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My quest for the right $EDITOR

Five years ago I was already into Ruby on Rails, and I was envy of Mac users because of TextMate. I watched every new Railscasts episode each week, religiously, and I envied Ryan Bates using that awesome editor that made things so easy. I mostly used Linux back then, and there were alternatives like gedit, but they were not the same.

I've been always aware of the Emacs and Vim hegemony among Unix dwellers, but I crashed into a wall every time I tried to crack a dent into any of those two. I had a slightly longer attempt on Emacs back in '08, but it did not end well.

In 2009 I finally managed to get my hands on a MacBook, and Mac OS X was everything I thought it to be, and more. And among all its goodies, I finally had TextMate to soothe that envy. I finally had a reach for those nifty little features, such as snippets, language bundles, and the wonderful ⌘T for quickly fuzzy-finding any file in the project, and opening it. It was paradise.

Breaking the ice

Last year though, I got the opportunity to work with a great fellow programmer, and fellow countryman too, and his use of Vim made me envious. I actually never saw him doing much on Vim. It was just the fact that he had mastered it to a point where it was his preferred editor, that triggered back on me the craving for being able to use one of Unix two main editors.

This desire is not just a mere "being a more unix kind of guy", or "appearing more like a true hacker". There are advantages for going either down the Emacs or Vim roads when you work on Unix environments. The main one being that your editor can live in your terminal, meaning you can use it every time, even within an ssh session into another server. You can also use it on virtually any platform there is, something you can't do with TextMate, or even Sublime.

So, to make a long story short. I ended up really motivated to break that wall, run fiercely up that learning curve, and really get to know Vim as much as possible. After a couple of months I knew there was no going back. A month later, I was so much into it, that I finally decided to roll up my own dotfiles so that I can persist my customizations, and share them among all the command line terminals that I use.

In the process, as a by-product, I also ended up learning a great deal of stuff about other complementary tools commonly found in a Unix ecosystem, such as tmux, git, shell scripting, zsh, bash, etc. This made the journey even more worthwhile than just learning a new code editor.

In the end... well, the end hasn't arrived yet. And it probably never will. Vim provides an endless experience of learning. I've heard from seasoned users that are still learning new things about it after 15+ years of using it. But at least today, after six months into it, I do have the following line of code in my shell initialization files:

export EDITOR="vim"

And I do not expect it to change anytime soon ;)

Give it a try

So if...

  • you are in the software development business...
  • and you work most of the time in a unix-like environment...
  • and you're not yet using either Vim or Emacs...

then I encourage you to really give it a try to both, decide which one fits you best, and get to learn it enough. In the end, you might not decide to switch completely, you might prefer to stay in the comfort of Sublime or TextMate or whatever editor you use on a daily basis. But you might end up knowing a little bit more about your unix environment, and you'll end up gaining an editor to use in those remote ssh sessions where those other editors are not to be found.

In case you go for Emacs, that's perfectly fine. I think there's enough room in this world for both editors. It's perhaps even more customizable than Vim, in the sense that it goes beyond being a mere editor, and people have even made mail and chat clients out of it, and surely a lot more. You'll be amazed.

In case you go for Vim, it's more focused than Emacs in being just a text editor, and nothing else. But it rocks at it! It's less intuitive than anything you've used, in the sense that it uses the revolutionary concept of different editing modes. Don't let this feature scare you. It's much more useful than you might think at first, and will change the way you look at code and work with it.

In case you go for Vim, here's a minimal set of instructions to get started:

  • Make sure you have a recent version of Vim installed on your system.
  • Open your terminal and run the vimtutor command.
  • Make your way through the tutorial.

Here are some online resources I think you'll find useful too: