This post is part of the Orgmode Almanac series.

A post on working with transient TeX templates in orgmode without modifying global configurations. This will also serve as a rudimentary introduction to TeX in orgmode.


The sad reality of working in a field dominated by institutional actors which do not care for recognizing software development as a skill is that there are often a lot of ugly LaTeX templates1. In particular, often Universities have arbitrary LaTeX templates from the the dark days of 2010 something, which include gratuitous usage of say, natbib instead of biblatex. In other situations, .cls files define separate document classes which are not covered by the orgmode defaults and need to be accounted for.

Standard methods

Essentially for the exporter, the document is broken into2:

This cannot be changed arbitrarily and has to be a valid element of org-latex-classes
This section of the document is essentially everything before \begin{document} and after \documentclass{...}
The rest of the document

We will briefly cover the standard methods of entering TeX in each of these sections, in reverse order since that is the direction in which the intuitive aspect decreases.

In-Body TeX

The method of writing TeX in orgmode for the document involves simply writing TeX directly, or wrapping the TeX markup in an export TeX block for font locking3. Essentially, for a document snippet:

1% #+BEGIN_SRC latex :exports code
3\pi(x) &= \sum_{n=1}^{\infty}\frac{\mu(n)}{n}\Pi(x^{\frac{1}{n}}) \\
4       &= \Pi(x) -\frac{1}{2}\Pi(x^{\frac{1}{2}}) - \frac{1}{3}\Pi(x^{\frac{1}{3}}) - \frac{1}{5}\Pi(x^{\frac{1}{5}}) + \frac{1}{6} \Pi(x^{\frac{1}{6}}) -\cdots,
6% #+END_SRC

Which will actually be rendered in a real document of course4:

\begin{align} \pi(x) &= \sum_{n=1}^{\infty}\frac{\mu(n)}{n}\Pi(x^{\frac{1}{n}}) \\ &= \Pi(x) -\frac{1}{2}\Pi(x^{\frac{1}{2}}) - \frac{1}{3}\Pi(x^{\frac{1}{3}}) - \frac{1}{5}\Pi(x^{\frac{1}{5}}) + \frac{1}{6} \Pi(x^{\frac{1}{6}}) -\cdots, \end{align}

There is also the inline form of writing LaTeX with @@\sin{x}@@ which is essentially \(\sin{x}\).


The main use of the preamble is to either add classes or modify class options for loaded packages like geometry. Essentially, for orgmode, anything prefixed with #+LATEX_HEADER: gets inserted in the preamble.

1#+LATEX_HEADER: \usepackage{amssymb,amsmath,MnSymbol}
2#+LATEX_HEADER: \usepackage{unicode-math}
3#+LATEX_HEADER: \usepackage{mathtools}

For larger documents, this gets quite annoying for loading packages. We will demonstrate a more aesthetically pleasant form later in this post.

LaTeX classes

Working with document classes is the least intuitive of all TeX manipulations, because for some reason, #+LATEX_CLASS: only accepts values defined in org-latex-classes.

The standard approach to extending the orgmode TeX backend is to add lines like the following in init.el or, in my case5,

1(add-to-list 'org-latex-classes
2             '("koma-article" "\\documentclass{scrartcl}"
3               ("\\section{%s}" . "\\section*{%s}")
4               ("\\subsection{%s}" . "\\subsection*{%s}")
5               ("\\subsubsection{%s}" . "\\subsubsection*{%s}")
6               ("\\paragraph{%s}" . "\\paragraph*{%s}")
7               ("\\subparagraph{%s}" . "\\subparagraph*{%s}")))

This is alright for often used classes like the koma-⋆ family of LaTeX document-classes, but it is hardly ideal for one-off TeX templates which are meant for say, grant proposals6.

Elisp to the rescue

The core idea is quite simple.

Since orgmode files are literate documents, and emacs is self-documenting and completely programmable, it should be possible to execute code to deterministically set the state of emacs before exporting the document to TeX.

Practically this has a few moving parts. In the following sections, assume that we have a .cls file which defines a document-class foo with a bunch of packages which conflict with our global configuration.

Adding Document Classes

Instead of adding the code snippet to our global configuration, we will now add it to the document directly with the comments indicating the appropriate environment.

1;; #+BEGIN_SRC emacs-lisp :exports none  :results none :eval always
2(add-to-list 'org-latex-classes
3             '("foo" "\\documentclass{foo}"
4               ("\\section{%s}" . "\\section*{%s}")
5               ("\\subsection{%s}" . "\\subsection*{%s}")
6               ("\\subsubsection{%s}" . "\\subsubsection*{%s}")
7               ("\\paragraph{%s}" . "\\paragraph*{%s}")
8               ("\\subparagraph{%s}" . "\\subparagraph*{%s}")))
9;; #+END_SRC

Where the header arguments simply ensure that the code and result do not show up in the document, and that the chunk is always evaluated by org-babel.

