LyX: Produce Great Looking TeX Documents With Ease

TeX is one of the lesser known ways of creating documents as it has mostly extremely specialized uses. The typesetting system was designed and written (mostly) by Donald Knuth during the late 1970’s and is a popular choice for typing documents for two main reasons. The first is that documents are standardized across all computers and the results do not change with time. Despite the fact TeX is an old system, the documents still look (relatively) up-to-date, albeit a little lacking in color and design.

The second reason why TeX is so popular, especially in the academic world, is the way it renders maths and mathematical formulas. The range of formulas that can be constructed using TeX is vast and far more flexible than the offerings of other programs (for example Word’s built-in equation editor). The only hindrance to typing up your documents in TeX is that there a very steep learning curve associated with it. TeX is more like a code, with commands and functions and it’s not as easy as simply loading up Word and tapping away.

However, there is now a way to write in TeX without having to learn the whole coding procedure before hand, and it comes in the form of a freeware program called LyX. It is a very flexible program and allows you create a wide range of documents easily and quickly.

Let’s have a look at it in a bit more detail.

First Points

In order to get LyX running on your Mac, you will need to download two items: the program (which is available here – version 2.0.1) and the MacTeX package, which renders the documents. The MacTeX package is around 2 GB in size and takes a while to install and update itself, so set aside an afternoon for the installation.

Once you’ve installed LyX and MacTex and start it up for the first time, you’ll be greeted with an empty document where you can start typing straight away.

Main Screen LyX

The main screen of LyX, showing a new document

The important thing to remember about LyX is that it is a WYSIWYM system (What You See Is What You Mean) unlike traditional word processors such as Microsoft Word and Apple Pages which work off the WYSIWYG system (What You See Is What You Get), whereby what you see on the screen is (ultimately) what the final document will look like. LyX allows you simply type away without worrying about formatting as this is done when you render the document.

Creating A Document

The basic document format (known as classes) in LyX is the article, which creates a basic-looking document with a title, subtitle, sections and so on. LyX comes, however, with a wide range of different classes built-in, allowing you to be flexible in your creations.

Article Classes

The different range of document classes in LyX (more can be downloaded off the Net)

You can assign different headings to your document (which vary in typeface and style according to the individual document class) and LyX will simply render them. You don’t even have to worry about paragraph settings either, LyX will automatically justify your paragraphs and make your documents look neat and coherent.

Emphasis Levels

Choosing between the different emphasis levels

Editing your document is simple, seeing as LyX features pretty much everything you’d expect to see in a standard word processor. You can insert pictures, tables, references and so on, it’s even got a built-in spell check system. You can choose between two standard LyX fonts (serif and sans-serif), however if you enable XeTeX or LuaTeX then you can incorporate a much wider range of fonts into your documents. This is done via going to Documents > Settings > Fonts > Use non-TeX fonts.

LyX Fonts

The three default fonts in LyX (when rendered)

Once you’ve finished typing and editing your document, it’s time to render it and view the finished result. LyX will automatically add in all headers, footnotes, page breaks and so on, so even if your document looks a mess on the page, it will look neat once it’s rendered (remember, what you see is what you mean). The rendered document pops up in Preview (or your default PDF reader) where you can save it, print it or e-mail it on.

Render Document

A sample TeX document rendered using LyX. The class used is article

Mathematical Formulas

One of the main advantages of using TeX to format documents over other methods is the way it renders mathematical formulas. This is the reason it is so popular in the academia world, and LyX makes creating mathematical formulas in TeX simple and straight-forward.

LyX features a fully-fledged equation editor, which can be brought up by pressing ⌘M. The maths toolbar pops up along the bottom of your screen and allows you to create even the most advanced of formulas quickly and easily.

Maths Toolbar

The formula toolbar, which can be accessed by pressing ⌘ and M

If you know a bit of TeX, then you can input mathematical formulas straight into LyX using TeX code, which can sometimes be easier than using the in-built formula editor (which is a bit cumbersome). If you use an external program (such as MathType), then you can enter formulas straight into LyX as well.

Maths LyX

Entering formulas into LyX. Both results produce the same output (see below)

Quadratic Formula Result

The result of rendering the formulas above

Final Thoughts

LyX is such a flexible program and it allows you to create documents with the minimum amount of effort. You don’t have to worry about the formatting and look of your final document as the program does it all for you, and for anyone who writes a lot it is a real bonus.

The sheer range of documents you can create using LyX is unbelievable and it needn’t be restricted to academic and scientific usage. Although the program is a little more difficult to use than, say, Word or Pages, if you spend an afternoon getting acquainted with it you’ll find that it pays off in the long run. I write all my essays and reports for my university course in LyX and I can guarantee you that it takes me less time than if I were to write it in Pages.

The fact that LyX is completely 100% free is just the icing on the cake. For such a feature-rich and flexible program, you’d expect to have to pay something for it. Even if you are not sold just on this review, it is worth downloading and having a play around with it – the features mentioned in this review are just a small part of what LyX can really do.


A free WYSIWYM word processor for producing documents using TeX.