Emacs is not a great text editor, but a great operating system. However, that's most certainly not because it's easy to configure. Experienced users of emacs (like myself) begin to start viewing emacs as a way of life more than a piece of software. This is unsurprising. Emacs is tantalizing. It's simple because it focuses on working with plain text, it's complex because it's meant to be infinitely customisable. This translates to a lot of hours and effort to get set up the way you like in return for such a wonderful reward. Maybe emacs is more a drug and we're junkies? Not really a question, it's definitely true. This is how I make sure my habit doesn't get out of hand.

To be completely clear, the focus of this post is to go over the methods to configure emacs and not the configuration itself. Both these methods should produce self-documenting repositories.

Emacs bankrupt

According to EmacsWiki the term was coined by RyanMcGeary on 2007-10-07 [source].

I give up. During the past 6 years of my emacs career, my .emacs initialization file grew to embarrassing levels. As of this morning, it is well over 1000 lines and is a looming burden of disorganization. Start up time is poor, customizations exist for modes that I don’t use anymore (ahem, csharp-mode), and it has been this way for too long… – RyanMcGeary, 2007-10-07

This is a well understood phenomenon in the emacs community. If you want enjoy emacs to it's fullest, and you're not careful, this will happen to you. Emacs bankruptcy is so prevalent that it seems like a large portion of the emacs communities effort is put into creating tools and methods to avoid it.

I'm going to talk about two methods. The first is simplemacs - this was a learning exercise for me that I have turned into a beginner friendly starting point for friends. After I made, simplemacs I was confident enough to start exploring the much more full featured configuration platform, spacemacs.


GitHub: simplemacs

Emacs ships with many very useful packages to extend past the core lisp interpreter. My favourite of these is called org-mode and it provides a solution to emacs bankruptcy.

Org mode includes org-babel. Org babel turns our plain text .org files into a multi-language Jupyter notebook. The inbuilt function org-babel-load-file, takes an org file and exports all the emacs-lisp source code blocks into an .el file and runs it. This allows us to write our emacs configuration in a collection of rich org files that are then babel-loaded.

I like this setup, mastering the practice of it provides a great return on investment: you will learn literate programming, how to keep good notes, how to store that collection of notes in a useful way. This is what I tried to achieve with simplemacs. As stated in the repositories README:

Simplemacs is the configuration you give your keen newbie hacker friend when introducing them the wonderful world of emacs.

Simplemacs is the configuration you use when you just want to GTD.

Ugh, yet another emacs configuration I hear you say, and yes I can't deny that. Let me place this one relative to others with a table:

Table 1: Where simplemacs sits relative to other emacs configurations
  Small / Simple Large / Complex
Neat simplemacs oh-my-emacs, spacemacs
Messy old mate's dotfiles .emacs bankrupt

It's basically old mate's dotfiles, where old mate is obsessive about neat code, loves org-mode, and minimalism. The entire repository should be self documenting, and concise. Have a browse!

Mastering a setup like Simplemacs you receive your Bachelor of Emacs Configuration with first class honours. It's time to enter the real world.


On the surface spacemacs is a hard sell of vim like bindings in emacs, this doesn't do the platform justice. Spacemacs provides a great out-of-the-box experience of emacs, and as with all the best open-source projects, it is community-driven. To foster a community-driven project requires an easy way to contribute. This means you need to create a way for people to cleanly add configuration on top of spacemacs. Configuration layers were born.

Configuration layers as myOS machines

GitHub: myOS-emacs

Recall that myos posts are a documentation of the development process described in my first post in the series. Because I evolve (especially during this process) so does myOS. The latest officially accepted revision can be found on the myOS page.

In this context, you can use configuration layers are very powerful and you can use them to create myOS / emacs machines quite elegantly. Emacs is a monster system that can be configured to complete lots of different tasks.

Table 2: Using a personal configuration layer to create an abstract machine myOS-emacs-base-machine that completes tasks from system myOS / emacs.
Writing Task System Machine Result Backend Configuration
Check spelling myOS / emacs myOS-spacemacs-base Underline spelling mistakes spacemacs-spell-checking myOS-emacs

In Table 2 I define a personal configuration layer as a machine myOS-emacs-base-machine that relies on the spacemacs spell checking layer, also a machine. This lets me complete spell checking tasks in emacs.

Personal Information Management in Emacs

GitHub: myOS-spacemacs-pim

I have also got a much more sophisticated machine to complete personal information management (PIM) tasks within emacs. This includes viewing and composing emails as eluded to in my first post about myOS / email. Since that post I have included the idea of a machine and the task completion strategy is described in Table 3.

Table 3: Using the myOS-spacemacs-pim layer as a machine to complete tasks from system myOS / email in myOS / emacs.
Email Task System Machine Result Backend Configuration
Viewing emails myOS / email in myOS / emacs myOS-spacemacs-pim Display emails notmuch-emacs myOS-spacemacs-pim
Composing emails myOS / email in myOS / emacs myOS-spacemacs-pim Create a new email document notmuch-emacs myOS-spacemacs-pim

The myOS-spacemacs-pim layer I have written also helps me complete the task of writing these blog posts.

Table 4: Using the myOS-spacemacs-pim layer as a machine to complete tasks tasks from system myOS / blog.
Blog Task System Machine Result Backend Configuration
New blog post myOS / blog in myOS / emacs myOS-spacemacs-pim Create new blog post document org-octopress myOS-spacemacs-pim
  myOS / blog in myOS / emacs myOS-spacemacs-pim Export post document for jekyll org-octopress myOS-spacemacs-pim

My myOS-spacemacs-pim configuration layer is my most relied on machine. I will be tweaking it constantly keep an eye on the github repository.

Installing and using my configuration

I believe the README of the configuration, and the code itself should be enough for you to get started. If not or you have suggestions for the README on the myOS-emacs GitHub – please let me know with an issue on the repository page.

How do you set up your emacs? Do you think you will consider using simplemacs or spacemacs layers? Have any questions about how I set up my spacemacs layers? Leave a comment below.