Four effortless LaTeX packages you should use

By default, LaTeX produces professional-looking documents. Specifying an extra couple of packages, however, can make your document look even better. Here are four packages I recommend that require no effort, by which I mean you simply add the package to your preamble (and maybe specify a few options) and you’re good to go.

Mathpazo: Palatino font package

Dealing with fonts is challenging with LaTeX, and unfortunately the default font is not the nicest. I prefer to use Palatino, a widely used serif font. Changing to this font is as simple as including \usepackage{mathpazo}. Although I give examples below, the png screenshots don’t do justice to the improvement: you have to compare in print or in your pdf viewer.

Computer Modern, the default LaTeX font
Palatino, an appealing alternative to Computer Modern

As implied by its name, the mathpazo package will typeset all your math in Palatino for a consistent look. No configuration necessary.

Math typeset with the mathpazo package

Microtype: Minor typographic adjustments

The microtype does many things without you even noticing. Indeed, the package’s tagline is subliminal refinements towards typographical perfection. Together, its multiple minor adjustments give an extra touch of class to your document. For example, the following image is equivalent to the paragraph above after microtype has done its adjustments.

The document above after including microtype in the preamble

The only difference that’s at all obvious is the number of hyphenated words. In order to reduce the number of these undesired breaks, the microtype package adjusts parameters such as interword spacing and kerning (distance between letters). A more subtle correction is the alignment of the hyphens on the right-hand side. Notice how they protrude ever so slightly. It is somewhat counter-intuitive, but this protrusion actually makes the right side of the block of text look nicer.

Character protrusion

The microtype package gives you a host of options, but you don’t need to specify anything. Simply add \usepackage{microtype} and let it do its magic.

Caption: Tweak caption labels

LaTeX captions, by default, have the same margins and font size as the rest of the body text: nothing differentiates them from the text above or below.

The default format for captions in LaTeX leaves a lot to be desired

Using the caption package and specifying a few options quickly improves matters. The following example uses

A much improved caption format

Don’t forget to scrutinise the content of your caption.

Sectsty: Change heading fonts

Headings in LaTeX are simply enlarged and bolded versions of the current font. However, like many others, I find that headings are much nicer when set in a sans serif font. This can be achieved with two lines

Typesetting headings in sans serif fonts improves the overall look of a document

In the example above, I have also used the helvet package for the Helvetica font.

Author: Ken Hughes

Post-doctoral research scientist in physical oceanography

One thought on “Four effortless LaTeX packages you should use”

  1. Thanks a lot for the super neat hints Ken, this improved significantly my thesis, my eyes don’t cry that much anymore when I look at it 🙂

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