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 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.


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.


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.


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.

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