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Emacs Config From Scratch, Part Two: Projects and Keybindings

This is the second post in my Emacs From Scratch series.

In Part 1, we’ve set up the UI and evil mode. Today we’ll set up a way to manage projects, quickly find files, set up custom keybindings, interact with Git and open a terminal inside Emacs.

Table of Contents

Project manager

Vim is usually terminal-first; you navigate to a directory and open Vim. Emacs is the other way around; you start Emacs, open a project and maybe a terminal buffer (see Terminal further down).

Let’s set up Projectile to manage our projects and quickly find files.

(use-package projectile
  (projectile-mode +1))

You can now run M-x (a.k.a. Opt-x on macOS) and type projectile-add-known-project to add a project as well as projectile-switch-project to open a project.

This is neither fast, nor discoverable. Let’s set up some custom keybindings.

Custom keybindings

Before we define our own keybindings, we need to do something to improve discoverability. which-key will show available commands as you start a keybinding sequence:

(use-package which-key
  (setq which-key-idle-delay 0.5) ; Open after .5s instead of 1s

We’ll use general.el because it makes it super easy to define keybindings and allows us to define them in a use-package function.

We’ll have SPC as our leader key, which allows us to press SPC and have all our custom keybindings show up.

(use-package general

  (general-create-definer leader-keys
    :states '(normal insert visual emacs)
    :keymaps 'override
    :prefix "SPC"
    :global-prefix "C-SPC")

    "x" '(execute-extended-command :which-key "execute command")
    "r" '(restart-emacs :whick-key "restart emacs")
    "i" '((lambda () (interactive) (find-file user-init-file)) :which-key "open init file")

    ;; Buffer
    "b" '(:ignore t :which-key "buffer")
    ;; Don't show an error because SPC b ESC is undefined, just abort
    "b <escape>" '(keyboard-escape-quit :which-key t)
    "bd"  'kill-current-buffer

We’re using :which-key to add a description that will show up next to the command. To add custom keybindings to Projectile, we need to edit the use-package definition and move it after the use-package general function:

(use-package projectile
    :states 'normal
    "SPC" '(projectile-find-file :which-key "find file")

    ;; Buffers
    "b b" '(projectile-switch-to-buffer :which-key "switch buffer")

    ;; Projects
    "p" '(:ignore t :which-key "projects")
    "p <escape>" '(keyboard-escape-quit :which-key t)
    "p p" '(projectile-switch-project :which-key "switch project")
    "p a" '(projectile-add-known-project :which-key "add project")
    "p r" '(projectile-remove-known-project :which-key "remove project"))
  (projectile-mode +1))

Now we can press SPC and get suggestions that we can navigate along. SPC SPC lets you open a file in the current project (or a project if none is open), SPC b opens buffer options, SPC p project options, etc.

This is what it looks like:

And Emacs window with a drawer open showing different shortcuts, e.g. SPC → find file, r → +buffer et al

But when you try to find a file, or add a project, you’ll notice that this is clunky as you need to type the exact path for it to work. Let’s fix that.

Fuzzy finding

We’ll be using ivy as our generic completion frontend. This will make choosing files and projects a lot more ergonomic:

(use-package ivy

Now we get a list of possible entries and live-search.

Git integration

To manage source control, we’ll use Magit, which is–rightfully–widely considered to be the best Git client ever:

(use-package magit
    "g" '(:ignore t :which-key "git")
    "g <escape>" '(keyboard-escape-quit :which-key t)
    "g g" '(magit-status :which-key "status")
    "g l" '(magit-log :which-key "log"))
    "<escape>" #'transient-quit-one))

To make Magit work nicely with Evil, let’s add evil-collection:

(use-package evil-collection
  :after evil

In addition we need to add this to the :init block of use-package evil to prevent evil and evil-collection interfering:

(setq evil-want-keybinding nil)

Now SPC g g will open up the current Git status. You can stage single files with s, all files with S and commit by pressing cc.

Finally, we want to highlight uncommited changes in the gutter:

(use-package diff-hl
  (add-hook 'magit-pre-refresh-hook 'diff-hl-magit-pre-refresh)
  (add-hook 'magit-post-refresh-hook 'diff-hl-magit-post-refresh)


Even though we’ll try to make everything work from inside Emacs, sometimes it’s just quicker and easier to have a shell.

We’ll use vterm as a terminal emulator we can use inside emacs.

(use-package vterm)

We’ll also install vterm-toggle, a package that allows us to toggle between the active buffer and a vterm buffer:

(use-package vterm-toggle
    "'" '(vterm-toggle :which-key "terminal")))

Pressing SPC ' will open a terminal. Pressing it again will hide it, but keep any processes running.

Small tweaks

As every time, we’ll do a few small tweaks:

Make Ctrl-u work like in Vim

Add the following to the :init block of use-package evil:

(setq evil-want-C-u-scroll t)

Comment lines

We want similar behaviour to commentary.vim and comment objects in/out with gc:

(use-package evil-nerd-commenter
    "gc" 'evilnc-comment-operator))

Optimizing the garbage collector

We’ll use GCMH, “the Garbage Collector Magic Hack”, to minimize GC interference with user activity:

(use-package gcmh
  (gcmh-mode 1))

Move this up to be the first package loaded after configuring use-package, to improve start-up time.

Don’t use ESC as a modifier

If you want to exit a menu, <escape> is the key of choice, esp. coming from Vim. Let’s match that behaviour:

(use-package emacs
	(global-set-key (kbd "<escape>") 'keyboard-escape-quit))


We now have everything we need to manage projects, navigate to files, run terminal commands and manage Git. Starting with this post, I’m using this very setup to edit this series.

In part 3, we’ll set up Tree-sitter and, if available, LSP for Rust, Go, TypeScript and Markdown.

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