Chapter 1. Emacs Basics

Some of you out there are probably dying to get your hands on the keyboard and start typing. We won't try to stop you; turn to the section called "Starting Emacs" and you can go ahead. But do read the beginning of this chapter later when you're ready for a break. Emacs is much easier to learn if you understand some of the basic concepts involved, which we discuss in the following introduction.

Introducing Emacs!

GNU Emacs is one of the most commonly used text editors in the world today. Many users prefer Emacs to vi (Unix's standard editor) or to other GUI text editors. Why is Emacs so popular? It isn't the newest tool, and it's certainly not the prettiest. But it may well be the most useful tool you'll ever learn. We want to present what you need to know about Emacs to do useful work, in a way that lets you use it effectively. This book is a guide for Emacs users; it tries to satisfy the needs of many readers, ranging from casual users to programmers.

Our approach therefore isn't to tell you absolutely everything that Emacs does. It has many features and commands that this book doesn't describe. We don't think that's a problem; Emacs has a comprehensive online help facility that helps you figure out what these are. We focus our attention on describing how to get useful work done. After covering basic editing in the first three chapters, we describe how to use Emacs as a comprehensive working environment: how to boost productivity with multiple buffers and windows, how to give commands without leaving the editor, how to take advantage of special editing modes, how to use Emacs for editing special types of files (source files for various programming languages), and so on. We cover the most important commands and the most important editing modes. However, you should always keep one principle in mind: Emacs does many things well, but it isn't important for that reason. Emacs is important because of the integration of different things you need to do.

What does integration mean? A simple example will help. Assume that someone sends you a mail message describing a special command for accessing a new printer. You can fire up an Emacs shell, paste the command into Emacs, and execute it directly. If it works, you can edit your startup file to create an alias for the command. You can do all this without leaving the editor and without having to retype the command once. That's why Emacs is so powerful. It's more than just an editor; it's a complete environment that can change the way you work.

An initial word of advice, too. Many people think that Emacs is an extremely difficult editor to learn. We don't see why. Admittedly, it has a lot of features, and you probably will never use all of them. But any editor, no matter how simple or complex, has the same basic functions. If you can learn one, you can learn any of them. We'll give you the standard mnemonic devices that will help you remember commands (like "C-p means previous line"), but we really don't think even these are necessary. They get you over an initial hump in the learning process but don't make much difference in the long run. Learning to use an editor is basically a matter of learning finger habits: learning where to put your fingers to move to the previous line. If you experiment with Emacs and try typing a few of our examples, you'll quickly acquire these finger habits. And after you've acquired these habits, you'll never forget, any more than you'll forget how to ride a bicycle. After using Emacs for a day or two, we never had to think, "C-p means previous line." Our fingers just knew where to go. Once you're at this point, you're home. You can become creative with Emacs and start thinking about how to put its features to work for you. Emacs has extensive menus, but we still recommend learning the key bindings for commonly used commands. Good finger habits can make you an incredibly fast typist, and reaching from keyboard to mouse only slows you down.

The finger-habits approach also implies a different way of reading this book. Intellectually, it's possible to absorb a lot from one reading, but you can form only a few new habits each day. (Unless, of course, they're bad habits.) Chapter 2 covers most of the basic editing techniques you'll use. You may need to read it several times, with a slightly different focus each time. For example, Emacs gives you many different ways to move forward: you can move forward one character, one word, one line, one sentence, one paragraph, one page, and so on. All of these techniques are covered in Chapter 2. Start by learning how to move forward and backward, then gradually add more complex commands. Similarly, Emacs provides many different techniques for searching through a file, covered in Chapter 3. Don't feel obliged to learn them all at once; pick something, practice it, and move on to the next topic. No one will complain if you have to work through the first three chapters of our book several times before you're comfortable. Time spent developing good habits is time well spent.

Get Learning GNU Emacs, 3rd Edition now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience books, live events, courses curated by job role, and more from O’Reilly and nearly 200 top publishers.