I’ve been using Vim as my editor for over ten years. That’s a long time to
build up settings and plugins, and generally get a lot of cruft into my
vimrc. These days, when I go in there, I don’t always remember what a
particular setting or plugin does or why I put it there, and I rarely look to
see if there are updated versions of anything.
So I thought it would be both advantageous and fun to clear out my settings and
start again: go Vim Zero, and build up from there. And it was fun! Here’s what
I came up with.
The first question was: what do I really want an editor to do? I use Vim for
writing and for coding. The former is nearly always in markdown, generally
Pandoc-flavored but sometimes a different one. I write code most frequently in
Make. That means I
need good support for multiple languages—including syntax checkers and
completion—and I need a writing environment that feels comfortable.
I also write both code and text on multiple computers. I use Linux when I can,
but use Windows at work and occasionally find myself on a Mac. That means I
need to be able to sync everything using git, and all my plugins and settings
have to work in the same way. I want my experience in GVim on Windows to be as
close as possible to my experience in the terminal on my Arch box.
Finally, I want to keep things as simple and elegant as possible. I want this
to still be Vim when I’m done, which means I don’t want a bunch of
functionality I’m not using or a bunch of nonsense I don’t need on my
screen. In general, I want to prefer built-in functionality to plugins, and
simple, tightly focused plugins to wide-ranging and powerful ones. With that in
mind, I started with the settings that made vanilla vim as pleasant as
Well, that’s almost true. I knew I was going to be using Tim Pope’s
vim-sensible plugin simply because it
sets a goodly number of the things you see in almost every vimrc, like being
able to backspace over anything and setting incremental search. We’ll get back
to that later.
First I set the
mapleader to comma so that it applies for all my mappings. I
hidden to allow for unsaved background tabs, and
spell so that I don’t
reveal my horrible spelling to the world. Turns out you can set new splits to
be on the left, so I turn that on (we live in a world of widescreen monitors,
how is this not the default?), and I turn on persistent undo files. All that
looks like this:
" Built-In Functionality
let mapleader = ','
set hidden " Allow background buffers without saving
set spell spelllang=en_us
set splitright " Split to right by default
In general, I want things wrapped at 79 characters—enough, in fact, that it’s
easier for me to turn it off when I don’t want it than turn it on when I do. I
also like having a highlighted column at 80 characters as a visual guide. I
always want hard wraps, so I turn off soft-wrapping.
"" Text Wrapping
Search and Substitutions
I find I want the
g flag in my
s/ commands far more often than I don’t, so
I set it to be on by default. I use highlight searches because that’s half the
point, and use the handy combination of
smartcase to ignore
case when I type in lowercase, but not when I type in capital letters. I also
have my first mapping here: comma-space for clearing the highlighted searches.
It makes a nice slapping noise, which I quite enjoy, as if to say “get that out
"" Search and Substitute
set gdefault " use global flag by default in s: commands
set hlsearch " highlight searches
set smartcase " don't ignore capitals in searches
nnoremap <leader><space> :nohls <enter>
Because I am not a horrible human being who hates joy and love and light, I use
four spaces instead of tabs whenever I can. The following combo will do
that, and should be required by law.
Backup, Swap, and Undo
The next section might be a little controversial. Backup files, swap files, and
undo files are great features of vim, but I hate having them clutter up my
actual work directories. This isn’t so bad on Linux, where hidden files are
simple things, but on Windows, which will incomprehensibly ignore leading dots
when doing file completion, it’s awful. So, after I turn on undo files for
persistent undo across sessions, I set folders inside my vim folder to hold all
of these (see implementation notes at the end to see how I make empty folders
with with Git).
"" Backup, Swap and Undo
set undofile " Persistent Undo
Some folks won’t like this section either, because it’s about NetRW, vim’s file
explorer. It gets more hate than it deserves, but I find it useful. I set
it to have the detail view with human-readable file sizes. The hiding behavior
is a little odd, so I just tell the explorer to hide dotfiles, and to set them
as hidden by default (this can be toggled with
a). Then I turn off the
banner. I also add a mapping to start the explorer; the exclamation point means
that if the current buffer has unsaved changes, the Explorer will split
vertically instead of horizontally.
