Emacs - the text editor of the Jedi

Don’t get alarmed by the title. I am not saying that only the alpha-geeks can use emacs. The reason for that phrasing is that it sounds really cool; much better than something like “emacs: a text editor for any competent programmer”. That just sounds lame, even though that’s what I think. The title is also a reference to a Steve Yegge post that I read a long time ago where he says that

Emacs is to Eclipse as a lightsaber is to a blaster — but a blaster is a lot easier for anyone to pick up and use

Besides, I don’t think I come even close to be considered a Jedi when it comes to programming. I am closer to an apprentice who just got his hands on a lightsaber and is just trying poke it around. Poking around is what I have been doing with emacs for a week; and after the first day, I have been thinking why I didn’t start doing it sooner.

Whenever I have tried to learn some new or non-mainstream programming language, like scheme, getting a decent text editor has always been a problem. Most of the time I have used vi. And vim is a great editor by all accounts. I have been using it ever since I switched to Linux 7-8 years ago. However, I never got around to learning any advanced features or vimscript. I tried learning emacs by following the built in tutorial twice in the past, but never went any further. Learning to use one of these two editors well had been in my todo list for at least 3-4 years.

Then it finally happened, the M-x butterfly was pressed somewhere and the forces of the nature combined to crash my scala-ide twice in the span of a few minutes, while I was working on an important side project. With eclipse, crashing is something that happens on almost daily basis with me. But this time, there were two things different:

  1. I had a few days on my hand.
  2. I was using a standalone scala-ide download for my work, so it wasn’t installed as a plugin in eclipse.

Let me explain why the second point is important. The side project I was working on was something I wanted to get done before the end of the week. Whenever I have used eclipse with scala-ide installed as a plugin, it has been incredibly slow (I have a Core-i7 with 16 cores and 8 GB RAM). I mean, it would just freeze in the middle of some editing, with at least 2 GB heap size. And of course, crashing once or twice a day was quite usual. So, I decided to use a standalone scala-ide. The standalone version worked well and froze much less, but the problems were not eliminated. Not to mention that fact that if I wanted to work on clojure I would have to use a separate instance of eclipse, since I didn’t want to activate any bugs by installing a major plugin. The whole situation was pretty frustrating 1.

FAQ: Why not switch to IntelliJ? It’s frickin’ awesome.

It might be, but there are several reasons I never switched to IntelliJ.

  1. Eclipse was used at my previous job
  2. Spring Tool Suite is built on top of eclipse. It’s also developed by the same people who develop the Spring Framework.
  3. scala-ide is developed by TypeSafe, whose founder is Martin Odersky; the man who created Scala.
  4. When I started developing in clojure, counteclockwise was overall the best choice, and it’s an eclipse plugin. This plugin was also endorsed by the authors of one of the best books on clojure.
  5. The official clojure plugin for IntelliJ is only available with the paid version.
  6. Choosing IntelliJ, or any other popular IDE/editor, doesn’t solve the problem of working with non-mainstream languages.

I haven’t used IntelliJ much, so, there is still the question of whether it suffers from the same crashing/performance problems as eclipse when several plugins are active. I’ve had enough of that.

FAQ: Why choose emacs over vim?

In one word: elisp, or emacs-lisp. I have learned three different dialects of Lisp: clojure, common-lisp and scheme. When I started learning emacs this week, the one thing that I found out about myself was that I can read elisp code as easily as if I have been using it for years. Even though, I hadn’t even gone through the introductory material on elisp. Yeah, it was that easy. I just looked at the code and it was instantly readable. I surprised even myself.

I could easily find out about all the internal wiring using the incredible help commands that emacs has built in (C-h ?). There are also apropos commands that allows easy searching. Writing elisp and immediately seeing the changes in emacs behavior is incredibly satisfying. It also seemed to be an accepted fact that extending emacs is much easier than extending vim.

