How I use LaTeX

In the last installment, I described what LaTeX is and my adventures in learning to use it. Today, I'll explain how, as a teacher still figuring out all this LaTeX craziness, I get things done using it.

As I mentioned, I've been using LaTeX to write up lab reports in the classes I'm taking this semester. LaTeX is great with formal documents, especially when they need to include symbols, fractions, and other exciting calculations. LaTeX works great (for me) to create formal documents. It has easy commands to create headings and sub-headings, bulleted and numbered lists, and (of course) it makes including formulas and symbols easy peasy.

That being said, I've been working for quite a while to make any handouts or slides for students more visually appealing. Lots of graphics. Design elements. And so forth. You can make slides and handouts using LaTeX. I don't think you should. Here's a slide deck I've used to introduce the basics of chemical reactions. In Keynote or PowerPoint it didn't take much effort to create. In LaTeX I think it'd take for-ev-er. Does that mean you can't get the awesome formula making of LaTeX in anything other than formal documents?


Lucky for you, there's LaTeXiT [update: Mac only]. It comes automatically with the full version of LaTeX. Basically, it lets you type in the commands to create the great looking formulas & symbols you'd expect from LaTeX then allow you to drag & drop them into your slide decks or handouts.

Commands typed in the text box. Output appears up top.
Dragging from LaTeXiT to Keynote

One of the great things LaTeXiT does is allow you to export the formula in a variety of image formats- including vector based pdf image files. While that sounds like geekily unnecessary information, it means that you can adjust the size of your formula so it's as huge as you'd like and it'll never get all pixellated.

Starting out

Since at first I didn't know any of the LaTeX symbols, I kept a couple pdfs that explained all the commands for different symbols open while I was using LaTeX. If I needed how to add, say, absolute value symbols, I just used the "find" function on my pdf viewer to locate where it described that command. At this point, I rarely need to look up new commands, since I've memorized all the usual ones simply through repetition. I've included below links to the mandi LaTeX package and it's documentation, which was made specifically for physics classes. Also included are links to a guide for all sorts of math symbols. Both have been super-useful for me while learning to use LaTeX.

[Update] LaTeXiT History & Library

Thanks to John Burk via twitter, I've discovered that LaTeXiT saves every formula you enter. That means you can pull up the history panel and drag & drop any of the formulas you've entered without having to re-type the commands. That's a major time saver.
The history. Drag & drop to your heart's delight.
Further, you can save equations in the "Library," and organize them into folders. Being the super-organized person I am1, I'll probably create folders like Kinematics, Newton's 2nd, Heat them dump equations I create into them as I go. Eventually I'll have an extensive library of equations and symbols ready to go.


  1. not so much.   (back)