let g:netrw_liststyle = 1 " Detail View
let g:netrw_sizestyle = "H" " Human-readable file sizes
let g:netrw_list_hide = '\(^\|\s\s\)\zs\.\S\+' " hide dotfiles
let g:netrw_hide = 1 " hide dotfiles by default
let g:netrw_banner = 0 " Turn off banner
""" Explore in vertical split
nnoremap <Leader>e :Explore! <enter>
To wrap-up the built-in functionality, I have my general mappings. Mapping a
semicolon to the colon in normal mode is surprisingly useful. I use control-H
and -L to cycle through my buffers, because that feels like moving left and
right to me. I use comma-q to quit a buffer and comma-w to save. Finally, I use
comma x to access the copy buffer, which allows me to copy and paste between
vim and other programs. That last is the only mapping which I have set to work
in all modes, and I use it all the time.
nnoremap ; :
nnoremap <C-H> :bp <enter>
nnoremap <C-L> :bn <enter>
nnoremap <Leader>w :w <enter>
nnoremap <Leader>q :bd <enter>
noremap <Leader>x "+
I use Python 3 more or less exclusively. Many of the libraries I use most are
(finally) moving to require it, and I like
it better anyway. So I have this little autocommand group to set my
omnicompletion to Python 3:
"" Python Version
au! BufEnter *.py setlocal omnifunc=python3complete#Complete
Plugins are a wonderful part of the Vim infrastructure, and they’re what let
you really make the editor your own. That said, folks tend to go overboard; I
see vimrc files floating around with dozens of plugins, and it’s just not
necessary. When I started this project, I decided to only add plugins I didn’t
want to live without, and I think I’ve kept it to a reasonable number. A
fantastic resource has been Vim-Awesome, which makes
it easy to find plugins by functionality, and also see which are popular, which
are maintained, and so on. I knew about some of these, but others I didn’t, and
so the site was a huge help.
Once upon a time, I installed plugins manually. Then I used my package manager
and a script called
vim-plugin-manager. Then Tim Pope wrote
Pathogen, and like the rest of the
world, I switched to it immediately. Then
Vundle came along with its
Git-driven management, and I happily used that until I started this project.
When I went to see what was out there, I found that Vundle was still a good
option, but I was charmed by the simplicity of
VimPlug, which didn’t need any
manipulation in my
.vimrc and could do parallel installations and updates. I
decided it was worth making the switch.
This breaks my rule a little bit about preferring built-in functionality; Vim 8
does have a built-in plugin manager of sorts. Unfortunately it would mean
taking a step back: there’s no way to keep your plugins updated and I just
don’t want to go back to doing it manually and fiddling with submodules in my
vimfiles repository. So VimPlug it is! The entirety of my plugin installation
section looks like this:
"" Installation with VimPlug
""" General Functionality
""" Particular Functionality
I’ll walk through each of those in more detail and give the configuration I
have for each. As you can see above, I group my plugins into three groups:
basics, which include simple settings, filetype and syntax, and color schemes;
general functionality plugins, which add features that are generally useful
when editing code or writing text, and particular functionality plugins, when
are only useful in particular situations.
I’ve already mentioned Tim Pope’s excellent
Vim-Sensible plugin, which there’s
really no downside to installing. It just gives you a lot of sane defaults, and
the code is perfectly readable if you want the details.
Vim-Colorschemes are both omnibus
packages. Essentially, they’re curated lists. At first this seemed like
overkill to me—why not just install the ones I want? But then I remembered
just how many times I’ve switched to a new language and found that either vim
didn’t have a filetype for it, or that the user community had a few fixes for
the built-in version of indentation or something. Vim-Polyglot collects all of
the best of those, and that just saves me having to do it later. Similarly,
Vim-Colorschemes has at least one color scheme you will like, even if you’re as
picky as I am. I turn on gui-style colors for the terminal and use the
General Functionality Plugins
Vim isn’t an IDE, and shouldn’t be, but autocompletion is really, really nice.
That said, I lived without it for a long time because I didn’t like my options.
YouCompleteMe is a pain on Windows.
So is NeoComplete, and while it’s
predecessor NeoComplCache is
more easily cross-platform, it can be slow and frustrating and isn’t updated
any more. VimCompletesMe isn’t bad,
but has a few quirks I don’t like and is entirely tab-driven, when I would
rather just have my options pop up for me.
MuComplete gives me what I
want. It does omnicompletion, file completion, snippet completion (see
below), pops up as I type and doesn’t get in my way. And it’s
fast. Here’s the configuration to make it work:
set shortmess+=c " Turn off completion messages
inoremap <expr> <c-e> mucomplete#popup_exit("\<c-e>")
inoremap <expr> <c-y> mucomplete#popup_exit("\<c-y>")
inoremap <expr> <cr> mucomplete#popup_exit("\<cr>")
let g:mucomplete#enable_auto_at_startup = 1
I’ve gone back and forth on snippets for years, but for the moment I’m pro.
