Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker, so please forgive me for a large number of mistakes on the site

Emacs for mortals

2022-02-16 #emacs

Table of contents

Why not ergoemacs/spacemacs/whatever

I believe that Emacs itself can be a very convenient editor and that ergoemacs/spacemacs and other clones/wrappers should come into the game only when the user really knows what he wants from them. I think that most needs of an average user can be covered by vanilla Emacs with probably a few packages.

Configuration file

To make changes in Emacs’ settings, we will use the configuration file. If you use any Linux distro, it’s placed in your home directory: ~/.emacs. On Windows, configuration file is hidden in C://Users/Username/AppData/Local/.emacs.

Remember, you don’t have to copy/paste all settings from here. If you feel comfortable with Emacs’ defaults - it’s ok, skip that part.

Awkward documentation terms

Emacs has some strange terms in its documentation, and if you are new to Emacs, they can discourage you from learning. Here I’ll list some notes about things that were making me feel dumb when I was starting to use Emacs.

Meta key

Emacs uses odd hotkey descriptions. If you read any info about its commands, you will meet something like “To call this command, press M-x command-name”, or “This command is bound to M-w”. What does M mean? Normal people think that this is the M key, but we always need to keep in mind that this is Emacs, and there are no clear ways to do or explain something. The answer is: This is the Alt key. Who is interested – just search in the internet, there is much info about it. So, if you see M somewhere in the documentation, or blogs, or tutorials, you should read it as Alt.


Remember, yank = copy, kill = cut.


By default, Emacs uses “fat” cursor:

It’s bizarre. What text is selected? It is hard to get the answer quickly, without a little brain work. Almost all text editors have a thin cursor, which is placed between letters, and only if you turn on Insert mode, it will look this way. Emacs cursor looks like it in insert mode, but it does not, and it works like it does not in insert mode. To make Emacs cursor thin, add these lines in the configuration file:

(setq-default cursor-type '(bar . 2))
(set-cursor-color "#FF0000")

Here, by changing .2 value, you regulate cursor width, and by changing the value #ff0000, you are changing the cursor’s colour. The cursor with the above config settings looks like this:

By default, “search forward” command is bound to Ctrl-s hotkey. WTF? Bind it to Ctrl-f instead:

(global-set-key [(control f)] 'isearch-forward)
; isearch requires some customization to work with none default keys,
; since it uses its own keymap during a search.  These changes are *always*
; active, and not toggled with touchstream mode!  Luckily for us, the keys are
; we need are not used by isearch so there are no conflicts.
(define-key isearch-mode-map [(control f)] 'isearch-repeat-forward)

It is noteworthy that it is hard to make some customization in Emacs. This is an example of such a case – this snippet I found here: https://emacs.stackexchange.com/questions/42527/trying-to-make-control-f-search-exactly-like-control-s-does.

Save/open file

Let’s bind Ctrl-s keys to save the current file and Ctrl-o to open a file.

(global-set-key [(control o)] 'find-file)
(global-set-key [(control s)] 'save-buffer)

Smooth mouse scroll

If you use mouse scroll in emacs, you will notice that it is kind of raggy. This problem partially can be fixed by putting the following code into your .emacs file:

;; scroll one line at a time (less "jumpy" than defaults)
(setq mouse-wheel-scroll-amount '(1 ((shift) . 1))) ;; one line at a time
(setq mouse-wheel-progressive-speed nil) ;; don't accelerate scrolling
(setq mouse-wheel-follow-mouse 't) ;; scroll window under mouse
(setq scroll-step 1) ;; keyboard scroll one line at a time

However, even that scroll becomes more smooth, I think there is something missed in it, but I don’t know what. The code snippet is from here: https://www.emacswiki.org/emacs/SmoothScrolling.

Visual theme

By default, Emacs looks like a shit right from the 80s. Fortunately, Emacs has a lot of themes. You can go to https://emacsthemes.com/ and pick up the one that is for you. Of course, this resource is just the collection of themes – most probably you can find more cool things at GitHub repositories, blogs, and so on. Most of the themes are available from MELPA or ELPA repositories. Don’t clog your mind what are these, just add this code to your .emacs file to be able to install plugins from them.

