Learning Org Mode

Since hearing about org-mode on the web many years ago, I always meant to give it a spin. I only ever found one two problems:

  1. Time - Life eh?

  2. It's a mode of Emacs for which I'd also have to learn (again time)

So I recently set about solving both shortcomings, as painful as it was to dismiss all the effort I put in to my vim muscle memory over the years. The tough part usually is finding good documentation that is both easy to read and follow.

So what is org-mode?

To put it simply, Org-mode is an editing mode of Emacs, which allows you to write plain text TODO lists. But it is also a lot more. You can:

  • Use plain text tables

  • Run snippets of code (and edit them in their own file with proper formatting)

  • Use plain text spreadsheets

  • Export to many, many formats (Latex, PDF, HTML) or a custom format

  • Agenda mode for many ways to look at your TODOs

This all sounds complicated, but the beautiful thing about org-mode is that it gradually reveals the features it has. You can only ever write a simple list like this if you want:

* My First org mode outline
** TODO Must read the org manual

and that's it. Really. You don't need to use any of the other features if you don't want to. This is also a reason that it was a joy to learn: it never pushes unnecessary complication on the user. I wish I could say the same for Emacs! Although to be fair, Emacs is probably easier then Vim to get started in.

## Combining Emacs + Org: Literate Programming

So this was the fun part: how can I combine learning Emacs and Org? It turns out, I can create my whole Emacs configuration file in org-mode, and it will convert it Emacs Lisp. This is brilliant because in org-mode, we can annotate and explain everything. Take a look at this:

* Packages
  Let's fetch Emacs packages from the Melpa mirror:
   #+BEGIN_SRC emacs-lisp
   (add-to-list 'package-archives '("melpa" . "https://melpa.org/packages/"))

This is fully self documented code (some argue Lisp is this by nature also). This is nicely rendered on Github, see these two examples to see what I mean. The pertinent advice here is: start with a minimal configuration and only ever add things you understand. I followed exactly this advice, and those two files were brilliant references. I would find an annoyance in Emacs, and one of those two org files would have something in Emacs to fix customise the issue I had.

If you would like to see more, my dotfiles (with my Emacs config are available also.