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C'est la Z

Know your tools - intermediate Emacs

A good workman is known by his tools, or so the saying goes. My tools of choice are my terminal shell and Emacs.

I suppose if I was a full time developer working with a limited set of tools I might like an IDE like JetBrains or Eclipse but no matter how many alternatives I try, I always end back in Emacs.

I recommend that my students spend time not only in Emacs but also in tools like Vim or Sublime Text.

I do warn them, though, that as a commercial product, Sublime might not be around forever, I mean before Sublime was sublime, TextMate was sublime. If you go back to the 1980s, Brief was sublime.

Commercial tools come and go but I've been using Emacs since the mid eighties.

A few students have been asking me for some pointers on going past the basics of Emacs so here we go.


This post just has some getting started notes. There are mode powerful and advanced ways of doing most things.

I think I'll just talk about a few of the basics here and will write about code development with Emacs in a later post.

Starting out

Once you're OK with the basics (by using the built in tutorial or on line resources) start to fore yourself to get to know:


when you find a new file (C-x C-f) it opens it into a new buffer. You can also open a new buffer using C-x b and rather than selecting a buffer typing in a new buffer name.

Each buffer can hold a file and you can switch quickly between them using C-x b and hitting <Enter>.

You can kill the current buffer with C-x k

Using buffers lets you edit multiple files in a project quickly and efficiently.


Your Emacs frame can be split into multiple windows. C-x 2 splits the window top and bottom, C-x3 left and right. You can switch between windows using C-x o for other window. Switching to one window is done with C-x 1.

Getting Help

Get to know the built in help. You can always use functions like M-x describe-function or M-x describe-key and of course you can use completion to help speed things up but the help functions are bound to:

  • C-h k for describe key
  • C-h f for describe function
  • C-h a for search for command

You can usually type q to close the help.


Use search for navigation rather than arrow keys.

This can change the way you edit.

For example ,if I wanted to go up to the word Navigation, above, rather than using traditional motion keys, I'd do a reverse search (C-r) and search for Nav.

Incremental search forward (C-s) and back are your friends.


You can check out my emacs configuration here:

You can find basic installation instructions there or you can use the interactive package manager, invoking it with M-x list-packages.

Some of my favorite general purpose packages are:

Next steps

We haven't even talked about code development or killer packages like org-mode but I think this will do for a start.

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