CTAN lion drawing by Duane Bibby; thanks to www.ctan.orgCongratulations! You’re sick of Microsoft Word! This post is a very quick and dirty introduction to writing a regular, run of the mill English/Humanities college essay or term paper using LaTeX. I’ll show you how to get the software, write the paper, format it, put together the bibliography / works cited, and generate the pdf that you can print out or email to your professor.

  1. Introduction / Why LaTeX?
  2. Getting the software
  3. Writing
  4. Making a simple bibliography
  5. Formatting, checking, and printing
  6. What next?

1. Introduction / Why LaTeX?

If you are an English major or humanities student outside of Linguistics, you’ve probably never heard of LaTeX. There are tons of useful introductions and examples of its power (like this general pamphlet), but most of us don’t need to make graphs, complicated math equations, or anything else that makes LaTeX popular in the physical and social sciences.

LaTeX, simply put, is an “easier” way of writing in TeX. TeX is a way of generating super-precise, “professional” documents. But LaTeX itself is already rather complicated, so even more simplification is needed.

The use for humanities students presented by LaTeX is not obvious, since we typically write only words. Furthermore, a lot of the documentation about LaTeX immediately jumps into trumpeting its use for scientists (which prompts this post, of course!). But here are a few of my main reasons to use LaTeX:

Free and all over the place. Since LaTeX uses plain text files, nearly anything that makes text can be used as an environment in which to write. If Word is too slow on your machine, ditch it and use LaTeX. Constantly move between Windows, Mac, and other computers? LaTeX is cross-platform and compatible–and it has always been so.

Stable. The current version of LaTeX, LaTeX2e, came out over a decade ago, and it’s still running strong. There are no .doc/.docx problems in LaTeX like there are in Word, where new translators need to be installed, etc.

Intensely multi-lingual. LaTeX can handle hyphenation schemes for nearly any language, and typing text in various writing systems isn’t that tricky, either. This is in contrast to Word, which can’t even remember which keyboard layout it’s using from line to line (on the Mac). The extension to TeX, XeTeX, makes it even easier to write as a polyglot.

Keeps you organized and focused. LaTeX keeps track of references and the like for you, so all you have to do is focus on what the words say, not what they look like. By not being What-You-See-Is-What-You-(almost)-Get like Word, LaTeX separates the writing from the publishing, which lets you, the writer, focus on the the writing. That said, a term paper is a self-published affair, so this post is here to give the basics on publishing in LaTeX, of course!

CTAN, the main repository of TeX software, has a few other reasons in their short introduction to TeX, which you can (and should) read here. Additionally, this is a page that focuses on the specific aesthetic value of LaTeX. Finally, here’s a simple LaTeX vs. Word death match.

2. Getting the software

You can get a LaTeX distribution from CTAN, but I’m going to focus on writing on the Mac here, so for the mac, go ahead an download MacTeX (the Mac distribution of TeX-Live) and install it. It’s a huge download, but that’s since it pretty much puts everything you’d ever need to format any kind of documents into it.

3. Writing

The fundamental document in LaTeX is the .tex file. It is a simple text file. You can use any program you like that makes text files. TextEdit comes on every Mac. TextWrangler is a great text editor that is somehow available for free. Finally, MacTeX comes with a program, TeXShop, that lets you write .tex files in it. Eventually we’ll be using TeXShop anyway, so it’s not a terrible idea to do all your writing in it. Furthermore, TeXShop has a lot of shortcuts that let you insert the kinds of LaTeX commands we’ll be seeing later—so it’s worth considering using it as a primary editor. It really doesn’t matter which program you choose. You can even write in pico or vi on your terminal. Text is text.


Now, to write a simple paper, it’s useful to use a package (the “MLA Package”) of styles and conventions already preprogrammed by Ryan Aycock. We’re not writing to specific MLA style guidelines, but what we’ll make will be close enough to satisfy your professor.