(setq package-archives '(("gnu" . "https://elpa.gnu.org/packages/")
                         ("melpa" . "https://melpa.org/packages/")))

Now, to open the list of packages, you need to run the command:

M-x list-packages

Then, you need to search for a theme or package (via standard emacs search, which is probably bound to Ctrl-f, or, if not, to Ctrl-s), press I to mark it for installation and then press x to install. After that, you need to tell Emacs that you want to use some newly installed theme, so you need to add this to your .emacs file:

(load-theme 'dracula)

Here, dracula is the theme name, just for example. Pass the name of your theme instead.

Use Mouse

You will see tons of suggestions to use only a keyboard, you will hear that a mouse is for beginners, and most of your time you need to keep your fingers in touch with your keyboard, and this is the only right way to work effectively with Emacs. Don’t listen. A mouse is a great device, and if you feel comfortable with it – use it. One of the most natural ways to use the mouse is to move the cursor at some position, or to select some text or objects, and for an average user it is way faster to click at some position, which the user already sees, than hack around with tens of commands just for placing the cursor at someplace. Emacs allows you not only to work with the mouse like in many others editors, but it has one cool feature – call some handy context pop up menus with useful functions.

The first popup menu is called by left click at any place of your document with the Ctrl key held. This is the Buffer menu. Another one is called by right-clicking with the held Ctrl key. This context menu is mode-specific - this means that it will be different for different modes, and depending on the current mode may be useful or maybe not.

Replace selected text with the pasted one

You want to copy some text and then replace some part of your document with it, and you think that copying and pasting to a selected region will make the job done, and copied text will not be pasted right after the first letter and your text will not look like a mess? You fool. Add this to your .emacs to be able to work with text like all these sublime text and notepad++ muggles:

(delete-selection-mode 1)

Another option is to use cua-mode, this mode will be described later.

Disable start-up message

By default, when you run emacs, you see its welcome screen, which contains links to tutorials, info about GNU/Everything and so on. Why do we need to see this every time? Vim has a similar one, but it is completely different because you can turn on edit mode right in a welcome screen, and all noisy text will disappear, and you are ready to edit text.


As usual, horrible defaults. In short – when you want to insert TAB, you press the tab key. Not in Emacs, no. In Emacs, if you want to add indentation, you should use M-i hotkey. What does the tab key? Eh, it is hard to explain in simple terms. From docs:

Indent the current line or region, or insert a tab, as appropriate. This function either inserts a tab, or indents the current line, or performs symbol completion, depending on ‘tab-always-indent’.

Anyway, it does not what you generally expect when you press the tab. To fix it, use the following command:

(global-set-key "\t" 'tab-to-tab-stop)

There is a problem, though. If you select the region and press the tab, only the first row will be indented. My elisp(emacs’ extension language) is not so good to write such function, if you know how to make this, please email me.

Words you delete replace text in your cut buffer

Maybe I have picked the wrong terms because Emacs terminology is very complex, but let me describe what I mean: If you just have copied or cut something, most probably you expect that this text will be kept somewhere in your editor until you cut or copy something different. But Emacs laughs at you, and every time you delete a word via commands like M-d or M-Backspace, deleted word replaces the content of your buffer. C-k (delete rest of a line) works the same, probably there are at least a few other commands that act like that. There is a special mode in Emacs that allows you to work with Ctrl-C/Ctrl-v/Ctrl-z shortcuts as you expect. Add the following command to .emacs file:

(cua-mode 1)

Features that make Emacs great

Here are some built-in features that make work with Emacs more convenient.


Dired is the file manager that is shipped with Emacs. To call it, you can use command M-x dired command or Ctrl-x d hotkey. When you run dired, it first asks for a directory that you need to open.

Must-have hotkeys:

Ido-mode (Interactively Do Things)

I really don’t understand why it’s not enabled by default. What does this mode? In general terms, it’s a completion library that filters match anywhere in a list of available items. I mainly use ido mode when I search for files or open buffers, but there are a lot of ido commands: try to press M-x ido- and press tab then, you’ll see all possible commands.

Here are config lines for enabling ido mode:

(setq ido-enable-flex-matching t)
(setq ido-everywhere t)
(ido-mode 1)

And it’s impossible not to mention one great package that makes ido-mode even better, it’s called ido-vertical-mode. It reformats ido output in a vertical list, not horizontal, so all possible completion variants look way friendlier for eyes. It can be installed via melpa, as was described in the “Visual theme” section. It looks like that: