Reading (La)TeX files

So you’ve been sent an (La)TeX file: what are you going to do with it?

You can, of course, « just read it », since it’s a plain text file; the problem is that the markup tags in the document may prove distracting. Most of the time, even TeX experts will typeset a (La)TeX file before attempting to read it …

So you shouldn’t be too concerned if you can’t make head nor tail of the file: it is designed to be read by a (sort of) compiler, and compilers don’t have much in common with human readers.

A possible next step is to try an on-line LaTeX editor. There are many of these — a compilation of links may be found in this blog post

If no online compiler helps, you need to typeset the document « yourself ». The good news is that TeX systems are available, free, for most sorts of computer; the bad news is that you need a pretty complete TeX system even to read a single file, and complete TeX systems are pretty large.

TeX is a typesetting system that arose from a publishing project (see « What is TeX? »), and its basic source is available free from its author. However, at its root, it is just a typesetting engine: even to view or to print the typeset output, you will need ancillary programs. In short, you need a TeX distribution — a collection of TeX-related programs tailored to your operating system: for details of the sorts of things that are available, see « TeX distributions » or « commercial TeX distributions ».

But beware — TeX makes no attempt to look like the sort of WYSIWYG system you’re probably used to (see « Why is TeX not WYSIWYG? »): while many modern versions of TeX have a compile–view cycle that rivals the best commercial word processors in its responsiveness, what you type is usually markup, which typically defines a logical (rather than a visual) view of what you want typeset.

So there’s a balance between the simplicity of the original (marked-up) document, which can more-or-less be read in any editor, and the really rather large investment needed to install a system to read a document « as intended ».

Are you « put off » by all this? — remember that TeX is good at producing PDF: why not ask the person who sent the TeX file to send an PDF copy?

Source: Reading (La)TeX files