Emacs from scratch

Posted: ; Updated: Oct 13, 2022 emacs


Four months after writing this article and I'm still using Emacs full-time with my own, custom configuration. I continue to find great pleasure in extending my setup with small snippets I stumble upon from Emacs hackers far wiser than myself. Those tweaks aside, my current configuration is mostly stable.

I maintain the opinion that creating your own Emacs configuration is not nearly as daunting as is often presented. With a few tweaks to the base defaults (technomancy's better-defaults is a great place to start) you can be up-and-running with an editor that looks and feels far closer to modern alternatives. A few packages later and you're well on your way to Emacs nirvana.

For those of you who have decided to build your own configuration from scratch: enjoy the process! The greatest thing about Emacs is the satisfaction of building a tool to suit your preferences. I hope this article helps you on that journey.

Original article

Like any self-respecting programmer, I often find myself struggling with text editor envy. This time, like the three previous times, the source of that envy is Emacs. All it takes is a stray link to emacsrocks and I'm back in that vicious cycle.

Unlike those previous flings, however, I have managed to stick to Emacs with a new level of tenacity. I have even found myself enjoying it.

What has changed is my fundamental approach to learning Emacs. Rather than reaching for a prebuilt distribution, like doomemacs or spacemacs, I decided to build my own configuration from scratch.

This effort, previously believed insurmountable, was easy and educational. With just a few packages, I managed to match the functionality of my primary text editor. Most importantly, I found myself reaching for Emacs's built-in help system instead of scouring the web, reinforcing my familiarity with the tool and accelerating my proficiency.

Prebuilt distributions are an awesome demonstration of what is possible with Emacs, but I don't think they're a good introduction to the editor. Instead, I think the best way to get started with Emacs is with a minimum-viable configuration. Just enough stuff to bring Emacs up to par with a modern editor and nothing else.

Follow along with the rest of this article and you'll have your own, very capable Emacs ready for experimentation.

First steps

After downloading Emacs, I recommend running through the built-in tutorial (also available on the web). Some basic knowledge of Emacs keybindings will help make the rest of this guide easier to follow.

If looking at the default Emacs theme is too much to bear, swap to one of the dark-mode themes:

M-x load-theme RET deeper-blue

Remember: C-<chr> means hold the Control key while typing the character <chr>. M-<chr> means hold the Meta key (Alt on Windows) and pressing <chr>. (Emacs tutorial)

Rebind caps lock to control

One thing you'll quickly notice from the tutorial, if you weren't already aware of Emacs pinky, is that pressing Control all of the time can get pretty taxing on your wrist. RSI is no joke! Take care of those wrists.

Rebind your Caps Lock key to Control and never look back.

Instructions: MacOS, Windows 10

Start your configuration

All of your Emacs files will go into .emacs.d, so go ahead and create a new directory:

# Cool stuff goes in here
mkdir ~/.emacs.d/

Back in Emacs, make a new file with M-x find-file, or the following keybinding:

C-x C-f ~/.emacs.d/init.el

This will create a new Emacs Lisp file, init.el, in your Emacs configuration directory. Emacs will automatically load this file on startup.

From here, you can go ahead and start making some changes to your editor theme:

;; Load a dark mode theme
(load-theme 'deeper-blue t)

Although many guides will recommend removing the ugly menu/tool bars at the top of your editor, I think it's a good idea to keep them around until you're more comfortable with Emacs keybindings. The very sight of them may offend your sensibilities, but at least they can help you when you forget basic editor functions.

That said, if you want to remove them you can do so with the following code:

;; Disable menu bar, scroll bar, and tool bar
(menu-bar-mode -1)
(scroll-bar-mode -1)
(tool-bar-mode -1)

After saving, you can apply the changes from your configuration file by closing Emacs and re-opening it. Alternatively, you can apply the changes immediately in Emacs by using the command M-x eval-buffer.

