How to get started using LaTeX for academic writing? A book review of “S. Kottwitz, LaTeX Beginner’s Guide (2nd ed., Packt 2021)

Many prospective LaTeX users wonder: How do I get started? How to find my way in the jungle that learning LaTeX often seems to be to a first time user? Today I wanted to share my review of Stefan Kottwitz, LaTeX. A Beginner’s Guide (Packt 2021) with you. This book can help you find your way and get started using LaTeX after just the first chapter.

Acknowledgement: I was sent a free reviewer’s copy of this book and asked to write a review about it which I happily agreed to do.

Disclaimer: My book review policy

Probably related to my upbringing in Germany, I don’t think a review can call itself a proper/serious review if it doesn’t contain criticism. I’m aware this is relatively different from reviews in the American style (especially on the covers of books) to just praise the book and not mention any criticism – but sadly, this also is becoming the norm in many an academic book review. Such reviews make me incredibly angry. First of all, nothing is perfect so if you can’t find a problem with it, odds are you didn’t look very closely. I think academic book reviews have no reason to exist if there is no information or judgement in them. And praise of a book is not information, it’s just redundant. I can praise any book without having read it – so why would you even read a book review like that? I personally also don’t get why publishers waste precious space on the covers of books with “praise” which litterally has no information value whatsoever. As a reader who knows what to expect from such statements, I know that they won’t contain anything negative, so what’s the added value from reading them? In Academia maybe the info whether you were able to win important names to “legitimize your work” but other than that? Not much.

Now that you’re aware of my position on book reviewing, let’s get to it…

What I love about the book and what you can expect

First of all, I have to say that it’s quite obvious that this is not the first introductory resource the author has written. This is clearly visible in the text and in how it is structured. As critical as I am known to be of introductory material to LaTeX (check out the video or TUG article on “Didactical reduction vs references” here), I am really convinced by Kottwitz’s approach. It introduces just as much information as needed at every point in the narrative flow, while still managing to leave out unnecessary detail. It doesn’t just “throw a list at you” with all the functionalities that LaTeX has – like it is sadly the case with many LaTeX books which are documentation or reference rather than intro books, as I often lament.

Quite the opposite: The book is driven by your needs. It begins with an overall intro to the most important features only (strictly no unnecessary blabla or too much information). You can get started actively using LaTeX after just Part 2 (Formatting text and creating macros) and only come back when you need something specific. That’s around 40 pages with not a lot of text on them.

There are chapters on 3 Designing Pages, 4 Creating Lists, 5 Including Images, 6 Creating Tables, 7 Using Cross-References, 8 Listing Contents and References (table of contents, indices, bibliography), 9 Writing Math Formulas, 10 Using Fonts, 11 Developing Large Documents, 12 Enhancing Your Documents Further as well as two useful chapters – which are like appendices – on 13 Troubleshooting an 14 Using Online Resources (both super important LaTeX skills, so you’re ready to solve your own problems independently!).

I love how this can be used as a buffet to grab just what you need and no more. Who has the time to read 300 pages of a technical book in one sitting anyway?

  • Maybe you want to get started on the content of your writing (like I mostly do) and don’t care about what it looks like – then just read Part 2 and 8 Listing Contents and References.
  • You’re from a technical field? Absorb 6 Creating Tables and 9 Writing Math Formulas.
  • You’re not from a technical field? No problem – unlike many other resources on LaTeX, this book doesn’t require you to wade through all the math stuff that you won’t ever need anyway. Just get started on your bibliography!

Overall, I have to admit I really love the approach.

The cons

Having read my book review policy above, you will probably be surprised that I hardly have any cons on this book. I think it fulfills its promise of being a “beginner’s guide” really well. It does have a number of pages on the installation. I guess these are necessary so that the book can be used as a standalone resource for getting started with LaTeX. But it’s also lots of information you might not need or which might go out of date. Personally, I prefer if this sort of information is in an appendix. If you need it, you can consult it but it’s not actually part of “the narrative”, so I think it doesn’t really belong as the first part of the text.Then again, as a complete beginner, this is obviously the first thing you need to do, so I assume it’s just a matter of stylistic preference and doesn’t matter much.

Also, if you’re a somewhat advanced LaTeX user, this book will be pretty much redundant. But then again, you’re not the target audience of this book. It’s a beginner’s guide. You can hopefully find some resources on Advanced LaTeX on this blog 😉

It includes how to work in an online editor

A welcome addition to the intro is the explanation on how to use the Overleaf web editor for writing LaTeX. I think this is the most modern approach for today’s LaTeX Newbies. So much so that I claim you might not even want to install LaTeX on your computer until you’ve tried it out in an online editor so much that you’re sure you want to keep using it.

Then, of course, it can make a lot of sense to work offline at times. I work online for collaborative editing or smaller projects.

But to work online, you – obviously – need an internet connection. To make the choice whether you need an offline installation, ask yourself the question if you will ever find yourself wanting to work on your document on a train or from a lonely cabin in the mountains. (Hint: If you’re adopting LaTeX for academic or, more specifically, thesis writing, it is likely this will (have to) occur at one point or the other, sooner rather than later).

Conclusion

Overall, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wants to get started with LaTeX. Especially for academic writing purposes.

It gives you all you might need but is structured in a way that you can stop reading whenever you feel like you “have had enough for now”. And to come back later for specific questions. As the book is structured based on your needs rather than LaTeX functionalities, it can easily be used as a reference on a need basis.

This is useful for all those who feel like they don’t have time to get started with LaTeX: With this book, you will be more than ready to go after Part 2 (Formatting Text and Creating Macros). That’s 64 pages in Packt’s typical layout (not a lot of text per page), including the installation info you might not even need to read).

Best,

the Ninja

PS: If you’d like me to review your LaTeX book or resource and people enjoy these types of posts, I’m happy to keep doing this. Just get in touch. For book reviewing, I do prefer a physical copy, especially as I don’t approve of many publisher’s new policy of only sending out PDFs. Carefully reviewing a book is free labour. The free book copy is a compensation for this labour. Also, it has been shown by studies that reading online is not the same kind of thorough reading as reading on paper. You can’t do a serious book review just from skimming.

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