Automating Latex Compilation: Streamlining The Editing-Compiling Cycle For Faster Document Preparation

LaTeX is a high-quality typesetting system used by academics, scientists, and professionals to produce publication-ready documents. However, a downside of LaTeX is the need to constantly manually compile files to apply formatting changes. This editing-compile cycle severely slows down document creation and editing. Thankfully, various automation tools exist to mitigate this friction.

This article provides an overview of tools and techniques to automate LaTeX compilation. Automating this tedious process saves significant time and speeds up workflows. The article covers popular solutions like latexmk, arara, and Continuous LaTeX Preview. Detailed guidance is provided on configuring these tools to enable background compiling and real-time previews. Additionally, best practices on optimizing compile times are shared.

The Problem of Manual Compilation

The LaTeX workflow relies on a compile cycle where the LaTeX files are processed to produce an output document. After making any changes to the source .tex files, LaTeX needs to be compiled again to apply the updates. Most LaTeX editors have a button or shortcut to compile the main .tex document.

However, manually compiling each time becomes highly tedious and time-consuming. Even small changes like fixing a typo require a full recompilation. These constant context switching and mechanical compile operations limit productivity. They also interrupt the author's creative flow during writing and editing.

Automating compilation solves these friction points in the workflow. Computers excel at executing repetitive mechanical tasks so that humans can focus on creative high-level work. Automation tools monitor changes and automatically recompile as needed without user input. They reduce disruptions during editing and save hours of manual labor.

Introducing Automated Compile Tools

Many effective solutions now exist to automate LaTeX's compilation process. Popular options include latexmk, arara, Continuous LaTeX Preview, LaTeX-auto-complete, and more. This section provides an overview of these tools before diving into configuration details in later sections.


latexmk is a Perl script highly optimized for compiling LaTeX documents. It monitors source files for changes and automatically recompiles the document as needed. latexmk is highly customizable and supports advanced features like reference checking between runs. It works seamlessly across different LaTeX editors.


arara (Automation of Recursive Ara) is a Java-based automation tool designed specifically for LaTeX. It provides a simple markup format for users to define compilation rules. arara can monitor changes and recompile LaTeX documents when used together with supported editors like TeXmaker and Overleaf.

Continuous LaTeX Preview

As the name suggests, Continuous LaTeX Preview offers real-time document preview that updates automatically after source file changes. The preview window refreshes automatically without needing manual compiles. This gives immediate preview feedback and can improve workflows for lighter editing tasks.

Configuring latexmk for Background Compiling

latexmk offers seamless automation capabilities to recompile LaTeX documents in the background. This section covers basic latexmk configuration with different options to enable background compiling.

latexmk’s Automatic Compilation Mode

Running latexmk automatically triggers its default automated compilation mode for the target LaTeX document. For example:

latexmk document.tex

This will run in monitoring mode, performing initial compilation of document.tex. Later changes trigger automatic recompilations after a few seconds wait time. CRTL+C stops this background monitoring.

Configuring latexmkrc

latexmk behavior can be customized via a configuration file called latexmkrc. Settings like compilation engines, build triggers, reference checking, and cleanup options can be defined. Some common configuration examples are shown below.

Basic latexmkrc:

$pdf_mode = 1; # Generates PDF by default instead of DVI 
$dvi_mode = $postscript_mode = 0;
$clean_ext = "bbl %R-blx.bib"; # Cleans up more auxiliary files

Enable background compiling mode:

$pdflatex = "pdflatex --shell-escape %O %S";
$preview_continuously = 1; 

Configure latemk with knitr for R Markdown:

@default_files = ('*.Rnw', '*.tex', '*.md');
$bibtex_use = 1;
$pdf_previewer = "open -a Preview";
add_cus_dep("tikz", "png", 0, "maketikz");
add_cus_dep("png", "eps", 0, "makeeps"); 

These are just a few examples demonstrating latexmk's customization capability. latexmkrc gives fine-grained control over the automated build process.