Sensible defaults

Once Emacs is themed to your preference, I'd recommend tweaking some of the built-in settings with "better" defaults. Emacs has been around for a long time (as you can probably tell by the default theme) and these settings put it more in line with modern editors.

My recommendations are either sourced from other configuration files I found in the wild (better-defaults and crafted-emacs are two great examples) or from tweaking the performance of some CPU-intensive packages like lsp-mode.

First up are some performance threshold tweaks that will help Emacs run faster on a modern machine. Recall that you can look up the help documentation of any of these variables by invoking C-h v, or M-x describe-variable.

(setq gc-cons-threshold 100000000) ; 100 mb
(setq read-process-output-max (* 1024 1024)) ; 1mb

The remaining recommendations are more personal in nature. I'd urge you to read about each of these options and decide for yourself whether you'd like to include them. In particular, you may find yourself enjoying the customization UI that ships with Emacs (M-x customize) more than me.

;; Auto-refresh buffers when files on disk change.
(global-auto-revert-mode t)

;; Ensure unique names when matching files exist in the buffer.
;; e.g. This helps when you have multiple copies of "main.rs"
;; open in different projects. It will add a "myproj/main.rs"
;; prefix when it detects matching names.
(require 'uniquify)
(setq uniquify-buffer-name-style 'forward)

;; Place backups in a separate folder.
(setq backup-directory-alist `(("." . "~/.saves")))
(setq auto-save-file-name-transforms `((".*" "~/.saves/" t)))

;; I store automatic customization options in a gitignored file,
;; but this is definitely a personal preference.
(setq custom-file (locate-user-emacs-file "custom.el"))
(when (file-exists-p custom-file)
  (load custom-file))

Get ready for packages

While Emacs ships with a ton of useful features, we're all here for the packages. This is the moment where you can really start turning your Emacs from text editor status into full-blown operating system.

By default, Emacs comes with a curated package registry in the form of GNU Elpa. You'll want to extend this default list of packages with those from a larger, also curated list called MELPA. With these two lists (and Emacs's built-in packages), you can find just about everything you'll ever need.

Add the following lines to your ~/.emacs.d/init.el:

;; You'll be installing your packages with the
;; built-in package.el script
(require 'package)

;; Add MELPA to your list of package archives
(add-to-list 'package-archives
	         '("melpa" . "https://melpa.org/packages/"))


;; Go ahead and refresh your package list to
;; make sure everything is up-to-date
(unless package-archive-contents

Install your first package

With MELPA ready to go, it's time to install your first package. Add the following to your ~/.emacs.d/init.el.

(unless (package-installed-p 'use-package)
  (package-install 'use-package))

use-package is a very deliberate first install, as you'll use it instead of package-install to install all of your other packages.

Why not just keep installing packages with package-install? The reason has to do with the customization that you'll add to the packages after you install them.

use-package bundles your keybindings, custom variables, package hooks, and dependencies together in a convenient and well-organized API. While you could manage all of these details manually, it's very convenient to use use-package instead. It makes it easier to install new packages while keeping your init.el organized and clean.

The importance of text completion

I know you're excited to install packages, but forgive me for a brief aside. By far the most important thing to configure in Emacs is your completion framework. Doing so will not only make Emacs more familiar when coming from existing editors, it will drive your ability to teach yourself Emacs from within Emacs.

But before you grab a text completion package off the internet, I think it's helpful to take a look at Emacs's built-in capabilities. Doing so will help you make some informed decisions about what features you'd like a text completion framework to fulfill.

That said, the completion framework ecosystem within Emacs is nuanced and idiosyncratic, but I'll try my best to break it down.

When you attempt any operation that prompts you for text in Emacs, you'll be presented with a minibuffer asking for you to fill in that information. Oftentimes that information will be the path to a file or an Emacs Lisp function. In either of these cases it's vastly preferable to have Emacs fill in your text so you don't have to type it all in yourself (hence, completion).

