The Cadence and Flow of Editing Programs

I figured out why my trists with other editors often end up back at TextMate. It sounds a bit like this:

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap; TAP; tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap; TAP; TAP; tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap; TAP.

When I’ve used vi and its descendants, it sounds like this:

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap; taptaptap; tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap; tapTAP TAP! tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. tapTAPTAPtapTAP TAP!

And Emacs sounds like this:

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap; tapTAPtapTAP. tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap;tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap;tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap; tapTAP TAP; TAP TAPtapTAPtapTAPTAP. tapTAPtapTAP!

Lest you fear I’ve created some Ook-like language for describing shortcuts in any known editor, let me explain what’s going on here.


Emacs is, at it’s core, a Lisp machine with a text editing language wrapped around it. Every interaction with Emacs invokes a function. Handily enough, the function that adds an “a” to the file you’re editing is bound to the a key on your keyboard. Oddly enough, the function that writes the file you’re editing out to disk is bound to the combination of hitting control and x at the same time, followed by control and s at the same time. Getting them out of order matters. Control-s followed by Control-x does something entirely different.

So when you use Emacs, you type a bit, and then you run some command. Maybe you save the file, or switch to editing another file, or go to peruse a directory. So you tap for a while and then you stop tapping, move your hands every so slightly to mash the control, or alt keys and then tap some other key, usually emphatically. The most commonly used key combinations end up being hit even more emphatically. Sit in a room full of developers using Emacs, listen closely; every once in a while, you’ll here everyone save almost simultaneously and go back to a furry of lower-case tapping.

Vi is slightly different from Emacs in that it is built up from two Unix commands: one for editing single lines of text, and another for moving between said lines of text. Thus, the cadence of a vi user is slightly different. Staccato taps followed by a bang as they switch from line editing to line navigation; more staccato taps, this time oddly spaced as they move between lines and place the cursor to begin their next fury of editing; another burst of staccato text entry; a quick and emphatic tap to take them out of editing mode and then a quick but punctuated trio of taps as they invoke the command that saves the file out, a sequence of finger movements so ingrained in the vi users brain that it appears as more of a gesture than a triplet of discrete key presses.

Here’s a project idea for pranksters: stand in a room full of people using vi and Emacs, listen for the really emphatic taps, and trip the room’s breaker right before they all finish their emphatic save commands. Cackle as chaos ensues.

The space between the taps

A roomful of vi-users, Emacs-users, and TextMate users is a homogeneous mess of clackity-clackity to the untrained ear. Most accomplished programmers are touch typists, so what you’re likely to hear is an undifferentiated stream of rapid-fire tapping. But if you’ve used these editors enough, and wasted enough time thinking about the aesthetics they represent, you can hear the differences in the punctuation as commands are invoked by arcane combinations and sequences of keystrokes.

In Vi and Emacs, there is a concise sequence of keys you can mash to do a regular expression search, move down three lines, go to the second sentence on that line, and replace the word under the cursor with “bad-ass text editing programmer, do not offend”. It is, in part, this power that attracts, fascinates, and empowers their users.

TextMate can do this, sure. But there is very little in the way of support from the editor to do it. You mostly have to put your eye on the piece of text you wish to edit and use some primitive motion keystrokes to get the cursor where you want it. Then you use those same keystrokes to highlight the text to replace, this time holding down a modifier key, then you type in the text you want. TextMate, compared to its programmers editor brethren, is a language of grunts and chuffs next to the sophisticated Latin or French of vi and Emacs.


TextMate is unsophisticated next to the extensibility and conceptual unity of Emacs, or the pure practicality of vim. So why do I keep coming back to it?

It keeps me in flow.

This is a very personal answer. I’m not saying you can’t achieve a flow-state with vi or Emacs. I’m saying that while I like the idea of those editors, understand the aesthetic, and enjoy watching skilled operators using them, I get lost in the punctuation when I use them. I either forget what punctuation I should use in some text editing scenario, or I have a nagging doubt that there is some better punctuation I could be using instead.

If vi is about navigating lines and editing those lines; Emacs is about invoking Lisp functions on files containing text, then TextMate is about primitive but direct manipulation of the text in a file. There’s very little conceptual overhead. You don’t need to know how the editor is enhanced in order to understand how to operate it. You don’t need to know when to put yourself in different modes of operation to make things happen. You just think of what you want the text to look like, you move the cursor around and you type on the keyboard.

It ain’t much, but I (often) call it home.

Adam Keys @therealadam