any PDF viewer.

L-1. I don’t know anything. Where do I start?#

Read Wikibooks, it’s really comprehensive. Also, this tutorial is good too.

See also the example file.

L-2a. What about online suites like Overleaf?#

I think it’s better long-term to install LaTeX on your computer. I realize that people want something that “just works” with no additional effort. But for frequent usage, there are downsides:

  • You do not have much control over the editor or viewer.
  • You do not have control over package versions, or custom packages (besides manually making a copy of a package each time you need it).
  • It’s slower, because you need to do repeated round-trips to an external server for compilation and viewing.
  • If you use Asymptote, any errors are silently discarded.

More bluntly, just install LaTeX, you only have to do it once.

Overleaf certainly has its uses; most notably, its strength is collaboration. For example, sometimes I have to work with colleagues that are too incompetent to learn how to use Git. In that case, it’s easier for me to throw an Overleaf at them (and then use the underlying Git myself). Or, sometimes I am stuck on some library computer, making it impossible to install my own software. That does happen.

But I think it’s not good for learning though, see the next question.

L-2b. How do I get X to work on Overleaf?#

First install LaTeX properly, then if it still doesn’t work write to me again. (Usually this fixes the issue because it forces the asker to actually do their homework. 😉)

L-3. Your documents are pretty, can I use your formatting?#

Yes, it’s contained in the style file evan.sty. Attribution is required in source versions only, and not mandated in PDF output (though still appreciated). Check the license that appears.

You should either copy-paste the 600-ish lines of code into a text file, or else click “Raw” and save the file.

L-4. How do I use a custom style file like evan.sty?#

Check Google. Or see Wikibooks.

Abridged summary: the source file itself looks something like:

\title{Example of a Title}

Then you need to place evan.sty or similar somewhere LaTeX can find it. There are two ways you can do this:

  1. Place the file in the same directory as the file you’re trying to compile. In other words, if the file you’re trying to compile is /path/to/document.tex then place evan.sty in /path/to/evan.sty.

    This is easy, but it has the major annoyance that you will end up with a copy of evan.sty in a gazillion directories if you want to use the file in multiple places.

  2. Place the file in LaTeX’s directory. This is trickier because the correct path depends on operating system, but you only have to do it once. Depending on your system, you may also have to update package database.

    Some possible hints:

L-5. How do I get the colored boxes and section headers with evan.sty?#

Pass the sexy option to the package (see source code for more detailed breakdown of options). Colored sections will then happen automatically if you are using scrartcl (rather than article or report). For the theorem environments in colored boxes, use the provided theorem environments. See examples in FAQ L-9.

L-6. What package did you use to typeset your CV?#

I use moderncv. You can download the TeX source of my CV (with slight modifications for simplicity; this link is not updated).

L-7. How do you get the LaTeX to auto-compile?#

Use latexmk with the -pvc flag, and a PDF viewer that does not “lock” the PDF file from being written (Adobe reader does not work).

To fit latexmk into the framework we described, it is a “wrapper script” that calls the compiler for you. Matthias Geier has installation and usage instructions for latexmk in

L-8. What do you use to typeset geometry diagrams?#

I use Asymptote. It integrates well with LaTeX; for example, here is a document that compiles to a picture of a circle.


However, the setup to make this functional requires some work; I ended up creating a separate page of instructions.

L-9. Can I see some example source code?#

Yes, go to Olympiad page and to download TeX source. (The geometry handouts will have diagrams.) You can also look at Napkin source code.

L-10. Which LaTeX distribution do you recommend?#

  • Linux: TeX Live, almost certainly available from your package manager (e.g. pacman -S texlive-core or apt install texlive). Unlike Windows, on Linux this should install in at most a few minutes if your Internet connection is decent.

L-11. Which text editor do you use/recommend?#

I use NeoVim with LaTeX Suite. But that is a pretty advanced setup, so if you are a beginner, it may be overwhelming to learn Vim and LaTeX at the same time.

For now, you may prefer to stick with whatever text editor you are used to. (Note that the editor does not need to be specific to LaTeX, any source code editor will work.)

If you don’t have a source code editor yet because you ignored my advice to learn how to code, then see the FAQ X-6c for some suggestions.

L-12. Which PDF viewer do you use?#

I use Zathura.

Evince and Skim are also good.

L-13. How did you get randomized hint order in your geometry textbook?#

It’s a bit of a hack, but here is demo code corresponding to the version used in my geometry book.

Dennis Chen wrote a more sophisticated version scrambledenvs, available on GitHub as chennisden/scrambledenvs. If you have TeX Live 2021, you can just run tlmgr install scrambledenvs. Otherwise, follow the installation instructions at this GitHub gist.

L-14. How do you live-TeX your notes so quickly?#

The main contributing factors are:

  • My typing speed is quite high; sometimes over 750 characters per minute.
  • NeoVim (see L-11) is fast.
  • Several additional custom keyboard shortcuts specifically for TeX, see the vim folder in my dotfiles.
  • I have conceal enabled in Vim, so I can read my source code more easily.
  • I use latexmk to auto-compile (L-7).

I have been using Vim and LaTeX since I was a teenager, so I am quite proficient with both.

L-15. How did you integrate your problem database with LaTeX?#

I wrote my own database software in Python.

L-16. What’s the best way to learn new things in LaTeX?#

Two things:

  • Read the source code of other people who know what they’re doing;
  • Search on Google and tex.SE.

L-17. How can I look up a symbol?#

Use Detexify.

L-18. How can I have space between my paragraphs?#

You can use \setlength{\parskip}{1ex plus 0.5ex minus 0.2ex}. You can also add \setlength{\parindent}{0pt} to suppress indents.

But don’t do this, it looks terrible. Indents are a better way of separating paragraphs.

L-19. What do you use for slideshows (e.g. on Twitch stream)?#


L-20. How do you get LaTeX on WordPress blog?#

I used to use this Python2 script; later I updated it to Python3. Not that elegant, but works.

L-21. My code doesn’t work / I want to do X, what should I do?#

Prepare a minimal working example and ask on tex.SE.

L-22. Why do you anti-recommend \dfrac or \displaystyle?#

If your expression is so complicated that it isn’t legible without using \dfrac or \displaystyle, then it should probably be displayed.

L-23. Any common mistakes?#

Thought you’d never ask.

Updated Sat 20 Jul 2024, 22:05:59 UTC by c5c1a97ce12a