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October 18, 2012

Commanding your text editor

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The process of writing code is much different from the process of editing code. It’s easy to confuse the two since they both involve mashing buttons on a keyboard while staring at a computer screen.

Vim users know this already. Their editor works in two completely different ways depending on whether they are adding new words to a document or changing existing words.

They also know that there’s more to text editing than moving around with the arrow keys and selecting one letter at a time. But you don’t have to memorize hundreds of commands. I think only these six will handle most of the editing that you’ll do every day.

  • Delete whole words (before and after the cursor)
  • Create a newline and put the cursor there (above or below)
  • Search in a file
  • Switch files
  • Indent code automatically
  • Use completion

1. Delete whole words

Steve Yegge writes that it’s much faster to delete an entire word and retype it than it is to navigate to and correct a single letter.

There’s not much else to say here: learn to delete the word before the cursor and the word after the cursor. You’ll immediately find yourself using it constantly throughout the day.

This one is even built in to Mac OS X, so it works in any text editing application (Sublime Text, Pages, TextMate).

Mac OS X

Delete next word:



Delete previous word:


Vim

Delete next word:


Delete previous word:


Emacs (and Terminal)

Delete next word:


Delete previous word:


2. Add Lines

The novice learns to make a newline by moving the cursor to the end of the line and hitting the ENTER key. Or a newline above by moving the cursor up one line, to the end of that line, hitting ENTER, then indent…shouldn’t this be easier?

The Pro can add a newline above or below from any point in the line. You don’t have to move your cursor at all.

Textmate

Newline below


Vim

Newline below

Newline above


Emacs

Newline up/down snippet

Sublime Text

Newline below


Newline above



Thanks to Joaquin Vicente

3. In-file Search

Search isn’t just for finding words. It’s an efficient way to navigate.

And live search is much faster than using a search dialog. Hit the hotkey and start typing the word. BAM! You’re there. It’s great for navigation instead of using the arrow keys to navigate within a file.

Emacs-style Ctrl-s is also available in TextMate.

Textmate

Live search


Vim

Live search

Hit n to repeat search.

Emacs

Search foward:


Search backward:


Sublime Text

Search forward:


Hit Cmd-i again to repeat search.

4. Fuzzy File Search

Programming happens in files, usually several. TextMate’s fuzzy file search revolutionized my use of my text editor. But it only searches filenames, not directory paths.

I think Sublime Text has the best built-in fuzzy file finder of any current text editor. It’s not initially clear that it does this, but it searches on paths as well as filenames. The search score on the left is completely useless to me, but the file and path are a huge improvement over TextMate.

TextMate

Search by filename


Vim

Search open buffers by filename

:b filename

Emacs

Search filenames (using textmate.el)


Sublime Text

Built-in fuzzy file search


5. Automatic Indentation

Now we’re getting into more advanced features, but still ones that I use constantly.

When using languages without syntactically significant whitespace (e.g. CoffeeScript), I let the editor do the formatting for me. It works 90% of the time, and for the other 10% I’d rather modify my code to work with the built-in formatting than do it manually.

Most developers would refuse to use a text editor without syntax highlighting. To me, auto-indentation is a show stopping feature.

Textmate

For some languages only



Vim

Select a range with V

Emacs

cleanup-buffer

Bound to C-c n

Sublime Text

Only available with language-specific plugins

6. Completion

Let’s admit it: the simple text-based auto-completion in open source text editors doesn’t come close to matching Microsoft Visual Studio from a decade ago.

I hope that a decade from now, I can use a text editor that understands not only the words I’m typing, but their meaning within the application. Without bogging down the rest of the editor or toasting my battery, of course!

In the meantime, I like the way Emacs completes words from all open buffers. TextMate and Sublime Text are limited to only words in the current file, which rarely includes the keywords or methods I’m looking for.

Textmate

For current file only

Vim

Next completion


Previous completion


Emacs

Using dabbrev-expand


Sublime Text

Current file only


SPACE

Conclusion

Learning these basic text manipulations has improved my editing speed. More importantly, I spend less time thinking about my text editor and more time thinking about the content of the text itself.

Try it! I bet you’ll use each of these multiple times in the first day you learn to do them.

Learn your editors at Pluralsight! Videos on Vim, Emacs, and TextMate.

See also: TextMate Shortcuts Cheatsheet

About the Author

is VP of Open Source at Pluralsight. He previously founded PeepCode and is an all around entrepreneur, developer, designer, teacher and athlete. Follow him on Twitter at @topfunky.


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