Is Emacs Intimidating for Beginners?

Is Emacs hard / intimidating to learn?

Let’s discuss the various barriers to learning Emacs. I want to hear from all of you on this topic!

DISCLAIMER: The content below is a set of experiences viewers shared while discussing this topic on stream. All of the things stated below are opinions and not meant to be taken as fact! The goal was to gather information on the various ways people have trouble learning Emacs so that educational gaps might be filled both by Emacs’ documentation and the community.

What were the things that made Emacs hard to learn or get started?

  • Scary for the first few days at least, don’t know where to start
  • Remembering keyboard shortcuts, especially if English is a second language
  • Lack of stable basis for configurations, i.e. a good starting point as opposed to nothing
  • The user manual is “garbage”
  • Learning a new programming language for configuration (Emacs Lisp)
  • Concerns about RSI from the key bindings
  • Figuring out your key binding strategy for customization
  • Not knowing how to do certain operations because things are named differently or have nonstandard key bindings
  • Takes a long time to get comfortable and experienced with making your own configuration
  • Community packages can be hard to learn due to documentation, etc
  • The Emacs interaction model isn’t clear from the beginning
  • Being told to RTFM when asking legitimate questions
  • Not enough content to get started with Emacs Lisp, difficult to grasp at first
  • Key bindings are too complex, too many keystrokes
  • If you’re familiar with vim, evil-mode isn’t really compatible enough
  • Antiquated/arcane default configuration (probably from terminal days)
  • Emacs sometimes can feel less responsive than other editors
  • Knowing that it will be a time sink
  • Many community packages that do similar things, hard to know which one to use, decision fatigue, motivation killer
  • Hard to start using it at work because it takes a lot of time to set up a config to be productive, especially compared to other IDEs
  • Knowing how to get better performance out of Emacs
  • Finding content for learning
  • Major and minor modes are hard to understand at first
  • Not enough interactive learning tools

What’s the one thing someone could have told you to save you a lot of time and/or trouble?

  • Basic navigation guide on the keybindings
  • How to organize config files when starting your first init.el
  • Specific resources like Mastering Emacs
  • That there is a built-in tutorial
  • A better initial overview of Emacs Lisp, including things like quoting
  • How to easily find documentation for concepts, especially describe-function describe-variable, describe-key, the manual, etc
  • Understanding the general Emacs window management workflow
  • How to configure some of the more powerful packages like Projectile, Helm/Ivy, etc
  • Explaining the unfamiliar Emacs terminology
  • Install which-key
  • Encouragement and instruction to get more comfortable with Emacs Lisp for configuration
  • Knowing that you can chain keybindings by holding Ctrl, etc, and also that Emacs will wait for the next key in a sequence
  • Focus more on aliens concepts first, keybindings second
  • Encouragement that Emacs isn’t too old to use
  • Dispel the myth that Emacs will cause RSI (change config, key mappings, etc)
  • Understanding commands and M-x from the beginning

My own experience

I’ve come in contact with Emacs a few times over the years before I really started to learn and understand it.

  • University
  • Lisp in a Box
  • Trying again, learning about customization
  • Really investing in making Emacs a full environment

What made you stick with Emacs?

Despite the difficulty, what was it that made you keep trying to learn it?

  • Being able to configure it how I want
  • Being able to do “everything” inside of Emacs
  • Looking cool
  • Instant gratification programming
  • The feeling that it can evolve with my needs
  • Understanding what Emacs is really capable of even on the terminal
  • Org Mode for writing
  • The community
  • Nostalgia
  • LaTeX, other languages
  • The feeling of getting something in your config to work
  • Using Org Mode mode for time tracking
  • Writing documentation in Org Mode
  • Great packages like Org Mode, Magit, etc
  • Having evil-mode available as a former Vim user
  • Being able to curate my experience in a way that no other program allows
  • Convinced Emacs has long-term positive effects
  • Less context switching

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