Someone might argue that I chose emacs because I knew lisp already. Well, that just might be the case. But, even if you don’t already know some dialect of lisp, I think picking up one is very easy. The syntax is pretty minimal. Although, writing idiomatic code could take some time, especially if you are coming from the java (or C#, or any other imperative language) world, like me. But that shouldn’t deter you. Learning lisp, and especially looking at some experienced lisper’s code, could be a great experience in itself. As Eric Raymond put it in his very famous essay,

LISP is worth learning for a different reason — the profound enlightenment experience you will have when you finally get it. That experience will make you a better programmer for the rest of your days, even if you never actually use LISP itself a lot.

So, yes, lisp was the primary reason I chose emacs. That and the feeling that emacs was built for extending. I get to use a really malleable text editor and I get to use Lisp.

I think there are several other points which affected this decision. Not the least of which was the fact that I am a hero worshipper. Like some kid who buys Nike because his favorite sport star endorses it, I am inclined towards emacs because several hackers I admire, use it. Another was the fact that emacs has facilities for everything. The famous emacs joke describes it as an “operating system with a text-editor built in”. I like the fact that I can use a terminal emulator directly from emacs, and I can commit to my git repo with a few keystrokes, edit remote files (I haven’t tried that yet), take notes better than evernote, and even send a tweet without leaving my editor. The list of things you can do from the editor are endless. It’s pretty common for experienced, smug and grey-bearded emacs users to discover some new functionality. Not to mention the fact that emacs itself keeps evolving, and the list of packages available for it keeps growing.

FAQ: Should I switch all my development work to emacs?

I don’t think so. Especially not if your primary development language is a mainstream language like java or C#. For these languages, the IDEs are pretty much irreplaceable. Even if you try to match the functionality of eclipse or IntelliJ for java development in emcas, you will be severely disappointed. Of course, there is nothing that you cannot do in emacs. Everything is possible, but the fact is that building all of the features of those IDEs is an extremely difficult task. And it’s very time consuming.

If an existing IDE for your development language is not mature or stable enough, by all means, go to emacs. But switching to emacs for enterprise java development could be a pretty bad idea. I am switching to emacs for scala since it has become a pretty much an IDE for scala with ensime. However, my primary purpose in learning emacs is to have a great editor for non-mainstream languages like idris-lang or Go. For scala, I might still go back to scala-ide later, once it becomes stable enough. Meanwhile, I am thinking of building an emacs extension to support play-framework.

What about LightTable? It seems pretty cool

Yup. LightTable is something I have been using for 3-4 months for clojure development; and it’s pretty awesome to say the least. You have to see it to believe it. I mean, really, just take a look at the introduction video on that site, you will be impressed. Not to mention that fact that it’s open-source and it can be tinkered around by writing ClojureScript. And I like Clojure.

However, the number of available plugins is still pretty low. If a new, interesting langauge arrives, emacs is more likely to have a plugin for it than LightTable. I know, I can write the plugin myself, and that’s a great idea. But, before I do something about it, I need to take care of a few things at the top of my todo list. So, I am sticking with emacs for the time being. Although, LightTable has all the right ingredients to become the next emacs: It’s written in ClojureScript, which is a dialect of lisp; It’s open source; and the lead developer, Chris Granger, seems to have exactly the right kind of attitude.

Another difference between emacs and LightTable, and one that could also have a played a role in my selection of emacs, was the fact that emacs feels very unpolished, with lots of wires visible all around, making it look like exactly the right kind of tool for hacking around with new languages.

emacs is fun

emacs is fun because emacs is actually a bunch of lisp code that you can really debug. If your emacs init file is not loading correctly, you can actually debug it. While working in the editor, you can execute commands and change the behavior of the editor instantly. You can change key-bindings and you can do whatever crazy stuff that comes to your mind. It’s like LEGO for hackers.

