The Ergonomics of Emacs (with Colemak and Ergoemacs)

I am a writer, and I spend a lot of time with text. Lately, I have been experimenting with my setup and trying out different programs.

I highly recommend emacs for any writer who is

  • interested in free software
  • somewhat technically inclined
  • willing to become one with their keyboard

It’s the One True Text Editor, and a lot could be said about it. Right now, I want to focus on how it can be phenomenally ergonomic.

My Setup

The setup that I am recommending is for writers of prose, not necessarily developers, though I can’t imagine that this setup couldn’t be tweaked a bit and still be ideal for writing millions of lines of code.

With this setup, I’m never reaching for the mouse or trackpad to click a region or highlight text or move windows around. Everything gets done with keyboard shortcuts. I hardly even need the arrow keys, even when editing/revising. That alone is a beautiful thing, something that doesn’t get talked about that much by the general public, I’m guessing, because, as a feature, it’s invisible – to the uninitiated, emacs just looks like 1986 with better pixel density (though not necessarily more colors).

One of the big gripes people seem to have against emacs is that the keyboard shortcuts are non-intuitive and/or uncomfortable. Well, yeah. I can see that, at least how it is by default. For the first couple of days I used emacs, I tried the key combos that it inherited from the precambrian days when it was first fashioned from shards of bone and spare capacitors. I used it that way for a couple of days. I liked that I could do so much from the keyboard, but the shortcuts weren’t intuitive, and they relied excessively on the Ctrl key. I had other things to do and not do besides learn key combos in emacs.

One great thing about the program is how it can be customized. All the key combos can be changed. Even better is when all of the hard work has already been done and all I have to do is install an emacs package.

I installed Ergoemacs. With ergoemacs, my fingers never venture far from the home row. I mean, I don’t even need to go all the way over to the backspace key. I have plenty of better options. I can backspace with my left pinky (Colemak layout) or I can delete characters, words, or the line, either in front of or behind the cursor, by using the excellent meta-key combos, which are grouped in a way that makes a lot of sense. A lot of sense. Meta is easy to reach. My left thumb wasn’t doing very much anyway. Now it runs with the pack.

I am experimenting with other configurations as they occur to me. For example, I mapped the RETURN function to the Meta-‘ key. It’s not that hard for the right pinky to go over to the return button on the keyboard, but why bother, when Meta-‘ is even closer?

I am a big fan of this text editor, but I can certainly still see why emacs is not right for everyone. It has a learning curve and a general technical bent to its design. Maybe some enterprising hacker will put together an emacs that is more easily accepted by the average prose writer (liberating these writers from Word, etc). I would love to see that. More free software users, more free minds.

Emacs’s main asset, as I presently see it, is also the reason why it doesn’t attract a wider userbase: It relies on the keyboard. That’s not a user-friendly plus for the casual user. A user has to be willing to take the plunge into the invisible tactile realm of keyboard livin’. Part of the reason I wish emacs had a wider adoption among non-engineers is because then it would have been on my radar and I would have given it a try sooner. Although, for me, I can’t say for sure that I would have stuck with emacs if it hadn’t been for ergoemacs.

So, for anyone who is on the fence about trying a different text editor, word processor, or document creation suite, I would recommend emacs with ergomacs and org-mode. Give colemak a shot while you’re at it.

PS. Another remapping to consider: Meta – [ and ] to navigate through (previous-heading) and (next-heading) in org-mode.

Oh Yeah, and Keep a Cheat Sheet Handy

One thing about ergoemacs: Since all the commands are remapped, it occasionally becomes necessary to translate from the default precambrian keyboard shortcut to the ergo-remapped shortcut. If you read advice somewhere as to how something is done in emacs, they will probably give you the default way to do the command, but the default keybinding won’t work for you, since you exist in a different space/time continuum. When in doubt, you can probably use the menu bar to select the command that way.

 

Emacs: My Recommendation for Writers Using a Free Software Setup

Free Your Mind and Your Software Will Follow (and vice versa)

The more I learn about GNU and FSF and Richard Stallman, the more my respect grows for the Free Software movement. Over the past year and a half I have transitioned from a Mac Pro retina to a custom gnu/linux desktop and a dedicated gnu/linux portable writing machine.

The most recent change I have made is switching to emacs from Scrivener. You read that right: to emacs from Scrivener. I won’t say that I will abandon Scrivener, nor that I find anything at all wrong with a small company selling software in the way that Literature and Latte does. I personally see what they do as a creative thing, and mostly by that logic believe that they have every right to make a living by it. Stallman (and, no doubt, many others) seems to say that because a work of software does something, it should be free. Software is not my area of expertise, and I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter, except in the general sense. I would much rather point a finger at the biggest players (biggest offenders, potentially) and encourage them to make free software. e.g. Adobe, Microsoft, Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, and Microsoft.

Learning Curve

Goodness, there is a learning curve for emacs. Emacs is most commonly used by programmers. For writers, our needs aren’t so great, so that means we can learn all that we need about the program in a short time. Admittedly, as non-programmers, we are at a relative disadvantage since emacs expects some familiarity with code, especially if you want to customize it (and of course you do).

The good news is that with a couple of tweaks, things are not so difficult after all.

I highly recommend the following packages:
org-mode
ergoemacs

Org-mode

Org is a popular and versatile add-on for emacs that allows you to nimbly create and interact with lists. That’s all I use it for. It also has some advanced TODO list capabilities, but what I love about it is how I can keep organizational trees nice and tidy and navigable. I can use it as an organizer/synopsis tool by opening multiple frames. You can easily install it within emacs using the built-in package manager.

Ergoemacs

I found the default emacs key bindings the single greatest annoyance/hindrance that made the learning curve unneccesarily steep. For anyone starting out, particularly for a creative writer, I would highly recommend using the ergoemacs key bindings. I type using a colemak configuration, and ergoemacs even comes with a colemak theme. These keybindings are intuitive. This package can also be installed within the emacs package manager.

Multiple frames, full screen

Press F11. Nice, isn’t it? I run emacs in a full screen environment (no distractions, nothing else but this document at present), and emacs makes it easy to move between different documents, whether as separate full-screen buffers or in a split pane. Again, there’s none of that mousing around business to do, which is a luxury.

Dark mode

I belong to the minority of writers who most enjoys light text on a black background. I use and love the wheatgrass theme in emacs. And because I am running the Gnome desktop environment (set to a universal dark theme), in emacs nothing is glaring at me.

– When it’s late in the day and I am writing, I write by candlelight. It’s magical.

Markdown

Emacs is a text editor, not a word processor, so it’s not rich text or WYSIWYG. But you can work in markdown, and in some cases that might be preferable. With markdown, you know what you are going to get in the finished manuscript. With a word processor (I’m looking at you, MS Word), you can’t always be so sure.

So yeah, on the one hand, you have to write in markdown, but on the other hand, you get to write in markdown. And you’re content with that, aren’t you? I mean, you’ve got to be pretty hardcore to get into emacs, where even word-wrapping isn’t a given. So you have to actually select word-wrapping, and guess what you gain? Freedom!

A lot of writers choose to write in markdown anyway, no matter what they’re using to compose. There’s something about the … purity of plain text that I have always loved.

Purity

All and all, I really feel a benefit from using emacs. It’s just the keyboard and me, pretty much. I don’t have to reach for the mouse to move the cursor around or change buffers or panes or expand my outline. That seamless feeling is hard to get in an X-window environment.

Using free software has become for me a part of the whole creative shebang. Free mind, free software.

I’m not extremely technically savvy, but if you have questions, feel free to post them. And if I can help you on your free software journey, I would be happy to.