Ensuring Purity

Since we want to stick to an external template defined in foo and no other packages we will need to clear the defaults we lovingly set globally for our convenience.

1;; #+BEGIN_SRC emacs-lisp :exports none  :results none :eval always
2(setq org-latex-packages-alist 'nil)
3(setq org-latex-minted-options 'nil) ;; Separately nullify minted
4;; #+END_SRC

Pretty Packages

For packages we really would like to add, we can now leverage the elisp code instead of the ugly #+LATEX_HEADER: lines.

1;; #+BEGIN_SRC emacs-lisp :exports none  :results none :eval always
2(setq org-latex-default-packages-alist
3  '(("utf8" "inputenc"  t)
4    ("normalem" "ulem"  t)
5    (""     "mathtools"   t)
6    ))
7;; #+END_SRC

Note that for setting options, we will still need to use the #+LATEX_HEADER: syntax.

Automating With Hooks

At this stage, we have a chunk of elisp we can manually evaluate with org-babel before exporting with org-latex-export-to-pdf or org-latex-export-to-latex. However, this can get old quickly, so we will instead have a before-save-hook to do this for us.

1# Local Variables:
2# before-save-hook: org-babel-execute-buffer
3# End:

Bonus Hook

In my own configuration, I have a function defined for an after-save-hook which generates the TeX file without having me deal with it. For a per-file configuration of this, or globally, the elisp is:

1(defun haozeke/org-save-and-export-latex ()
2  (interactive)
3  (if (eq major-mode 'org-mode)
4    (org-latex-export-to-latex t)))

This indirection is required to call the function as a hook. The additional t allows for asynchronous non blocking exports. Now this can be used as:

1# Local Variables:
2# after-save-hook: haozeke/org-save-and-export-latex
3# End:


The entire file would look something like this (the elisp can be anywhere in the orgmode file):

 1;; #+BEGIN_SRC emacs-lisp :exports none  :results none :eval always
 2(add-to-list 'org-latex-classes
 3             '("foo" "\\documentclass{foo}"
 4               ("\\section{%s}" . "\\section*{%s}")
 5               ("\\subsection{%s}" . "\\subsection*{%s}")
 6               ("\\subsubsection{%s}" . "\\subsubsection*{%s}")
 7               ("\\paragraph{%s}" . "\\paragraph*{%s}")
 8               ("\\subparagraph{%s}" . "\\subparagraph*{%s}")))
 9(setq org-latex-packages-alist 'nil)
10(setq org-latex-default-packages-alist
11  '(("utf8" "inputenc"  t)
12    (""     "minted"   t)
13    (""     "rotating"  nil)
14    ("normalem" "ulem"  t)
15    (""     "mathtools"   t)
16    ))
17;; #+END_SRC
 1#+TITLE: Something
 2#+AUTHOR: Rohit Goswami
 3#+OPTIONS: toc:nil \n:nil
 4#+STARTUP: fninline
 5#+LATEX_COMPILER: xelatex
 6#+LATEX_CLASS: foo
 7#+LATEX_HEADER: \setlength\parindent{0pt}
 8#+LATEX_HEADER: \addbibresource{./biblio/refs.bib}
10Blah blah document $\sin{x}$ stuff
12# Local Variables:
13# before-save-hook: org-babel-execute-buffer
14# after-save-hook: haozeke/org-save-and-export-latex
15# End:

This method could be extended to essentially resetting all emacs variables on a per-file basis (without file-local-variables and dir-local-variables) or to potentially execute any elisp to make emacs do things, though I cannot really think of another realistic use-case. The method presented here is really general enough to work with any arbitrary LaTeX .cls file or other draconian measures.

  1. Of course there are more issues stemming from this toxic practice, but that’s for another rant ↩︎

  2. For more on document structure in TeX read the wikibook ↩︎

  3. Or syntax highlighting for most people ↩︎

  4. Props to anyone who recognizes that formula ↩︎

  5. I use doom-emacs with my own literate configuration ↩︎

  6. I haven’t seen a grant proposal template I’d like to store for later, ever ↩︎

Series info

Orgmode Almanac series

  1. Replacing Jupyter with Orgmode
  2. Using Mathematica with Orgmode
  3. Pandoc to Orgmode with Babel
  4. An Orgmode Note Workflow
  5. Temporary LaTeX Documents with Orgmode <-- You are here!
  6. Anki Decks with Orgmode