I am a noob when it comes to TeX, however, I do use LaTeX for typing mathematical and engineering formulas, etc.

Recently I have taken it upon myself to try and write some technical papers to try and get published, however I do not know what... 'type'(?) of TeX software to use best, so that I can hit the ground running with it.

If you look here, this can give you context as to the forums that I would be publishing to, (IEEE), and they even have some templates there. However I cam getting easily confused between BibTex, TeX, etc, and how they all 'fit' together, in my goal of writing a paper. I would like guidance on this.

What might be the easiest 'headache less' software to start writing a paper in TeX for a noob such as myself? Am I on the right track?


  • 8
    I guess you should read a short introduction on LaTeX first. e.g. LaTeX Primer. And you may refer: What is the best book to start learning LaTeX? and What are other good resources on-line for information about TeX, LaTeX and friends? ...
    – Leo Liu
    Commented Aug 9, 2012 at 15:19
  • 1
    @LeoLiu Thanks for the links. This is really an optimization problem. I simply to not have time to go full blown into learning everything to do with TeX. I would certainly like to - I simply cannot with everything in my life currently. (I would do that otherwise). What I am trying to do it ascertain what software(s) are good for starting out, so that I can 'learn-as-I-go', with the goal of typing up a paper in the end. (I can augment as I go along). But I really want to put a stake in the ground and start from there. What software(s) might you recommend to download and starting typing?
    – Spacey
    Commented Aug 9, 2012 at 15:49
  • 1
    @Mohammad One issue you will find is that as using LaTeX is somewhat like programming, there is a requirement to read a certain minimal amount before 'diving in'. Alan has covered the requirements very well, but you will get on much better if you read at least a short intro before you start work.
    – Joseph Wright
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 7:59

3 Answers 3


If I understand your question correctly, you want to know what is the minimal set of tools you need to be familiar with in order to use LaTeX to write technical documents. I'll try to summarize these here, and how they work together. I'll keep this answer fairly schematic, and point you to many other questions on the site which will provide some more detailed information.

Main components for using TeX

There are three main components to using LaTeX on any computer: you need a TeX Distribution, a text editor, and a PDF previewer. Within the TeX distribution are numerous engines which are the programs that actually process your LaTeX source and turn it into PDF. Schematically this can be viewed in the following way:

schematic diagram of TeX system


Although any plain text editor can be used to edit TeX source, most people use an editor that has an integrated system for interfacing with a TeX distribution so that you can compile your document from within the editor. Many of the popular editors also incorporate a previewer into them, so although the previewer part of the diagram above is logically separate from the editor, in practice your editor may also be your previewer. For beginners, the cross-platform TeXWorks editor is a good choice. For more discussion on editors see:


A TeX distribution is the whole set of programs and packages that are used to process TeX documents. There are essentially two main distributions: MikTeX (Windows only) and TeX Live (cross platform).

For differences between TeX Live and MikTeX for Windows see:

If you use a Mac, the TeX Live distribution on the Mac is called MacTeX and is essentially a complete TeX Live distribution with some extras for use with the Mac. There is also a smaller version called BasicTeX, but for beginners the full installation is to be preferred. For more on this see:

On Linux systems, you can usually install a TeX distribution using your regular package manager, but this is often out of date. Most people here install TeX Live directly and then use its package manager to update packages. For more on this see:


There are three main engines for TeX (or LaTeX): pdfTeX, XeTeX, and LuaTeX. For most purposes, pdfTeX should be fine unless your work involves non-European scripts, in which case XeTeX is almost a necessity. For more on these differences, see:


As mentioned above, many editors contain previewers themselves, but some do not, or are usable with external previewers. For more discussion on this, see:


The one other important part of using TeX for academic purposes is bibliography management. Here there are two components: some sort of external program for managing a bibliography, and tools that are part of your TeX distribution used to interface with LaTeX packages for bibliographies. In this case the workflow is the following:

bibtex workflow

Bibliography managers

Bibliographic entries are stored in a .bib file. This is just a plain text file which can be edited by hand, but most people prefer to use a GUI reference manager. The most popular of these are

  • JabRef (cross platform)
  • BiBDesk (Mac)

For more discussion of this see:

LaTeX packages for biliographies

There are two main ways to deal with bibliographies in LaTeX: natbib+bibtex and the newer biblatex+biber. For extensive discussion see:

Miscellaneous advice

Once you get going on things, you may also want to investigate systems for managing your work and files. The following question might be of help:

  • One thousand and one kisses on your forehead @Alan Munn! This is exactly the top-down explanation I needed! Thank you very much! Some follow ups: 1) Am I to understand that one cannot do any citations within the paper without bibTeX? 2) How did you make those diagrams? (Let me guess, TeX?)
    – Spacey
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 13:38
  • @Mohammad Thanks for the kind words. You can do citations manually but it is a bad idea. The advantage of using the automated solutions are twofold: first you enter bib information once in your career and use it forever. Second, if you need to use the same reference with a different journal style, you just change the bibliography style but use the same data. So if you plan to do any academic work, you should definitely learn to use it. The diagrams were made with TikZ (they lose a bit of resolution in the conversion to .png, unfortunately.)
    – Alan Munn
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 13:43

I've been using TeX software for three years now exclusively for report writing at university. As far as I know, for document writing, you need two things. Firstly, you need the 'TeX distribution'; this is called "MiKTeX" and is basically the brains of the software. Secondly, you need a 'editor', something with a graphical user interface that uses the engine. I prefer a program called "TeKMaker". Once you have these two, it's just a case of writing the document.

However, in terms of writing documents, I would highly recommend following the literature (well-provided by LeoLiu) in a systematic and meticulous manner. Yes, unfortunately this does require some effort, although it is in my opinion the most efficient way in the long-run.

Best of luck.

  • 7
    MikTeX is a distribution, not an engine, which is something different. And I assume you mean 'editor' instead of 'writer' (which is not used in English). See Glossary of TeX and LaTeX terms for some more discussion of many of these terms. See also Differences between TeX engines for discussion of what an engine is.
    – Alan Munn
    Commented Aug 9, 2012 at 17:11
  • 1
    Thanks for the note; I've made the changes to my answer.
    – user16307
    Commented Aug 9, 2012 at 20:11

Using a .tex editor is a good way to learn the commands, since they are pre-programmed into the editor so you don't have to memorize them. Examples are TeXnicCenter, TeXshop (comes with MacTeX), texmaker, Kile, etc.

If you haven't done so already, I would highly recommend visiting http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/LaTeX/ in addition to Leo Liu's recommendations. If you need to clear up confusion with BibTeX, consult the section on "Biblography Management".

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .