I guess this is the counterpart of the elitist question but asking about the other side of the spectrum.

How friendly should the site be to complete LaTeX and even operating system (say command line) beginners?

This question came out after some discussion of currently the most voted answer here where the OP further asked how is she supposed to run some command. Are we supposed to answer this kind of questions?

Also I was playing roles and pretending to be a beginner to see the kind of responses I would get. With some early disappointment. I was given an answer but no knowledge as to why this was an answer, even though I was clearly confused (in my role) and had no clue about what I was doing. (I have to admit, maybe the whole role-playing thing also confused the people answering my question as they assumed that I do know at least the basics of LaTeX). But the point is that, in the end, I was given a fish when probably what I needed was to learn how to fish for myself.

I actually think this is a rather big problem with the TeX/LaTeX culture at large. The web is plagued with lots of snippets of TeX hacks and the like, which people have been happily copy/pasting for years without knowing what they're doing. This results, as I've mentioned in that thread, in really lots of people scattering \\'s and \noindent's everywhere in their documents. Once I've been an editor for the proceedings of a small conference, I don't want to tell you about the kind of horrible code abuses I saw there.

So from the beginning I had been trying to push forward this TeX-StackExchange initiative because I think this could be a solution to that problem. Because here we can edit and keep the answers current and up to date (some people out there are still using eepic!). Because if someone has a question about an existing answer he can ask and get a clarification. And that's why I also think, particularly when the question is asked by a clear beginner, that we should make the extra effort to be more friendly and educate the people who will be later also asking and answering the questions of this site.

Edit: Just to clarify, I'm not suggesting that we should babysit new LaTeX users, neither we should tolerate lazy users who can't botter to read or follow instructions. Probably all that we need to provide is just enough information that an unexperienced but diligent user could use in order to figure out the way by themselves.

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    Oops! Julian silently goes and removes all the \noindents from the paper he's working on right now. Commented Jul 29, 2010 at 13:39

5 Answers 5


As the guilty party in both cases, I'd like to say that I suspect that I was being over concise in both cases but through thoughtlessness rather than deliberately. On your question I will admit to being a little confused by the claim of being a newbie and disregarding it. Had it been Ola Nordmann then I would have been more expansive.

I think that, for me, it is because I'm unconciously acting as I do on mathoverflow, where the baseline for participation is much higher and someone asking "What is 'x'?" would get (politely!) referred elsewhere. I agree (as it seems most here do, including Scott Morrison!) that there is enough of a barrier to wanting to use (La)TeX in the first place that we don't need any more here.

That said, I think that we should draw the line somewhere it starts to get towards "How do I run that command?". The problem with that is that to answer it helpfully requires knowing a lot about the person asking and their computer, and the number of variations is so large that trying to anticipate them is impossible. I should (and will) go back and edit my answer to the picture question to include (something like):

On a unix system, you would run

pdflatex myGreatPicture.tex
pdfcrop myGreatPicture.pdf

and a link to pdfcrop in CTAN could be useful, but more than that I think is over the line. In particular, going on to explain (in detail, I would mention the commands that I use if ask) how to turn the pdf in to a png (for example) is something that I wouldn't expect to see here.

The underlying principle that I'm trying to apply here is this:

Maximum help for minimum effort.

The first part is obvious, but the minimum effort might need explaining. The point is that for (almost?) all of us, this site isn't our day job. It's part of a key resource (ie (La)TeX) and something we really value, but we should (to be fair to our employers, if no-one else) only take a small part of our day for helping out here. So if it takes a lot of time and effort to answer questions here due to the amount of information I need to give, then I'll not be able to participate at the level that I would like and the level that this site needs us to in order to have a critical mass of people willing to answer questions.

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    Completely agree with the Maximum help for minimum effort principle. In the pdfcrop example, as you say, providing a link to the package on CTAN (which should be automagic!) is probably all that a diligent but unexperienced user needs to know. Commented Jul 29, 2010 at 20:08

I don't have any objection to us explaining things like how to run a shell command in the comments, as long as we're not explaining the same thing to the same person over and over again. Basically, if someone happens to lack a particular small piece of prerequisite knowledge needed to use an answer, it seems silly to refuse to provide it on principle. But if someone asks an actual question that boils down to "how do I use the command prompt?" we'd be justified in closing that because it's really about a general way to use computing tools, not a question specific to TeX usage. Those sorts of things could perhaps be referred to Super User.