Integrating arara with Texmakers and Overleaf

While latexmk works as a standalone tool, arara offers tighter integration by understanding Texmaker and Overleaf's internals. This enables robust auto-recompile features in these editors.

Using arara with Texmaker

To configure arara in Texmaker:

  1. Install arara via the Texmaker Plugin Manager
  2. Go to Configure Texmaker -> Commands
  3. Set the Compile command to: "arara"%
  4. Set the Quick Compile command to: "arara -v %.tex"

Now Texmaker uses arara for compilation. arara's rules like quick, full, bibtex compilation are also available.

Leveraging arara on Overleaf

On Overleaf, users can enable arara by adding a comment directive:

% arara: pdflatex
Hello Arara!

Overleaf detects this comment and uses arara for compilation. We can also chain multiple rules:

% arara: pdflatex: { draft: yes }
% arara: bibtex
% arara: pdflatex: { synctex: yes }
% arara: clean

This example runs pdflatex, bibtex, second pdflatex pass, and cleans up auxiliary files automatically. The Overleaf arara integration provides robust automation.

Enabling Live Previews with Continuous Preview

The Continuous LaTeX Preview extension offers unmatched speed by providing real-time document preview updates. Any edits immediately reflect in the preview window without needing manual compilation. This section explains usage and capabilities.

Installation Guide

Continuous Preview is available as extension for various LaTeX editors:

  • Visual Studio Code: Install Continuous Preview extension
  • TeXStudio: Enable auto-refresh option in preview panel
  • TeXMaker: Enable auto-refresh option in preview panel

The extensions integrate a preview daemon process to monitor changes and rapidly update output. Installing the extension enables real-time preview capability.

Usage and Benefits

After installation, simply start editing the LaTeX document as normal. Each source file save will rapidly reflect in the live preview window. Benefits include:

  • No manual compile needed to view updates
  • Rapid feedback shows impact of changes
  • Improves speed for lighter editing workflows
  • Reduces context switching and disruptions

The instant preview is excellent for tweaking positions, sizes, colors, etc. Heavier edits involving citations, indexes, theorem proving may still require traditional compiles.

Optimizing Build Times by Understanding Compilation

Automation tools can handle compiling without user input. However, long build times still remain frustrating. Understanding how LaTeX compilation works enables optimizing performance through smart project structure and dependencies.

The LaTeX Compile Process

The key stages in the LaTeX workflow are:

  1. LaTeX Engine: Processes source text and typesets content
  2. BibTeX: For managing citations and references
  3. Indexing: Generating indexes and glossaries
  4. Proofing: Applying theorem proving extensions

Tools like latexmk understand these stages. They run the minimum required steps after file changes to avoid unnecessary work. However, there are still configuration tweaks that help optimization.

Configuring for Speed

Recommendations to improve compile performance:

  • Use \include for better modularization over \input files
  • Enable skip-repeated compilation of unchanged files
  • Use multiple small .bib files instead of one large file
  • Disable unnecessary packages and extensions to simplify build
  • Take advantage of draft mode when still editing heavily

Understanding dependencies between components helps avoid unnecessary recompilations. Targeted tweaks like this amplify the improvements from automation tools.

Achieving Seamless Workflows with Automated LaTeX

Automating the compilation procedures is a game-changer for LaTeX productivity. This articles walked through tools like latexmk, arara and real-time previews that reduce friction.

By offloading the mechanical drudgery of compilation, users achieve more seamless editing workflow. The creative process no longer constantly derails for manual build operations. Automation handles these interruptions behind the scenes.

Besides the user experience gains, automating compilation also results in massive time savings. Generating a PDF preview on save removes dozens of context switches per hour of editing. Background compiling eliminates hundreds of manual build clicks over the course of a project.

With properly configured automations, researchers and authors can fully leverage LaTeX's exceptional typesetting capabilities. Manual compilations were a major impediment that automation tools now largely solve. Writers can focus purely on content while computers handle the compilation.

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