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From Vim to Emacs

Published: 2020-04-06


I was a Vim user a couple years back. I totally loved (and still love) the philosophy of Vim as well as the hjkl navigation. In contrast, Emacs didn’t make any sense to me. C-v for page down and M-v for page up? Does that even make any sense to anyone?

Yet here I am, after all those years, writing this article on my Emacs with all the keybinding craziness. I must confess, I enjoy Emacs quite a lot. However, the transition wasn’t easy for me. Here’s my journey so far.

The start of the cycle

Lisp Cycles

In the mid 2018 I started teaching myself Clojure, a dialect of the Lisp family. I fell in love with the language but the thing that amazed me the most, was how the Clojure community do all the amazing presentations using Emacs. “Well,” I told myself, “maybe it’s time to finally see the other side of the Vim vs Emacs Editor War.”

I learned the basics from the Clojure for the Brave and True website, It turned out that learning Clojure and Emacs at the same time was too audacious for me at the time. Clojure itself alone already has a pretty steep learning curve. And then there was Emacs… I took a more strategic route and focus on Clojure solely for a while (using both VSCode and IntelliJ.) It was fine at the time (because I didn’t know what I was missing.)

Only knowing the foundamentals of Clojure, I started working on opensource projects to gain more real world experiences. It was then I was introduced to Spacemacs.

Into the Space

Spacemacs, on the website:

Spacemacs is a new way to experience Emacs – a sophisticated and polished set-up focused on ergonomics, mnemonics and consistency.

To me, the main selling point was the exceptional out-of-box configuration. The layer system makes adding packages almost no-brainers. And plus, I didn’t need to give up my Vim keybindings! Spacemacs truely made me start liking Emacs and wanted to explore more aspects of Emacs.

After learning a few basics, I was able to get pretty productive using Spacemacs and started understanding the superpower of Clojure, the REPL + Editor integration workflow. The “mnemonics” aspect of Spacemacs also made discovering and memorizing the useful functionalities so much easier.

I also made a switch to the develop branch of Spacemacs at the time because of a lot of the features and customizations can only be done there. I was learning quite a bit from both the official documentation and from Practicalli’s spacemacs tutorial.

Then, it was the late 2019’s that I started my first professional job as a Clojure/Script developer. During the first week at work I saw my collegue’s minimalistic Emacs init.el file that also uses evil-mode (which is the configuration that gives you the access to all the Vim keybindings.) I was pretty amazed by it.

Using Clojure and Spacemacs day in and day out, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the fact that I can only understand Emacs through the lense of Spacemacs. And so, just last week, I started diving into Emacs.

Embracing the Evil

Aaron Bieber has a great talk on “Evil Mode: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Emacs”. He helped me to set the right mindset from the start. I don’t really want to ditch all the keybindings, just yet. I also watched a lot of Mike Zamansky’s Emacs tutorials. It felt like an achievable goal to recreate the Spacemacs experiences myself.

Actually, someone has already done it:

Those resources are awesome. They gave me so much hope that I knew my goal of making my own mini Spacemacs was an achievable project.

I really learned a lot in this stage. One of the most important lessons I learned is:

Emacs is a self-documenting editor

Instead of needing to go to Google to search for answers, Emacs has all those things built-in for you. Just like Clojure, I was given the tool I need to solve my problems. Learning a few commands and I was very well-suited to troubleshoot my editor. This is very powerful.

So far I’ve got most of the things I want working. You can check out the code here. Currently it’s about 500 LOC and I wrote every line of the code. I feel very good about it. If something isn’t working right, I know where to fix it (most of the time.)

To infinity and beyond

Emacs is truely an amazing piece of software that I had so much fun with. The reason it pushed me away in the first place was its out-of-box configuration. It required me to have opinions on almost every aspect of the editor on day one, and this intimidated me.

Spacesmacs was a godsend for me when I needed it the most. Till today, the way of Spacesmacs influences a lot of my opinion toward my Emacs configurations. I’m not giving up the things I like about Spacesmacs.

However, will I ever ditch Evil mode and embrace the holly form of Emacs? Maybe.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.