So at the top of your text document:


This is the beginning of the preamble, which tells LaTeX what conventions to use when formatting the document. As you can see from the first line, you are writing an article using 12pt text on letter-sized paper. The second line tells LaTeX that you will be using the MLA package. There are a few other packages (all installed by default in MacTeX) it would be prudent to declare here:


The first line is for pdfs (though see this comment below), the second lets you switch between single and double spacing, the third means that the text you are typing is Unicode text, and the fourth loads the English hyphenation, alphabetization, etc. rules via Babel. You can find more information on Unicode and Babel here, which also includes schemes by which you can write in East Asian languages.

To learn how to enable typing in any supported, non-English language on the Mac, read this document from Apple on enabling the input menu.

Still, let’s keep things simple for now. Luckily, you’re done with the preamble. You can save (let’s call it “essay.tex”), and then use this as the beginning of a template you reproduce over and over.

Title, name

Let’s now take care of the title stuff—all that stuff that goes before the body of the paper. Type:

\begin{mla}{your first name}{your last name}{Professor's name}{Class name}{\today}{Title of your cool paper}

For the purposes of this exercise, let’s make up a paper:

\begin{mla}{Moacir P.}{de Sá Pereira}{W. Booth}{The 19th Century novel}{\today}{Being ``in want of a wife'' and Universal Sexualities}

Note a few things here right away: first, I typed the á instead of \'a, which is how normally in LaTeX one makes an “a” with an acute accent. Because I’m using the utf8 inputenc package, I can avoid those messy control sequences that litter older .tex files.

Next, note how I made the quotes. Instead of typing ", I typed ` (the “backtick” or the key just to the left of the “1″) twice and then ' twice to make the “6s” quotes and then the “9s” quotes. You can still use " instead, but it won’t look as nice. Word “automatically” changes ” to “ or ” depending on context, but sometimes you want the two ticks (like if you’re giving a measurement in inches). Furthermore, Word always messes up apostrophes in things like “Class of ’94.”

Finally, you’ll see the two lines regarding spacing. There are essentially two ways to invoke a command in LaTeX: \standalonecommand and \command{affected text}. The \standalonecommand means, “do this to the subsequent text until I stop it with a new command that changes this specific aspect.” So \singlespacing means “write in single space until I tell you to write in double space with \doublespacing.” The second format means, “do this command to all the text inside the {}.” We’ll see that that is how footnotes are made.

But basically, those are the three main things you need to know to start. Hit return twice (the way to signal “new paragraph”) in your text editor and start typing away!


There are a few other quirks it is worth learning that Word has automated to the point where we don’t notice them. To make an em dash—this thing—type the hyphen key 3 times, not just twice. Typing it twice will produce the much shorter en dash (which is what you put between dates, like 1930 – 1940).

To italicize something, the easiest way is to just type \it. Then, when you’re done with the italics, type \rm to get back into Roman text. Alternatively, you can type \textit{} with the italicized text inside the {}. As for footnotes, type them inside braces of a \footnote{}. No numbering, no wasting time grabbing the mouse, going to the menu, choosing “Insert Footnote,” and clicking “OK.” Add the footnote as you type.

Bolding, striking through, etc., are all also easily done, but there are nearly no instances where, in writing a term paper for an English class, you would need any of those techniques.

So let’s add to the example with a paragraph from a paper and include italics and a footnote:

The opening lines of \textit{Pride \& Predjudice} are so often quoted that they have become almost a cliché.\footnote{Famouson even wrote that ``No article in the popular press about Jane Austen can manage to begin other than with a variation on `It is a truth universally acknowledged.'\ ''} Yet rarely are the first two full paragraphs of \it Pride \& Predjudice \rm considered, with what they might indicate for the role of the universal, essential ideal of a heteronormative sexuality.

You can see another thing I did here in the footnote: when presented with the single-quote and double-quote right next to each other, I put in a “\ ” (backslash-space) to signal “single close quote first, double close quote second.” Then you can also see that I italicized the title of the novel Pride & Prejudice in two different ways. The ampersand requires a \ before it since it is one of the “special characters” in LaTeX.

