Emacs is Cheesy, and That’s a Good Thing

Table of Contents

1 Emacs is Totally Cheesy

1.1 Well, Just Look at It

Come on, really. Just look at Emacs. Can you really tell me that is has a `modern’ look and feel?

Even if you’re the greatest Emacs fan ever, even if you use Emacs in one of its (sort-of) GUI incarnations, you’re going to tell me that it has a nice look and feel?

Windows 3.1 probably looked just as good, maybe better. Heck, a lot of old MS-DOS stuff looked about the same, taking into account the lower resolution monitors of the time.

Of course, if you’re an Emacs fan, you don’t care. You don’t make wild claims— you just don’t care.

Yes, Emacs looks cheesy. I stipulate that. I accept that. And as you’ll see, I embrace that.

1.2 Graphics? You Call That Graphics?

Emacs can show in-line graphics. It’s a bit clumsy but it works.

Come on, you call that graphics? It amounts to pictures stuffed in-between layers of text. There’s no formatting to speak of. A W*rd document looks a lot better (’fess up to it, it’s the truth).

Emacs gives you a text environment. Not even a fancy-looking one; see the point above.

1.3 Menus and Mouses and Such

Depending on how you have Emacs set up, there’s a menu across the top. Maybe there are even some buttons, with graphics that were modern in about 1985 (maybe). Click on a menu and you get a drop down of options, a couple of which make sense to an Emacs newbie, and most of which might as well be written in Heptapod B.

Yes, you can use your mouse to click on these. You can use your mouse to do some operations on all that lovely, cheesy text. Of course, the operations won’t work the way you expect, because in the end Emacs reflects its keyboard-driven heritage, and mousing is kind of an afterthought. A cheesy one, just like the menus are cheesy.

Now, maybe you’re going to tell me that there are some slicker graphical interfaces for Emacs. Yes, there are. They possibly come up to Windows 3.1 standards, though surely short of Windows 95. The functionality, though, is about the same, that is, cheesy.

1.4 Working in Plain Text

In Emacs, that’s pretty much what you do. You work in plain text. Oh, there’s some colors and whatnot, and if you know how you can get bold and italics and underlining. But you work in plain text. There are different fonts but typically you don’t do much or anything with them, at least not often.

Text, text, and more text. You type. You use the keyboard. What you see is mostly what you get and that isn’t much. Face it. This is an old paradigm, an older way of working. It isn’t modern or hip, and it isn’t even the kind of retro that appeals to hipsters, who would never put up with the plainness of it all in any case. To them, it would be— wait for it— cheesy.

1.5 It’s Hard

This perhaps is not a cheese factor, but learning Emacs is hard. It takes, you know, work. Thought. Persistence. Desire. All those things that aren’t remotely easy. You can learn to use Notepad in minutes if not seconds. You can learn to use W*rd in a couple of hours, probably, although becoming an expert takes much longer.

Emacs? Hours or days to get started. Days or weeks to get familiar. Months or years to become a truly proficient user. Multiple years to become a real guru— I’ve been an Emacser for 35 years and learn new things all the time.

Perhaps the analogy would be “well-aged cheese.”

2 So Why Is All of This Good?

2.1 The Power of Plain Text

Plain text is good precisely because it’s plain, and because it’s nothing but text. I’ll explain.

All you have are the words, the content, the meaning. You’re not cluttering your thinking with questions like “what font should I use” or “what color should this be” or even mostly “do I need italics or bold” (though there could be a little of that). No: you’re concentrating on content, on meaning, on the point you’re trying to make.

Maybe you’re using an outlining mode, like org-mode, to help structure or re-structure your thoughts and ideas. That’s great, because it contributes rather than gets in the way. Spending a while choosing one among hundreds of fonts doesn’t contribute, takes up time, and distracts you from your task, which is getting down the words and sentences and paragraphs that express whatever you need to express, whether it’s the great American novel, a homework essay on anthropology, or a love letter to your significant other.

2.2 When It’s Good, It’s Amazing

Emacs is incredibly powerful. The classic exchange goes something like, “Can you do that in Emacs?” “Of course you can, what was it again that you wanted to do?” But it’s true. You can do just about anything in Emacs (maybe not wash the dishes, but you know what I mean.)

As mentioned above, it takes time and effort to get to where you too can do almost anything. But when you get there, it’s amazing. You’ll wonder how you ever got by without Emacs, and you’ll know that from then on you won’t be able to live without it.

