Notes in Passing



If you work with people that manipulate text for their livelihood then, sooner or later, you will hear about either Emacs or Vim.

Emacs is my editor of choice right now, but I also happen to be surrounded by people that often ask: “Why do you use Emacs?”

If you’re considering Emacs, or wondering why anyone would, this post details my emacs configuration, a few resources for further reading, and some videos about standout functionality that’s present in emacs: magit and org-mode.


One great way to see what Emacs is all about is to watch this video. The presenter, Magnar Sveen, is both adept at Emacs and entertaining. It’s a 20 minute whirlwind designed to show off some cool features.

I self-identify as an emacs beginner, and according to this post, I’m somewhere between a 2 and a 3 (out of a possible 6) in terms of mastery. That said- I’ve taken care to document my configuration using Literate Programming as described here by Sacha Chua.

This means that if you look at my configuration, you’ll see the main features of Emacs that I use. There’s nothing special: outside of plain old editing, I enjoy using magit and org-mode.

Both magit and org-mode merit further discussion.


If you use git (or are learning to use git), it’s hard to overstate how sweet magit is. This is especially so for its support of git add --interactive. Here’s a link to a screencast that provides a good overview of what’s generally possible.

Org Mode

Moving onto Org-mode, it describes itself as:

..for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system.

There are a number of tutorials online, and back in 2008 I remember being somewhat slack jawed at Carsten Dominik’s talk about Org at Google.

I use it mainly for tracking tasks, embedding snippets of code or shell output, and taking notes through the day.

Emacs Rocks!

While we’re talking about videos, the the same crew behind this video mentioned above produce a series of videos at Magnar’s approach is so light hearted, enthusiastic, and entertaining that I couldn’t help myself.

Emacs Websites

Aside from videos, there are a number of sites with pretty nice Emacs content, and the ones that I check out regularly are:

And I also like David Rothlis’ How to Learn Emacs for getting started.

In Closing

I know that Emacs isn’t for everyone, and I know that there’s a rather large learning curve, but there’s a bunch to enjoy and discover in figuring this out.

If you read the following excerpt from The New Frontiers in Text Editing and find it intriguing, I suggest you give Emacs or Vim a try:

Overall, I think text editing is a solved problem. Text editors are like wine. The older the better. You do not want a shiny new text editor. You want the text editor that has been around long enough and used by enough geeks that every conceivable pattern of manipulating symbols on the screen has been thought of, and crystallized into a re-usable pack.

If you do go down that path and you’d like to chat about Emacs configuration stuff, shoot me an email.