Why (non-techie) Emacs?

Non-technical people often pick up Emacs for the Org-mode. While it is popular for organizing TODOs, in my opinion it is even more powerful as a word tool.

People writing books often face interminable load times and freezing screens at page 100n. Org-mode has none of these problems. Moreover, the Emacs default interface is devoid of distracting icons; it is just the blank slate, a writer’s dream (or nightmare!)

It is enough to follow the Worg tutorial to get things running. But part of the appeal of Emacs is how it can be customized.

Customization is easy to begin

Many customizations can be initialized by copy-pasting code into the init file. An example of such code is that needed to use the MELPA repository, which hosts packages of pre-written code that enable users to do things like post directly to WP blogs from Emacs or bring the latest xkcd comic up on demand. There is even a package with a pomodoro alarm.

If you think that your init file will begin to get messy doing things this way, you are correct. I am one such user with a messy init – but it is not big enough yet to require tidying. Therefore, I would argue that it is possible to get going with Emacs and use it for so many things without having to worry about taking a more methodical approach. Stories abound of Emacs users who begin by making customization after customization – and only later tidy up their init. But by that time, users know more about code than at the beginning, and this task becomes more comprehensible. For non-experts, then, there is so much to be gained by simply beginning to use Emacs and learning on a needs-basis.

Helping us help ourselves to help each other get things done

There is pedagogical support for such a “project-based” (constructivist) approach. Suffice it to say that the father of constructivist teaching, John Dewey, saw the democratic importance of an education that requires ‘dialogue on the go’ as students learn not only to ‘get things done’ (to use the contemporary Allenian phrase) but also to learn how to work with each other. We need to help each other help ourselves activate our creative potential so that we can give back to society for the betterment of all (cf. Dewey 1946: 61). This of course connects nicely with the GNU vision of the relationship between free software and education. To quote Richard Stallman from the brief interview at that link:

Free Software [can] teach good citizenship, because schools have the mission to teach not only facts and technical skills, but above all the spirit of good will, the habit of helping others.

The non-technical user of free software like Emacs shares this obligation to help others. Basic ways of giving back include making donations and writing tutorials (especially for the post-beginner, non-expert stage). Hopefully your enjoyment of Emacs will inspire you to think of other ways to give back. But for now, aside from using Emacs for TODOs and as a more compatible word processor for larger documents, what else can it help you with?


People who enjoy taking notes might also enjoy how headings and subheadings are different colours, can be collapsed and expanded, and moved around like vertical puzzle pieces.

Personally, I combine my digital Org-mode notes with handwritten notes using an A-4 sketchpad where I work out/clarify ideas and make “master” notes with coloured sticky page markers/”flags” indicating key information, often referencing an Org-mode file and header.

Sustainable documentation

Emacs (and Org-mode) has been around for a long time. The text format can also be read by other readers. It is therefore a word editor of choice when thinking about ten years down the line.


Blog content can be saved safely offline. WP users who have lost content (not understanding that text must be saved separately) or bloggers escaping walled gardens will enjoy keeping blogs here.

And this content can be uploaded to blogs directly from Emacs! This is no secret to the technically-endowed.

But non-technical bloggers can also do this via Org-2-blog, which is even available through MELPA stable. It is such a great package.

PDF (and other) conversion/presentation

A simple LaTeX export allows conversion of notes into PDFs which is very handy when sharing notes.

LaTeX also allows the text to be formatted to be publisher-ready. Myriad other conversions are possible thanks to pandoc.

It is also possible to create presentations in Org-mode. Org-reveal is one way to do this that I really enjoy.

Resolves the nightmare of citations

I am so amazed by how easy it was to get going with org-ref. I have long been looking forward to automatizing the inclusion of references in papers and especially for my book. No more need to remember which paper a reference was in and copy-paste from the bibliography…

When I was looking into org-mode for this purpose, I was initially confused and overwhelmed by different people’s set-ups. I thought there would be a long learning curve and was prepared to spend months on this task. But simply installing and configuring org-ref, then listing sources in basic BibTex syntax (e.g.) in a references.bib file as instructed was enough to get going. I initially had problems because I didn’t realize I had a duplicate entry and misformatted another – but was assisted and amazed by the functionality of using org-ref to “clean” entries! Many thanks to John Kitchin (whose use of org in academe I admire) for this incredible tool.

Fun, and learning is fun

Emacs is so much fun to explore. It even contains an implementation of an xkcd reader. My favorite recent discovery was the Emacs edition of Brian Eno’s oblique strategies. For me, Org-mode was the gateway to Emacs, which I now view as more accessible.

For people who prefer to grow into (as opposed to out of) their tools, Emacs is a dream come true. In a world where so much is done digitally, there is pedagogical significance to having tools where user knowledge grows with the student. This is in fact the nature of learning, and should not be shirked from; rather, techniques in terms of how to safely approach depth should be learned.

Asking questions

To end on that last point (learning how to learn how to approach awesome depth), it is necessary to learn how to learn how to ask questions. Doing exhaustive internet searches before directing questions to others, and being polite while doing so, is the bare minimum. More complete instructions on how to ask questions can be found in the oft-cited How To Ask Questions The Smart Way. One of the difficulties in asking questions as a n00b, though, is that one does not know just how much one does not know: lack of knowledge can further lead to the XY problem. From my perspective as a teacher, I don’t see a systematic way to avoid this (and where this is not a problem, there is no real teaching). But I do have a tip that has helped me.

For Emacs questions, in addition to doing an internet search, also search the Emacs and Org-mode reddits using the most general search terms related to your problem. (Note: links are to old reddit.)

Additional resources

Below are resources that helped me with my own beginning or that are helping me now at my stage of learning. I welcome feedback and will try to respond to any questions if I know the answer.

Note that Sacha Chua’s blog is an invaluable resource

Emacs Org-mode for writing
The post that “sold” me on Emacs (vs. a tool like Scrivener that doesn’t work on Linux): Writing a technical book in Org-mode
Excellent list of Org tutorials: Org tutorials on the Worg

Emacs for citations
Org-ref’s github page with instructions
Using org-ref for citations and references
Using org-ref to keep your bibtex files in order
Finding similar bibtex entries
Org-mode annotated bibliography
Managing BibTeX files with Emacs
Writing an e-book in Org-mode with citations (reddit)

Emacs for fun and ?!
Sacha Chua and John Wiegley’s Emacs Conference 2013 keynote (github)
Another Sacha Chua resource: Livin’ La Vida Emacs
Bastien Guerry (the Org-father!)’s Org-mode features you may not know
reddit ‘you can do that in Emacs’ favorites

Emacs for teaching This (old but not dated) post demonstrates the level I hope to be at some day. I return to it often to gauge my progress: Carnegie Mellon’s Kitchin on what his department uses Org-mode for

Final note
I am interested in collaborating with other teachers using Emacs and other free software.

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