Even when using IDEs, people try to customize every last bit of functionality through GUI. Hackers love to have their environment configured to the very last bit. Emacs takes this configurability to a whole new dimension. You write little pieces of code to configure it, and every single piece of wiring can be taken apart and reconnected somewhere else. Of course, you sometimes risk breaking something, but that’s a huge part of the fun. Being able to do so is rewarding in the same sense that it is rewarding to use linux when using windows could make several things much easier.

emacs as your first editor

I read somewhere that beginner users shouldn’t try to use “difficult” editors like emacs when they are just starting out. This might have some truth in it. Nowadays, a newbie programmer is generally learning at least 4-5 different things at the same time. Entering any programming language eco-system can be intimidating at first, especially if you know how much there is to learn. Learning to use an editor on top of that could just add more cognitive load.

However, I think that using emcas instead of some IDE at the very beginning of your career can be extremely rewarding. To reduce the learning burden, they can use it like a plain vanilla text editor with some syntax highlighting. Once they get comfortable, they can start tinkering around with all the wiring. By the time they become professional hackers, they would be pretty good at it. Being comfortable with a lisp and its programming paradigm since the beginning of your career can be invaluable. Being proficient with emacs automatically translates into having at least a decent development environment for almost any language you choose. And that is a benefit worth having because learning new languages is essential to becoming a good hacker. After spending just a week with emacs2, I am convinced that I would have been really grateful if somebody had given me this advice when I started learning programming.

IDEs are here to stay, no doubt about that. But good hackers are always learning new things, especially programming languages, and if you are one of them, it will pay to learn to use at least one great text editor really well. I am not saying that go with emacs. You can choose vim. I have never seen an expert vim or emacs user working but I have heard that they can do incredible things. I cannot say much about vim, even though it has been a constant companion. But if you do learn emacs, it would definitely be time well spent 3.


  • My own emacs config resides on this github repo. It’s fairly well documented. It’s a good idea to keep your emacs config in a repo, since it’s piece of code, and you’ll regret it if you lose it 4
  • Prelude is an emacs distribution that makes it easy to get started with emacs. I am not using it, but exploring their config helped me setup some good defaults. Plus, my required-package installation code was inspired by them.
  • Emacs Starter Kit is an emacs plugin that provides better defaults than the OOTB emacs. Again, I am not using it, but exploring their code is a good learning experience.
  • Emacs Live: The most recent addition to the list of curated emacs configs. At this point, it is still going through a beta phase. However, the curators are long time emacs users and contributors. I am inclined to think that this will end up being the config that provides the best starter environment. It is especially targeted at clojure development.
  • Spacemacs: This is another addition to the pre-configured emacs distros that make life easier for people who want to get started with emacs. If you are a vi user, this could be your preferred choice since it seems to have gone farthest in terms of making it compatible with vi key bindings. Even if you are not a vi user, this distro has amazing look and feel. Polished and with lots of goodies to make emacs experience even better 5.
  • Emacs Documentation is amazaingly complete.
  • The Little Schemer is a good book for basic introduction to the Scheme programming language (which is a dialect of lisp).
  • ergoemacs.org has really good introductory material on emacs, as well as several advanced tutorials.
  • masteringemacs.org is another resource I found very useful.

And, Of course, Google.


  1. I know, eclipse, and almost all the other development tools are free, and nobody has a right to complain about the free things they get. I am not trying to be ungrateful to the developers of these great tools at all. I am extremely grateful, actually. But, even with free tools, I think people can still get frustrated. 

  2. Although, the week I spent with emacs was not a normal 9-to-5, 5 days a week kind of week. It was a hacker week, in which I spent almost all my waking hours digging on the internet and experimenting. 

  3. Of course, you will have some WTF moments when you start using it. Like: WTF, who was the ass-hole who created these copy-paste short-cuts! Don’t give up. I think this is the primary reason there aren’t more emacs users out there. I gave up on emacs twice in the past for that reason. This time, I marched on and the WTF phase didn’t last longer than two days. 

  4. There is a famous story about Tim O’Reilly switching to vim when he lost his emacs config file. The situation is not that bad now. Out of the box, Emacs is still pretty usable. It now has a GUI for configuration and package installation as well. 

  5. I am not using any of the curated emacs configs or the customized distros since I want to stay close to the metal, and I am enjoying the learning process. That doesn’t mean that they are not tempting. 


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