There are a few other quirks about typing in LaTeX that are covered in this swell introduction. The whole short document is worth a read!

The only other three things you will run into when writing a basic paper like this are periods that are abbreviations, blockquotes, and verse quotes. LaTeX automatically makes a slightly larger space after a period, assuming that a new sentence is starting. If the period is merely for an abbreviation, you need to use either \thinspace or \. to tell LaTeX how to react to whatever comes after the period.

So “Johnny, Billy, Mr. Jones, etc.—they were all here” in LaTeX is:

Johnny, Billy, Mr.\thinspace Jones, etc\.---they were all here.

This is pretty messy, I’ll grant. Luckily, it does not come up that often.

Further, blockquotes and verse quotes are super easy. To make them, simply tell LaTeX that you want to move to single-space mode, then put the quotation in a \begin{} ... \end{} environment. Yet also don’t forget that there is no indent after the block quote, so, continuing my fake paper:

Before moving too deeply into the subtleties of the text, it is useful to review the opening two paragraphs in full:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

\noindent As we can see, there is far more to be discussed regarding the universality of heterosexual marriage instead of the universality of truth…

For verse, you do the same, but the poem lies within a \begin{verse} ... \end{verse} environment, and line breaks are marked with a \\. So:

N\textsc{ATURE} rarer uses yellow\\
Than another hue;\\
Saves she all of that for sunsets,—\\
Prodigal of blue,\\
\ \\
Spending scarlet like a woman,\\
Yellow she affords\\
Only scantly and selectly,\\
Like a lover’s words.

I know this seems like a ton, but one gets used to it really quickly, I promise!

4. Making a simple bibliography

The MLA package for LaTeX includes a section for making a list of references. In seminar papers or dissertation chapters, it makes sense to use an external bilbiographic manager like BibTeX, which can generate nearly any sort of bibliography imaginable. But for a ten-pager, a hand written bibliography is plenty. You call it in the package like this:

Austen, Jane. \textit{Pride \& Prejudice}. New York: Grosset \& Dunlap, 1931.

Dickinson, Emily. \textit{The Complete Poems}. Boston: Little, Brown, 1924.


5. Formatting, checking, and printing

Now you just need to finish the document by closing the remaining two \begin{}s:


And that’s it. The .tex file is finished. Now you have to LaTeX it. If you’ve been writing in TeXShop, you’re ahead of the game. If not, open the .tex file in TeXShop now. It should look like the image here (click to enlarge).

If it does, then you’re in great shape, since the next step is simply clicking the “Typeset” button in the top left of the TexShop window. A Console window will popup, showing you the output of the LaTeXing. If you made mistakes, LaTeX would bug you here, but you should not be writing anything that complicated. Also, often just hitting return will make the error go away.

In the meantime, LaTeX will also be creating all sorts of extra files, like example.aux. You can delete all of them when you’re done. The only files that are ever important are the .tex file (that starts the process) and the .pdf file (the conclusion of the process).

So assuming everything is ok, after a few seconds, a third window will open: the pdf of the completed paper. Here is my pdf.

6. What next?

What I’ve covered here is, of course, just the basics. Though these basics should take an English Literature student through all her coursework up to writing her dissertation proposal. Anyone who wants to do anything more complicated should, first, read the Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX2e. In it, you can learn about the more advanced math, image, and book-length project options that LaTeX has to offer.

In fact, the more complicated your project gets, the more it makes sense to use LaTeX. This is why I encourage people to start getting used to it at the simple, term paper level. So when it’s dissertation writing time, you’ll already have the basics down and aren’t stressing over how to make double quotes.

If you’re ready to spend money on LaTeX, the best book on it is written by the person who wrote the program, Leslie Lamport. Latex: A Document Preparation System is pretty expensive (not, however, on AbeBooks), but it’ll answer nearly any question you’ll ever have. If you want to make sure that every question you ever have is answered, then you’ll need the LaTeX Companion, which, sadly, no longer has a St. Bernard on the cover.

