…and ΤeΧ, and ConTeXt and XeTeX and TeXleMeElmo, Beautiful typesetting with LaTeX

The least worst mathematical typesetting system. One of the better scoured of the filthy pipes in academic plumbing. De facto standard for mathematicians, especially those who are not so impertinent as to insist in writing in non-English languages, or are not so shallow as gainsay the simple delights in the painstaking handicraft of manually setting line breaks, or who have grad students who will deal with all that for free. That is, a tool which provides comfort for that endangered animal, the Tenured Academic, and tolerable usefulness for the rest of us.

Other alternatives include

  1. using MS Word, or
  2. stabbing your eyeballs with a pencil

… each of which I regard as similarly undesirable, and, to be clear, both even less desirable than LaTeX itself.

I am aware there are differences due to various different engines, formats, macro systems etc, giving us ConTeXT and LaTeX and TeX and pdfTeX and XeTeX and LuaTeX, and that they are all refreshingly different in their choices of pain-points, whether in formatting, interoperation, character set handling, compatibility, preferred name capitalisation, or community support. I am indeed cognisant of the buffet of failure cases I could choose from, if only in broad outline. However, standards lock-in being what it is, I will avoid arranging the deckchairs of incremental improvement on this sinking ship. If I must do something, it will be to discretely wait over there, near the lifeboats, for some amped-up scholarly version of Markdown to come rescue me from the entire tiresome problem.


Eddie Smith, From boiling lead and black art: An essay on the history of mathematical typography; the only thing on this page you might conceivably read for pleasure.

Robert Kosara has an excellent rant:

The tools of the trade for academics and others who write research papers are among the worst software has to offer. Whether it’s writing or citation management, there are countless issues and annoyances. How is it possible that this fairly straightforward category of software is so outdated and awful?

Grad students, Robert, and their zero-marginal-cost labour. The same labour undervaluation that keeps slave economies from developing the steam engine.

Here is a more pious take by Graham Douglas, What’s in a name: a guide to the many flavours of TeX.

Installing TeX

See LaTeX installation.

Reverse LaTeX

Get LaTeX back from screen captures or even photos (!) of (formatted) equations Mathpix. They also offer a mathematical notebook, snips. Or sketch that one tricky symbol into detexify.

Or! Leave the machines behind! Train yourself in speed LaTeX transcription via the gamified mathematical typesetting training system TeXnique.


Run like a normal unix program

Per default TeX runs in an interactive mode which makes usually pointless efforts to solicit your advice about badly explained syntax errors etc. This probably dates to some time in the 80s when users were billed per-command-line-invocation or something, and is utterly contrary to modern expectations.


pdflatex -interaction=nonstopmode -halt-on-error


pdflatex -interaction=batchmode


The tool that makes a best-effort attempt to put assemble the clanking chain of components that turn those text files into documents. It has various command-line option in the man-page. Examples of its advanced options are useful though. latexmk options and nomenclature. See also the latexmkrc files that it comes with for examples of advanced configuration.

🤓 you can set up latex as an automatically updating dynamical preview, even with synctex, as a poor-man-interactive-editor.

latexmk -pvc

Include in python

Generating arbitrary LaTeX in python scripts, jupyter notebooks, Pweave literate documents? Use an ingenious python script called using latex_fragment to ease your burden and render your latex fragments inline. It was written by that paragon of coding cleanliness, that tireless crusader for not-dicking-around, me.

from IPython.display import display_latex, display
import latex_fragment
l = latex_fragment.LatexFragment(r'\(x=y\)')

Note also that pandoc markdown already includes LaTeX support for LaTeX output.

Other options include inverting this setup, and including python in LaTeX via an executable notebook such as knitr.

Putting dates in drafts

Certain document classes (all?) have draft modes.


A universal (not document-class-dependent) option was suggested by the Malaysian LaTeX User Group, Putting Dates in Watermarks:

\usepackage{draft watermark}

On a minimalist TeX system, this may necessitate

tlmgr install draftwatermark everypage \
  datetime2 etoolbox tracklang


Managing spacing between symbols is the major reason for existence for LaTeX. It is a hard problem, optimising for legibility of symbols on a sheet of paper for all the various sorts who might read it. One must simultaneously solve for the slightly conflicting goal of minimising the number of criticism of grumpy aesthetically-challenged pedantic folk-typographers each of whom has a different and incompatible list of what in their mind are unspeakable crimes against legibility. Thus there are many compromises, tricks, edge-cases and other potholes to get your foot stuck in, especially in mathematical mode. As far as individual mathematical characters goes, here is a comprehensive guide to LaTeX spacing by Werner. tl;dr if things look weird you can convert a mathematical character to an “ordinal” by wrapping it {=} and add your own manual spacing back in and it will work nicely.

To manage justification, a.k.a. text alignment, generally (Why is everything fully justified? It makes the spacing so ugly, at least to this aesthetically-challenged pedantic folk-typographer.) one needs the \raggedright/\centering etc commands, or even the ragged2e package. See the Overleaf documentation and wikibooks.

PRO-TIP: \RaggedRight and friends destroy paragraph indentation. The fix is to restore the indent:


Or you could do what a real typographer would do and put space between paragraphs, which might require some style update.

If you are me, you are probably using RaggedRight spacing to make it easier to proofread and will be reverting to fully justified after the proofreading process, so you can ignore this problem and delete the RaggedRight directive later.

Death-or-define macro

Death-or-define is how I think of the trick to force a macro definition redefinition even if there is no definition to be redefined — handy if I am rendering latex from some tricky source such as jupyter, or where I don’t have control over the overall document outside my section but don’t care about wreaking havoc on my collaborators; some other poor sap can deal with the macro mutations Mwahahaha.

