How can I introduce a non-technical person to LaTeX?

I have been using LaTeX for about a year now. I don't consider myself an expert at LaTeX but I know my around it enough to get things done. One of my colleagues, whose background is entirely non technical, wishes to learn LaTeX so that he can switch from using Open Office. He uses computers for browsing and preparing documents in a word processor. Please advise on how to introduce LaTeX to him (without making it sound like rocket science) and any material that is available online (like a LaTeX simple guide) for this purpose.

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What type of field is he working? –  Yiannis Lazarides Feb 13 '12 at 6:04
Back when I TAing as a PhD student I used to keep a pen drive with TeXLive on it, along with a few very basic documents and some text files as READMEs to get it set up. Although I was introducing physicists, these were first year undergrads and for the most part utterly inept. –  qubyte Feb 13 '12 at 8:37

I have introduced LaTeX into our organization and quite a number of other people at a personal level over the years. In academia it is almost tradition that LaTeX is introduced via word of mouth and that the person that made the introduction helps with the first steps.

Most "non-technical" people use Windows or maybe Macs and probably are not old enough to remember operating a computer via a command prompt. You can assist your friend tremendously by helping to install a full MikTeX installation. If you noticed I mentioned full, as the biggest frustration of new users is setting up everything and is best to avoid errors due to missing packages at the beginning. MikTeX can update on the fly, but on a slow internet connection, it often fails. Use the default Texworks editor, as spell-checking and highlighting are good.

Provide an empty template, with maximum one or two packages. Provide also a reasonably sized document that works (must have an index and contents) and relates to their work.

Give them a bit of a coaching how everything works and help them put their first document together. Newcomers get very excited when they see the first document with contents, index and footnotes. Most non-technical people find it almost impossible to do this with Word or Libre Office.

Introduce images early and the idea of floats. Leave tables as the last item under discussion and well after the newcomer has done a bit of LaTeX work.

I think we are the only Construction Company that uses LaTeX for our reports. Most users have an Engineering background and some of them have good computer skills. As they are a mix of 32 nationalities skills vary tremendously. Strangely enough one of our secretaries took to it very easily but not our IT guy.

As to your question about introductory material, the best is a good book (after you have whetted their appetite a bit to want to use LaTeX to its full capacity).

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Probably, your secretary was starting from relatively blank or didn't use many of the Word features, whereas your IT guy had a lot of Word knowledge and habits he needed to transition from. Just because Windows power users find Linux (or Mac) hard to use at first, it doesn't mean a brand new user would. –  badp Feb 13 '12 at 11:09
How would you best explain the idea of floats and at the same time highlight it's benefits? –  benregn Feb 17 '12 at 16:52
@benregn Make a small example with an includegraphics (no float) in the wrong place such as overflowing at the bottom of the page. Then modify to the figure environment and let it float nicely at the top of the next page. Show them a typical book with the images set this way. –  Yiannis Lazarides Feb 17 '12 at 19:05

I would do the following, which has worked for a few of my friends already. Im my opinion one best starts with just the structure. Prepare an empty document for him, and show him the basic sectioning commands. Have him work a while with this reduced set of commands and step by step explain how to accomplish certain tasks e.g. tables, figures,etc.

What worked really well for me, since my friends usually are not close by: Setting up a Dropbox folder or Subversion access. This way I could always check their files in case they ran into trouble.

I also put the common \usepackage{} stuff into a separate file and ask the person not to adjust this (until they reach a certain level of proficiency). It worked well this way a couple of times and I never scared the people off.

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+1 for the use of Dropbox for remote supervision! –  LianTze Lim Feb 13 '12 at 6:58
@LianTzeLim Just be careful with not stepping over the newbie's toes. Unlike all versioning systems, Dropbox doesn't handle conflicts at all and either (not both!) of you might end up with "(conflicted copy)" versions of the same file. –  badp Feb 13 '12 at 11:06
The concurrency may of course be an issue but with just two persons involved it is manageable. I also used Subversion in this kind of support, this worked well in each case. –  Uwe Ziegenhagen Feb 14 '12 at 19:42
Instead of putting the \usepackages into a separate file, why not create a special class for them with all the needed packages? –  Martin Schröder Feb 14 '12 at 20:49

You should show them LyX instead of full Latex. LyX is an editor that lets you create files that are compiled to LaTeX source (and from latex to .pdf). You edit text mostly without using LaTeX commands (although you can insert plain LaTeX code in the document). While it lets you to edit using GUI, it is not a WYSWIG editor.

It does very nice things like converting graphics (if necessary), has very good support for tables and maths, includes support for many packages (memoir, report... etc).

Here is the Lyx editor Window:

Here is the output:

I wrote my Masters in Lyx and it was a nice experience.

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+1,000. Most of the power of TeX with none of the syntax, plus the aggressive take on changing your mindset away from "I want this to be Arial 15pt bold italic centered" and back to "I want this to be a title" makes LyX awesome for this. –  badp Feb 13 '12 at 11:02
Lyx is a great way to learn LaTeX. It allows want to get the satisfaction of a result before they understand the marcos beneath the surface. Being able to view the LaTeX source along side a visual output makes it easier to understand the correlation between macros and pdf output. –  Scribblemacher Feb 13 '12 at 17:22
+1 here as well. I used LyX to write my various academic papers back when I was still an academic and it certainly saved me a lot of grief. –  fluffy Feb 13 '12 at 18:15
Also show them how to get rid of that hideous pink background color. –  Michael Palmer Feb 14 '12 at 20:24
Lyx might be nice, but if you have to collaborate with someone who uses Lyx while you use a text editor, it produces some really ugly latex... –  steabert Feb 23 '12 at 15:22

Teach them how to use texdoc. Give them the confidence to be able to read something that helps even if you (the teacher) are not around.

What i discovered during the lectures that i gave is that users want results and usually do not try to understand what they are doing as well as they are shouting for help before they think. I believe this is induced by two facts.

First the usually are Word (or Word-like) socialized. What makes them believe that everything has to done manually e.g. to set the typearea manually every page or the most seen beginner lapse \\ \\ \\ to force a vspace. As a teacher you should make clear, that doing something manually is not even the last resort. Also you should be able to awake the feeling that everything is possible.

Secondly they tend to copy too much. This certainly comes form the well known template culture. A template sometimes works perfectly for a beginner, but will not necessarily make them understand.

Here are some of the resources i recommend:

texdoc lshort koma-en mathmode

A complete environment with documentation installed and a simple editor (s.a. texworks) will make it much more pleasant to learn LaTeX.

BTW: TeX Support is even possible via facebook ;)

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Damn, I never even knew texdoc existed. Do you use it often? –  drozzy Mar 26 '12 at 20:26
Oh yes every day. –  bloodworks Mar 27 '12 at 8:12
It seems MiKTeX 's texdoc is something different. Do you know of a similar utility in MiKTeX? –  drozzy Mar 27 '12 at 13:16
imho miktex uses mthelp (texdoc should be a shortcut to this) docs.miktex.org/2.8/manual/mthelp.html –  bloodworks Mar 27 '12 at 13:32