Help me make Emacs Not Painful


I spend a Pareto portion of my work day in three applications: jEdit, Firefox, and a terminal.

I hang around Emacs (and VI)-loving folks all day. Emacs. jEdit. Emacs. jEdit. The tension is palpable. :)

Maybe their influence is starting to rub off on me. Here’s what I want: Dear readers, can you provide comments on any tips to achieve any of these in Emacs?

  • I keep about 20 files open at a time, in multiple “sessions”. With one dropdown in jEdit, I can switch to a different 20 files in a different session, all open and ready for editing. When I start the editor, I don’t need to individually open files.
  • I use a plugin to show a bunch of tiny tabs at the bottom, so I can see what’s open at a glance.
  • Text selection with shift+arrow keys, and copy and paste with Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V. PgUp and PgDn working. (Just like my web browser)
  • Ctrl+W to close a tab or workspace. Ctrl+T to open a new tab. (Just like my web browser)
  • Ctrl+S to save (Just like my…you get the picture)
  • I’m not a heavy mouse user, but when I do use a mouse, I should at least be able to select text with it.
  • Line numbers showing on each line.
  • Nice fonts (no small feat on BSD).
  • Here’s the kicker: I want to attach in from a remote computer (on a different OS) and have the same experience, same files already open, and so on. Here, jEdit isn’t helping (unless I go VNC, but that’s a big hammer…)

I’ve talked about this before, though my environment now is a little different. (For one, I am now making basic use of GNU Screen for my terminal sessions.) Basically, I want an editor that works like all the other software I use all day, instead of making me remember an entirely different set of key bindings. Every extra bit of my limited wetware storage claimed by my tools detratcts from the stuff I really need to be thinking about. Comments? -m

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10 Replies to “Help me make Emacs Not Painful”

  1. You can do all those things via emacs.

    For familiar shortcuts, you can setup with the key bindings you are familiar with.

    I havent had the need for sessions, so thats something someone else will probably chip in.

    When I was trying out emacs, what really bugged me was the fact that it wouldnt work like notepad. Shift – arrow keys et all. But one fine day, I discovered pc-selection-mode.

    Just type, M-x pc-selection-mode. And you have a notepad like editor.

  2. > I want to attach in from a remote computer (on a different OS) and have the same experience, same files already open, and so on.

    This is contingent on you running X11, but:

    M-x make-frame-on-display RET

    will allow one emacs process to span X displays.

  3. some of this is possible; some is not.

    the keybindings? forget it. emacs Don’t Work That Way. if that’s your main criterion for editors, just use BBedit or Alpha or something.

  4. Look at multi-tty-emacs for reusing one long running emacs process. And for bonus, it also allows you to open tty sessions (for times when you just have a ssh tty). But multi-tty is (so far) unix only.IHMO all these things are possible, they are just not point-click-and-select checkbox enabled. One thing that *will* look bad is fonts on X11, since Xft support is not yet in. There *is* a Xft branch, but lord knows when some work would actually get done.

    For more info (including all these things) see

    For interactive real time help, I’ve yet to find anything better that #emacs on Come on there, we all are pretty helpful people :)

  5. Key bindings are easy. Errr… put things like this in your .emacs file:

    (global-set-key “\C-xg” ‘goto-line)

    Plus in theory you can write anything you want yourself in LISP :)

  6. With regards to keybindings, emacs most certainly does “work that way”. You can redefine all the keybindings you want. I don’t know that I would recommend it, but with a little effort you can do all of these. The hard part would be deciding what to do with all the old keybindings you just displaced.

  7. Micah,
    Try XEmacs for Windows. It does most of what you want with tabs and stuff. Most of the other stuff is straightforward customization.
    Let’s have lunch sometime and get you all set up.

    Leigh (who has been using Emacs since before most of its current users were born).

  8. I am sorry to say that Emacs will never be not painful. If you seek a reduction in pain, look elsewhere. I have been using it daily since the early 90s and still find it obtuse.

    Reasons to use it anyway:
    – Insanely reliable, fast and portable.
    – The trouble you take to learn Emacs keystrokes will pay off forever, since
    Emacs will always be around. That’s not so for jEdit.


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