Get Started: Overleaf

One of the biggest differences between using LaTeX and using a word processor is that with LaTeX, you will not see what your final product looks like in real time. You will be writing code, which has instructions for the content and look, but is plain text. If you have experience with markup languages like HTML, this process may be familiar.

In order to get a nice document out of it - one that is attractive and readable for the human eye, that is - you need a program (called a TeX distribution) to compile the code into a PDF.

Cartoon flowchart showing a tex file converted to pdf by the TeX distribution.


Overleaf's logo.

There are many LaTeX editors available, but for simplicity this tutorial will use the website Overleaf.

Overleaf is free to use and entirely online. This is a helpful feature if you wish to access your work on multiple devices (including mobile), or simply if you do not want to go through the trouble of installing anything on your computer. Most other LaTeX software needs to be downloaded.


Exercise 1.1

Throughout this tutorial, there will be exercises for you to try. They will be labeled like this one, in gray boxes.

To follow along, log in to Overleaf now and start a new Blank Project, titled "Practice Exercises."

Parts of the Editor

When you start a Blank Project, you will enter Overleaf's online LaTeX editor (shown below).

The areas highlighted in the screenshot are described below.

The center pane, with the light gray background, is the source editor. This is the area where you will do all typing and editing.

The pane on the right contains the preview. This shows what your LaTeX code will look like when it is compiled as a PDF.

Note that the preview does not update automatically. To preview any changes that you make in the source editor, you must click the Recompile button found at the top left corner of the preview. The current preview can be downloaded as a PDF by clicking the button directly to the right, Download PDF.

There are two other important areas to note.

By clicking the Menu link in the top left corner of the page, you can access options including downloads for the files related to your project, the link to Overleaf's help documents, and a variety of settings. You can read more about the options in the Menu on Overleaf.

Finally, the arrow icon directly to the right of the menu button (boxed in pink in the screenshot above) brings you back to the list of projects.

Before we move onto learning LaTeX code, let's check your knowledge of Overleaf with a short assessment.