With the default Emacs completion framework, you allow Emacs to fill in text for you by mashing the TAB key endlessly. Go ahead and try it: C-x C-f, begin typing a path, then have Emacs autocomplete it with TAB TAB. Even worse is looking up an Emacs command with M-x. Try M-x find TAB TAB. Functional, sure. But also a surefire path to RSI.

Luckily there are a few built-in alternatives, a subject to which Mickey Peterson dedicates an entire blog post. I'll mention one here that is a personal favorite, fido-vertical-mode which uses Emacs icomplete under the hood.

Give it a try and you'll immediately notice the difference:

M-x fido-vertical-mode

Try to lookup an Emacs command like M-x find-file. It even includes the keybindings in the margin!

This exact benefit is the reason I dedicated an entire section of this guide to your chosen completion framework. It makes it infinitely easier to lookup Emacs commands when searching for documentation or trying to remember the keybindings.

Vertico and Marginalia

Now, if fido-vertical-mode works for you, great! No need to install a separate completion framework. However I find that an alternative, Vertico, offers both better performance and greater features.

Vertico is built by Daniel Mendler and integrates nicely into other tools by the same author, as well as Emacs built-ins. One I'll recommend alongside Vertico is Marginalia, a package that adds more annotations to your completions. Similar to the keybindings in the earlier example with M-x find-file, Marginalia displays the beginning of the entire docstring.

Install the packages with use-package:

(use-package vertico
  :ensure t

(use-package marginalia
  :after vertico
  :ensure t

Finally, I like to throw savehist in there as well so my recent completions appear at the top of the minibuffer. This one omits :ensure t since it ships with Emacs.

(use-package savehist

Finding Help

Your choice of completion framework is a huge benefit when learning Emacs, as the entire library of Emacs commands is available at your fingertips with M-x. As soon as I discovered Vertico and Marginalia I threw out my Emacs cheatsheet. When all of Emacs's documentation is so easily accessible, there's really no reason to keep one around for reference.

When it comes to reaching out to Emacs for help, remember the following:

  1. You can execute any Emacs command with M-x <command>.
  2. Keybindings are available in the minibuffer thanks to Marginalia, but you can also discover them with M-x where-is RET <command>.
  3. You can view the documentation of any command you know how to press with C-h c. Try C-h c RET C-x C-f.
  4. C-h ? is an all-encompassing help menu for you to get your bearings.

As long as you're familiar with basic Emacs terminology (e.g. buffers, windows, and frames) every Emacs command is available to you with a quick search.

Project management with project.el

Edit: This used to be a section about Projectile, a package that provides project navigation utilities to Emacs. Since writing this article, I've actually found the default Emacs package project.el to be a completely viable alternative, no extra package needed. YMMV, so definitely check out Projectile if you need more than is provided by project.el.

Navigating files with C-x C-f is incredibly cumbersome, particularly for large projects. Far better is the Emacs Project framework, project.el. As long as you have a project that is initialized with git, project.el lets you search files with minibuffer completion, grep queries with xref, and manage directories with dired.

First, open up a project by browsing to a version-controlled file with C-x C-f. You'll now be able to use the project.el commands to navigate this project:

  • C-x p f: Visit a file in the current project.
  • C-x p g: Grep a query across all files in the current project.
  • C-x p d: Open dired in the chosen directory.

As soon as you've opened a project one time, it'll be available in the project cache. You can browse any previously-visited projects on your system with C-x p p.

Next steps

With use-package, Vertico, and the basics of project.el under your fingertips, you're ready to explore the rest that Emacs has to offer. Here are a few branching points that I would suggest based on your goals.

  • If you want your Emacs experience to have IDE-like code-completion, look into company-mode and eglot.
  • If you want to be amazed by one of the best git interfaces in the world of text editors, dive into Magit.
  • If you're interested in org-mode and follow the Zettelkasten hype train, read all about org-roam or denote.

Outside of new packages, I also recommend reading some open source Emacs configurations that are out in the wild. Here are a few projects I've taken inspiration from:

Welcome to your new Emacs journey!