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    I agree, though I'll add that ideally we'd not have to explain things like how to run a shell command in the comments — since it's going to come often enough, we could add such a section (or pointers to elsewhere) in the FAQ. Commented Jul 30, 2010 at 2:26
  • @ShreevatsaR: Good point, I think some links might be appropriate for the FAQ. Probably not the kind of thing we should devote a whole lot of the FAQ space to, though.
    – David Z
    Commented Jul 30, 2010 at 3:39

I have a comment of part of the original question. Although there are many people on this forum who know much more than I do about the inner workings of *TeX, I doubt that there are many who have actually transitioned as many people as I have from, say, MS Word to *TeX. Our lab instituted a policy 5 years ago that all documents we produce are LaTeX documents. It fell on me to make this happen since I was the only one who knew LaTeX. I developed a system of gradual immersion whose goal was to make the learning curve as flat as possible. This meant tons of cutting and pasting and almost no understanding and learning at first.

That's the key. Make them LaTeX users first, and later LaTeX programmers. Users don't have to understand, they just have to know what to cut and paste where. Here's the typical transition flow:

1) horror at having to abandon Word and having to learn a (gasp!) programming language.

2) relief that most of the work has been done for them and all they have to do is write stuff, cut and paste some code for some things like figures and tables, and learn some basic math commands which he can find on the lab wiki easily.

3) amazement at how beautiful their doc looks, and how really easy it turned out to be. They just, basically, write text. They realize how much time they used to spend screwing with the formatting.

4) the desire to do something beyond what they know, so I teach them some basic macro programming. This is where most start to really like *TeX. Suddenly they're programmers. Many start writing macros relentlessly for every little thing.

5) They've reached a competency level where they feel easy about using *TeX and will tell others that it's not that hard, and the docs look much better, etc. They're over the hard part and a good percent go on from there on their own.

Anyway, that's my experience. If we're serious about expanding the user base for *TeX, we have to create a transitional method that focuses on a flat learning curve for beginners by reducing the amount of learning and programming a newbie has to do to make nice docs. It's not a question of WYSIWYG or editors or TeXnicCenter. They don't address the main problem. It's having downloadable templets, example files, and simple instructions on how to use those things after you cut and paste them.

This hasn't been done in the past because there's been this feeling that using *TeX without understanding is bad and wrong. I disagree with this for newbies.

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    At UK-TUG, we've tried to collect up a few simple templates at uk.tug.org/training/templates. Other examples (with lots of comments) gratefully received!
    – Joseph Wright Mod
    Commented Nov 20, 2010 at 14:35
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    I thoroughly agree with the approach but most people that hit your item 4 in your list would come here thirsty for more - see also my response to this post tex.stackexchange.com/questions/5688/… . There is also great interest from many people in hard programming currently there is very little of that on the web and by encouraging good answers and questions we can build a very good resource here. By the way I like your costume!
    – yannisl
    Commented Nov 20, 2010 at 20:46
  • @Joseph - I'm happy that UK-TUG is on board with this approach. If that was an invitation for me to send you some of the training docs I've made, you don't have to ask twice. I'll remove some of the lab-specific stuff and send them on.
    – bev
    Commented Nov 20, 2010 at 21:49
  • Great, thanks. Most of the examples are currently my own, with one or two where I've asked someone else for their source and have then added some comments. More ideas very welcome!
    – Joseph Wright Mod
    Commented Nov 20, 2010 at 22:00
  • @ Yiannis - yes, I agree that once people start to want to go deeper into *TeX, sites like this one are great. And the need for places to go to get answers to hard programming questions is greater than ever, IMO. And thanks for the pointer to your answer to Q5688. That was wonderful on many levels. It's congruence with my path was pretty accurate. It's a keeper. (oh, and I really look like that, I'm told)
    – bev
    Commented Nov 20, 2010 at 22:18

I think we should allow for TeX beginners, but not beginners at everything else.

If you don't know how to run a shell command, you need to ask elsewhere (SuperUser, for example). But if, for example, you're confused about basic syntax of invoking pdflatex, I think you should be able to get it clarified here.

Of course, we can't, and shouldn't enforce this kind of helpfulness. People answer with the level of detail they want, and put as much effort as they want into their answers. I don't want to give people a guilt trip over not being helpful enough when answering a beginners' questions. I expect that a lot of users here are only going to bother answering more advanced questions, or if they answer beginners questions, they'll do so very tersely. And that's ok.

I just don't want us to start closing questions for being "too basic" either. As long as the question is TeX-related, I think it's fine, any anyone who cares can answer it.


A comparison might be The LaTeX Community, where there are a lot of beginners. As a result, I tend to aim to be more 'helpful' there than on c.t.t, where the general level of TeX knowledge is higher (particularly with the regulars).

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