Then, you can go to CTAN and just mess around. Look at the hundreds of different packages or document classes. Pretty soon, you’ll be writing your résumé or CV in LaTeX (as I did), or even personal and business letters. Plus, LaTeX is maintained by a huge bunch of geeky people who love it dearly, and they’re always willing to help neophytes get their LaTeX-legs.

Finally, there’s Google, which is where I found this nifty way to make superscripts. Also, on google, I learned that in order to get both Russian (Cyrillic) and Roman characters to appear, you need to use the fontenc package to declare the T2A fonts, for example:

\begin{mla}{Moacir P.}{de S\'{a} Pereira}{}{}{\today}{``Oсмеивают, чтобы забыть'': Comedy and Memory in Bakhtin}

In his essay, “Эпос и роман,” Bakhtin distinguishes…


Happy TeXing!!!

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6 Responses to “How to write a simple English / Humanities paper in LaTeX”

  1. Many thanks for the tips on generating an MLA-style document in LaTex.

    I’ve found that the easiest way to see how it all works is to have a sample document with dummy type that abides by all the rules. (I’ve done this for various journal papers, but not yet for an MLA-style document.) Do you have such a document available or do you know where I could find one?

    This would save the time required to actually read and comprehend everything you’ve explained and allow one to get started without delay.

    Thanks again.

    Richard Benish

  2. Nice article.

    The download links to CTAN would be a bit better if they were like http://mirror.ctan.org/info/lshort2e so that the downloader is sent to a mirror nearer to them. (Likewise with the mactex link.)


  3. Nice intro to LaTeX, I find that in your article at the start you have \usepackage{mla} before \usepackage{ifpdf}, which does’t work. But the correct order is at the end, might save some others headache if you amend it.


  4. Jim, thanks for the tip. I think I’ve changed all the links properly.

    John, thanks as well. I literally used the same code in this post in my example page, and I just re-did it all, and it works fine for me with having the packages listed in the order I’ve listed them. I’ve included a link to your comment in the body text above, though.

  5. Likely it’s specific to my setup, I just downloaded the most recent version of TeX Live for Windows and it appears dependent on the ordering.

    Again, thanks! I’m a first year philosophy student and I’ve switched from AbiWord to LaTeX and I’m very impressed with the result!

  6. I just had a professor tell me that MLA formatting rules dictate that the initial header lines (name, professor name, date, etc.) are to be double-spaced as well. This seems to be confirmed here:


    “In the upper left-hand corner of the first page, list your name, your instructor’s name, the course, and the date. Again, be sure to use double-spaced text.”

    Accordingly I have removed the “\usepackage{setspace}” line and the corresponding commands around the \begin{mla} section.

    One nice side effect of this is that a recent short paper that formerly ended three lines into the fourth page now ends six or so lines away from the fifth page–a difference that is much larger than the extra space between these header lines provides. This suggests that the overall spacing of the MLA package is negatively affected by the inclusion of manual spacing rules.

    Examining a before and after PDF provides evidence of this. The spacing when you have setspace and manual \singlespacing and \doublespacing commands appears to be far closer to 1.5 lines than 2. There is a definite difference in the line spacing between the two documents that is so pronounced it caused the same professor who brought up the header spacing to also encourage me to use a 12pt font (even though I was) because the text looked more diminutive due to the 1.5 spacing.

    The mla-paper package itself provides a method for easily using single-spacing when necessary:


    “2. Some professors require block quotes to be singled space. To accomplish this with the MLA package, use the blocks and blockm environments for single paragraph and multiple paragraph cites, respectively.”

    In light of the fact that the header should be double-spaced according to the MLA format. and the fact that setspace causes problems with spacing throughout the rest of the paper, I would recommend updating the tutorial accordingly. This page has been and will continue to be an invaluable resource for humanities students.

    I am now in my final semester and I am so grateful to have discovered this tutorial years ago. It has allowed me to prosper as an English major while using the Vim text editor that I love so very much. Thank you!

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