Sometimes I laugh, especially when I hear people say they need Outlook or Exchange because the open source alternatives just won’t do all the things they need. Then I hear what they’re doing, and know that Emacs does all of what they’re talking about and a zillion more things that they never even dreamed were possible. (What, you didn’t know that Emacs does email and contact management and schedule management? Where have you been?)

2.3 Brainstorming, Outlining, Creating Structure

So this is where the some of the real payback lies.

There is every sort of tool out there for taking notes, capturing ideas, outlining, making mind maps, evaluating alternatives, and on and on — it would take tens of thousands of words to even try to make a summary listing. Some of these things are really good, some, are okay, some aren’t worth the bother, and some are harmful (I’m thinking of software that supposedly helps you come up with a plot for your novel or story).

But mostly, all you need is Emacs.

The thing is, there’s no magic sauce, and anyone who claims to offer one is blowing smoke at best. There’s no tool that will ensure that your ideas are brilliant and original, your concepts are ordered and organized. Tools are — tools. They are not in and of themselves brainpower and creativity. Things aren’t so simple; creativity isn’t creative because it can be reduced to algorithms and mechanics.

But, using Emacs org-mode and the power of cheesy text, you can do very effective brainstorming. You still have to do all the work, but the tool is an aid in facilitating that work.

It kind of goes like this. You want to work on an idea. So open a buffer (preferably in org-mode) and start typing.

* Great American Novel
** should be patriotic
** hero could be an Iraq II vet
** lots of action
** terrorist nuke plot somewhere in there

Okay, that’s a start. Now maybe add some stuff as you continue thinking.

* Great American Novel
** should be patriotic
** hero could be an Iraq II vet
*** he was a hero but became disillusioned?
*** tough re-entry, divorce, etc.
*** something pulls him back?
*** he's the best at something?
** lots of action
** terrorist nuke plot somewhere in there
*** bad guys are arabs or russians? Maybe Koreans!

Note: no bother about grammar, complete sentences, capital letters, etc. Just keep typing as you think of things. Observe that in just a few minutes, we already have a basic concept for our story.

Keep brainstorming. After a while, start to consolidate, eliminate, re-order. The tool helps you do all that, of course, but that’s not particularly the point. As I said the tool is an aid, not an end in itself.

Maybe we end up, after half an hour or so, with something like this.

* Great American Novel
** The hero
*** a patriot at heart
*** an Iraq II vet
*** he was a hero but became disillusioned by death
*** had a tough re-entry to civilian life
**** drinking led to divorce
**** trouble finding a good job
*** but he saw his country in crisis
**** he knew he had the skills to help
***** had counter-terror training
***** ran many missions
**** he stepped up and volunteered
***** an old friend in the service took him on
** terrorist nuke plot
*** the Koreans plot to destroy New York
**** They have a suitcase bomb

etc. etc.

You’ve already got enough to continue laying out your plot and characters in detail.

Now, maybe take it a step further. Org-mode offers tables. They’re cheesy, text mode tables. But they work. Let’s say you’ve now developed your story in some detail. Maybe you want to make a table of characters, for easy reference.

| Character   | Role          | Description                                                       |
| Joe Jones   | Hero          | Big guy, kind of worn looking, but with an inner core of goodness |
| Sally Smith | Love interest | Dark haired, petite, but strong willed                            |
| Kim Krazy   | Villain       | Leader of NYC terrorist cell, he's squat, bald, and heavy         |

This table was created with a single command, org-table-create, entering a size (3x4 but easily expanded), and then just plain old typing in the information. The table adjusts, aligns, and grows as necessary with a minimum of keystrokes. (Yes, you have to learn how to do this. See above.)

Do you need Emacs (and org-mode) to do this? No. But it’s much easier and faster. The tool smooths the path. You get the advantage of working in pure text, no mouse, just typing, nothing in your way, nothing impeding the flow of ideas. Of course, as I said above, you still do all the work; there’s no other way.

(I do want to mention a useful document: Neil Larson, author of the outliner “MaxThink” gave permission for an old manual to be posted online, and one of his customers did so.


This book, over 20 years old now, contains a wealth of information. Of course, it’s for his product, but you can do almost everything he talks about in Emacs.)

Author: Bob Newell

Email: bobnewell@bobnewell.net

Created: 2018-03-07 Wed 14:02