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Review: writeLaTeX (now Overleaf)

By Murray Bourne, 22 Jul 2013

UPDATE, 13 Jan 2015: writeLaTeX has been re-branded as "Overleaf", and is now at

UPDATE, 31 Jan 2014: writeLaTeX (Overleaf) just announced a "rich text mode" update, but it falls short of what I call for in this review, since it still doesn't provide a math-entry mode. Not everyone (especially students) wants to learn all the intricacies of LaTeX!

Overleaf is an interesting online system that allows for easy collaboration on math documents using LaTeX.

Let's first see what LaTeX is all about.

Brief LaTeX overview

Most "real" mathematics publications are written using LaTeX, and so it's a good idea for would-be math students at college level to know something about it.

Most of the math you see on Wikipedia uses LaTeX.

According to the LaTeX Project,

LaTeX is a high-quality typesetting system; it includes features designed for the production of technical and scientific documentation. LaTeX is the de facto standard for the communication and publication of scientific documents.

There are various ways of installing and using LaTeX on computers, including TeX Live for Windows, Mac and Unix.

Here's an example of LaTeX syntax [source]:

      E &= mc^2 \\
      {\sqrt{1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}}} &= \frac{m_0}{m}

Here is the resulting math when rendered using LaTeX:

\begin{aligned} E &= mc^2 \\ {\sqrt{1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}}} &= \frac{m_0}{m} \end{aligned}

There are various LaTeX editors that make the process of creating such syntax a lot easier (e.g. TeXmacs, LyX and TeXShop).

Human-readable output of LaTeX is usually via a PostScript or PDF file.

It takes quite a bit of messing around to install the various LaTeX and editor files. There should be an easier way...


Overleaf is an:

Online collaborative LaTeX editor with integrated rapid preview.

If you use Overleaf, you do not need to install any of the packages I mentioned above. You just go online, enter your math, instantly see the result on screen, and when ready, you can output your document to PDF, either as a paper or as a presentation.

The developers of Overleaf have cleverly incorporated a collaboration facility. You can create a document, then share it with your colleagues (or fellow students) in much the same way it is done in Google Docs. The collaborators can then edit the document. This is ideal for project work, in the academic world as well as for researchers working in a team.

As I write, around 40 million LaTeX pages have been produced using Overleaf. The tool is being used by top universities like Caltech, Warwick, Harvard, Oxford, Imperial, Stanford, Cambridge, MIT and Cornell.

Using Overleaf

This product will make a lot more sense if you already know LaTeX, but Overleaf provides some tutorials to help get you started if not.

There are also plenty of example documents, both papers and presentations, to use as a basis for your new documents.

You can have a play without creating an account first. However, it's easy to create an account and this gives you access to your own dashboard where you can find your previous creations.

As soon as you edit anything on the left pane, the LaTeX preview on the right pane updates immediately. It's cloud-based, so it is quick and there is no need to worry about having to "save" all the time (another good feature shared with Google Docs). Here's a screen shot, showing the editing pane on the left, and the presentation slide preview on the right.

writeLatex (Overleaf) screen shot

Tablets, too

Overleaf also works on iPad. You don't need to install an app - it works on the same browser page. At one point while I was editing on the iPad, the text on the left pane disappeared completely, leaving just the yellow background. I suspect this was because the iPad's processor was busy updating the LaTeX output and devoted all its resources to that task. It may be a good idea to provide a spinner icon to indicate to the user what's happening.

WYSIWYG editor missing

I was disappointed there is no LaTeX editor bundled with this product. I know there is a contantly updating preview pane (so you can see the results of your efforts), but unless you are using LaTeX daily, it's easy to forget the syntax for many things you want to do. Also, it's not a forgiving syntax, and when you inevitably forget a closing bracket on some complex expression involving fractions, square roots, subscripts and so on, things can get messy.

When you do mess up the brackets, it's nice that Overleaf provides messages like:

I suspect you have forgotten a '}', causing me to read past where you wanted me to stop. I'll try to recover; but if the error is serious, you'd better type 'E' or 'X' now and fix your file.

However, a WYSIWYG editor would make this a much more accessible tool and hence appeal to a wider audience.

Is it free?

Overleaf operates on a freemium model. You can open a free account, create documents and collaborate with others - for zero cost.

But if you need more power, you can go for one of the paid options (see Plans).

Free: 1 GB storage, unlimited projects & collaborators, private documents, 60 files per project

Student: spell-check, more files per project and more storage space

Professor: protected projects, templates and greater storage

Teaching: student accounts and assignment toolset


Overleaf is a well thought-out product that solves several problems for the busy mathematician and scientist. The collaboration option is a great idea and is well implemented. The freemium approach is also well done, and the paid options are reasonably priced.

This has proved to be a popular tool. Now, if they'd consider including a WYSIWYG editor, that would be excellent.

See the 1 Comment below.

One Comment on “Review: writeLaTeX (now Overleaf)”

  1. Sushil Kumar says:

    It really very interesting and effective without downloading any source file to write in latex.

    Good work..

Leave a comment

Comment Preview

HTML: You can use simple tags like <b>, <a href="...">, etc.

To enter math, you can can either:

  1. Use simple calculator-like input in the following format (surround your math in backticks, or qq on tablet or phone):
    `a^2 = sqrt(b^2 + c^2)`
    (See more on ASCIIMath syntax); or
  2. Use simple LaTeX in the following format. Surround your math with \( and \).
    \( \int g dx = \sqrt{\frac{a}{b}} \)
    (This is standard simple LaTeX.)

NOTE: You can mix both types of math entry in your comment.


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