\renewcommand{\foo}[1]{bar: #1}


Need to explain an algorithm? If you are permitted to list real source code, this is possible via the listings. I have yet to encounter a journal or conference that endorses this however.

Convention dictates explaining an algorithm with pseudocode. This obviates the problem of the uncertain semantics of particular programming languages, by replacing them with the semantics of no programming language at all. There is a confusing profusion of options for doing this and all options are, IMO, inadequate, since none of them allow me to typeset higher order functions naturally, and that is an old, thoroughly mainstream idea that I use a lot. This means, for example, that it is hard to typeset automatic differentiation. But who would need that? Anyway, this is a sub problem which I can awkwardly work around like everyone else.

tl;dr: I use

  • For formatting,

    • algorithmicx + algpseudocode (a nice default syntax that comes with algorithmicx).
    • Or algorithms which comes with only one syntax, but everyone knows is
  • inside an algorithm float.


How this looks:

\usepackage[noend]{algpseudocode}  % skip EndFor etc
\usepackage{algorithm}   % custom floats
    \caption{Euclid’s algorithm}
    \begin{algorithmic}[1] % The argument is the first line number
          \Comment{The g.c.d. of a and b}
            \State \(r\gets a \bmod b\) \label{init}
               \Comment{We have the answer if r is 0}
                \State \(a \gets b\)
                \State \(b \gets r\)
                \State \(r \gets a \bmod b\)
            \State \textbf{return} \(b\)
              \Comment{The gcd is b}

Algorithm line label references look like


If I am running minimalist TeX I need

tlmgr install algorithmicx algorithms

or I can do without algorithms if I do


Or perhaps I wish to typeset real code in a real language? minted enables this, allowing colour-highlighted math-enabled code rendering, bringing to LaTeX documents the conveniences that have been available to everyone else for some decades now.

There are alternatives.


algorithms provides algorithmic and an algorithm float, and seems to be fairly common and also fairly interchangeable with algorithmicx. The making your own floats does not need a package, but the algorithmic markup is non-trivial.

This seems intermittently maintained but has better reference syntax, in that referring to a line number just works - \autoref{alg:euclif:init} does what you would expect. It also seems to be preferred by IEEE.




program does pseudocode formatting but with substantively different syntax and styling. It looks nice but I don’t use it as it’s less compatible with the other so the odds of being able to copy and paste are low and copy-and-pasting ancient code snippets is how academia works.

IDs (ORCID, DOI etc)

Why is this not documented at []]( I do not know.

AFAICT, at the basic level you create a hyperlink, e.g.

}{Dan MacKinlay }

But what if I want the fancy logo so that everyone knows I cleverly did the ORCID thing? If I am using some benighted conference style sheet from the 90s this is unlikely to work. But for a more modern situation (e.g. IEEE is usually current) I might be able to get an attractive green logo. I made this work with the academicons package, which gets the logo via a custom font.

Then, ORCID, for example, is set up in the preamble:


and in the body

\item \href{
}{Dan MacKinlay \hspace{2mm} \textcolor{orcidlogocol}{\aiOrcid}  }

Or use use the orcid.pdf (converted from orcid.svg):

\href{}{\includegraphics[scale=0.06]{orcid.pdf}\hspace{2mm}Dan MacKinlay}

Mathematical hacks

Math size

I forget this all the time. Explained by overleaf, Math font size ordering is

\displaystyle       % Size for equations in display mode
\textstyle          % Size for equations in text mode
\scriptstyle        % Size for first sub/superscripts
\scriptscriptstyle  % Size for subsequent sub/superscripts


There is an array environemtn which is good for typsetting equations but it is too verbose for typsetting arrays of other things, like numbers.

Use amsmath matrix for that, e.g.

1 & 2 & 3\\
a & b & c

Defining new operators

Without Limits

i.e. limits on the side, \({\mathop{\mathrm{sech}}\nolimits}^2 x.\).

Plain style (works everywhere including old MathJax):


amsmath style (works in AMSMath environments):


With Limits

i.e. limits underneath \({\mathop{\rm arg\,max}}_{x\to\infty} x\).


\newcommand{\sech}{\mathop{\rm sech}\limits}

amsmath style:


Version control

Tools such as git-latexdiff provide custom diffing for, in this case, LaTeX code in git.


Getting a diagram into a document?


Martin H says, on including SVG in TeX, that the smoothest route is to convert the SVG into PDF+TeX, as per Johan Engelen’s manual:

inkscape -D -z --file=image.svg --export-pdf=image.pdf --export-latex

Then invoke using

    % set width of next svg image:

This can be automated using the svg tex package.


PGFPlots is a native diagramming/plotting package which supports PDF output.

See also general diagrams and scientific workbooks.


See LaTeX editors.

Citations and bibliographies

From within LaTeX? See BibTeX etc.


Posters HOWTO.

a0poster is popular, as expounded by Morales de Luna, but I secretly feel that it sounds like a nightmare of legacy postscript nonsense and doesn’t even look good. sciposter is a popular a0poster variant.

tikzposter and beamerposter are both highlighted on sharelatex but I cannot find a way of making them seem anything but fugly to me and I cannot condone their use. It is hard enough to bring beauty into this world without makgint it worse.


IEEE style specialties

IEEEtran stylesheets have some special equation formatting noûs.

&=&x_1 + x_2 + x_3 + x_4 + x_5 + x_6
&&+\:a + b%