Emacs - Beginner Configuration

Emacs for Beginner



Unlike VSCode which is easy to get started, Emacs requires customization using elisp in order to be useful and effective for use. There are distributions like Spacemacs or Doom Emacs which make it easy to get started using Emacs. However I suggest you start by understanding some basics of Emacs Lisp, and try to configure your own Emacs dotfiles. Without understanding the basics you are going to encounter issues when you want to customize Emacs further.

With the fundamentals, you can then decide if you want to develop your own dotfiles or use Emacs distributions like Spacemacs or Doom Emacs.

The Basics

Emacs Screen

Emacs Screen

Above is a screenshot of Emacs out of the box

  • Frame is highlighted in RED rectangle.
  • Menu bar is highlighted in BLUE rectangle.
  • Tool bar is highlighted in GREEN rectangle.
  • Window is highlighted in MAGENTA rectangle.
  • On the left of the window highlighted in BROWN is the window fringe.
  • Mode line is highlighted in YELLOW rectangle.
  • Echo area is highlighted in BLACK rectangle (at the bottom of the screen).

Emacs Initialization File

Dotfiles Structure

(add-to-list 'load-path (concat user-emacs-directory "elisp"))(require 'base)(require 'theme)....
Folder Structure

Base Configuration

  • For better viewing, I set the default font size to be 160.
  • I defined a variable for the custom file, and load the custom file when Emacs starts. This is required to prevent Emacs from writing any customizations to myinit.el.
  • Add and refresh MELPA (Milkypostman’s Emacs Lisp Package Archive) using package.el to enable installation of MELPA packages.
  • Install use-package if it is not installed. I am going to use it to isolate package installation and configuration.
  • I specify make-backup-files to be false. A backup file is a copy of the old contents of a file you are editing.
  • For line numbers display, I set it to relative.
  • I set use-package-always-ensure to true so that use-package automatically install the package if not present.
  • global-auto-revert-mode is set to true to automatically reload the file if it gets updated by another program.
  • global-display-line-numbers-mode displays line numbers for all buffers.
  • show-paren-mode allows me to see matching parentheses. A great help for checking Lisp syntax.
  • I load the custom-file if it has been created by Emacs.
  • Add a hook to remove trailing white spaces before saving the file.

You can further customize the base configurations as you like, e.g. you may want to skip the startup up screen, remove the tool bar, menu bar, scroll bar, etc.


  • Create a file called theme.el under elisp folder.
  • Use use-package to install the spacemacs-theme. Defer loading is set to true (other package causes it to load). :init keyword is used to execute code before a package is loaded.
(use-package spacemacs-theme
:defer t
(load-theme 'spacemacs-dark t))
(provide 'theme)

In init.el I load the theme after the base configuration.

;; elisp files
(add-to-list 'load-path (concat user-emacs-directory "elisp"))
;; Base configuration
(require 'base)
;; Theme
(require 'theme)

Start Emacs and I can see the theme loaded now.

Emacs with Spacemacs Theme

Evil Mode

  • Create a file called vim.el under elisp folder.
(use-package evil
(setq evil-vsplit-window-right t)
(setq evil-split-window-below t)
(setq evil-want-C-u-scroll t)
(setq evil-want-C-i-jump nil)
(evil-mode 1))
(provide 'vim)

Load this file in init.el

;; elisp files
(add-to-list 'load-path (concat user-emacs-directory "elisp"))
;; Base configuration
(require 'base)
;; Theme
(require 'theme)
;; Evil mode
(require 'vim)

You can switch between Vim and Emacs mode using C-z.


Create a file called completion.el under elisp folder

ivy, counsel

(use-package ivy
("C-x s" . swiper)
("C-x C-r" . ivy-resume)
(ivy-mode 1)
(setq ivy-use-virtual-buffers nil)
(define-key read-expression-map (kbd "C-r") 'counsel-expression-history))
(use-package counsel
("M-x" . counsel-M-x)
("C-x C-m" . counsel-M-x)
("C-x C-f" . counsel-find-file)
("C-x c k" . counsel-yank-pop))

Press M-x and I can see it is using counsel now.

counsel M-x

There are many more counsel functions that you can use. You can further define the key mappings to use counsel functions.


Add the following lines to completion.el

(use-package company
(add-hook 'after-init-hook 'global-company-mode))

Start Emacs and I can see the completion menu as I type.

Emacs company mode


Add the following lines to completion.el

(use-package which-key
:defer 0
:diminish which-key-mode
(setq which-key-idle-delay 1))

Now in Emacs whenever you press a key combination, it will show available key mappings for you. E.g. when I press C-x

Emacs which-key

Project Interaction

Create a file called workspace.el under elisp folder.

(use-package projectile
:diminish projectile-mode
(setq projectile-completion-system 'ivy)
("C-c p" . projectile-command-map)
(setq projectile-project-search-path '("~/workspace/development/"))
(setq projectile-switch-project-action #'projectile-dired))
(use-package counsel-projectile
:after projectile
("C-SPC" . counsel-projectile-switch-project)
(provide 'workspace)

I configured the folder to search for projects. Start Emacs and now I can easily switch between projects.

I configured all the projectile commands to start with C-c p .

Projectile Commands

To switch projects, type Control-Space (C-SPC).

Switch Project using Projectile

Startup Screen

Create a file called splash.el under elisp folder.

;; Dependencies
(use-package page-break-lines)
(use-package all-the-icons)
(use-package dashboard
(setq show-week-agenda-p t)
(setq dashboard-items '((recents . 15) (agenda . 5)))
(setq dashboard-set-heading-icons t)
(setq dashboard-set-file-icons t)
(setq dashboard-startup-banner 3)
(provide 'splash)

Start Emacs and the dashboard should be shown.

Startup Screen


Create a file called vcs.el under elisp folder.

(use-package magit
(setq magit-completing-read-function 'ivy-completing-read)
;; Magic
("C-x g s" . magit-status)
("C-x g x" . magit-checkout)
("C-x g c" . magit-commit)
("C-x g p" . magit-push)
("C-x g u" . magit-pull)
("C-x g e" . magit-ediff-resolve)
("C-x g r" . magit-rebase-interactive))
(use-package magit-popup)(provide 'vcs)

Start Emacs and press C-x g s to see the Git status.

Git Status using Magit


The dotfiles I used can be found at this repository.

Check out this article on how I configure LSP and DAP for Emacs based on this configuration.


Programmer and occasional blogger.

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