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.


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