They save a lot of time writing HTML and encourage me to write docstrings.
Here, Ultisnips has been around for a
long time, and while SnipMate also
exists as a venerable option, Ultisnips still feels like the gold standard. A
solid compilation of snippets is available with the
Vim-Snippets plugin. You don’t need
any configuration for either as far as I’m concerned, but you can configure
MuComplete to take advantage of Ultisnips with this line:
call add(g:mucomplete#chains['default'], 'ulti')
I’ve used NerdCommenter for a
long time, but Commentary, another
from Tim Pope, gives a minimalist yet powerful implementation. You use
to toggle comments, and that’s about it. That’s all I want here.
Everything I write is perfect the first time, obviously, but sometimes I read
other people’s code. Syntastic is
a truly clever plugin for running syntax checking. Rather than write its own
rules it uses external checkers, like
tidy, which is a very Unix
way of approaching the problem. Hard to beat.
Of course, if I can get a program to fix my—er, other people’s mistakes
automatically, so much the better. The aptly named
Vim-Autoformat solves this problem
nicely. Like Syntastic, Autoformat uses external programs to format your code.
It doesn’t have support for as many programs built-in as does Syntastic, but
it’s very easy to define your own.
I set autoformat to run when I save a file, but not to do the default vim
sequence of autoindenting, retabbing, and removing trailing spaces.
Effectively, this means it only does anything if I have a formatter installed.
au! BufWrite * :Autoformat
let g:autoformat_autoindent = 0
let g:autoformat_retab = 0
let g:autoformat_remove_trailing_spaces = 0
One odd corner case I’ve had to be a bit clever to deal with is markdown.
Generally when I write, I’m writing in Pandoc’s syntax, but for a few
situations (primarily this blog), I’m using a slightly different form of the
language. Now, I can use Pandoc to auto-format in either case, but I’ll need to
vary the external call. The way I’ve solved this is to use an autocommand to
set a default markdown flavor in a buffer-scoped variable, then setting a
different flavor for specific matches—in this case when I open a file with a
.markdown extension that has a directory named “blog” somewhere in its
path. Then I use the value of the flavor in the call to pandoc. That all looks
au! BufNewFile,BufFilePre,BufRead *.md
\ let b:markdown_flavor="markdown"
au! BufNewFile,BufFilePre,BufRead *.markdown
\ let b:markdown_flavor="markdown"
au! BufNewFile,BufFilePre,BufRead */blog/*.markdown
\ let b:markdown_flavor="markdown_github".
let g:formatdef_pandoc =
\'"pandoc --standalone --atx-headers --columns=79'.
\' -f markdown -t ".b:markdown_flavor'
let g:formatters_markdown_pandoc = ['pandoc']
Particular Plugin Functionality
Distraction-free writing is an interesting concept that has been around for a
while. The first implementation I remember hearing about was
WriteRoom, and since then
the concept has even made its way a bit into recent version of Word. I don’t
always use it when I’m writing, but sometimes it’s helpful.
Goyo is about as good an implementation
as you could ask for, especially when combined with the
Limelight plugin to focus on
individual paragraphs. You only need two lines to make this work together
"" Goyo & Limelight
autocmd! User GoyoEnter Limelight
autocmd! User GoyoLeave Limelight!
Vim doesn’t have a built-in Pandoc filetype or syntax file, and Pandoc really
goes a long way beyond simple markdown. There’s a
Vim-Pandoc plugin, but I found
myself turning off an awful lot of the functionality because it was either in
my way or a re-implementation of something I already had. Finally I decided
just to use the syntax file, which is helpfully separated into its own plugin
To get files to use the correct syntax, you have to use an autocommand.
The syntax plugin is also surprisingly powerful; I turn off the “conceal”
functionality because I don’t like the way it looks, but I’m very impressed by
the ability to use the syntax of the embedded language in fenced code blocks.
Here’s my configuration:
au! BufNewFile,BufFilePre,BufRead *.md set filetype=markdown.pandoc
au! BufNewFile,BufFilePre,BufRead *.markdown set filetype=markdown.pandoc
let g:pandoc#syntax#conceal#use = 0
let g:pandoc#syntax#codeblocks#embeds#langs = ['python', 'vim', 'make',
Tabular is one of those wonderful
little pieces of code that does one thing extremely well. Tabular makes tables.
That’s it. When you don’t need a table, you don’t have to think about it. When
you do, it saves you ten minutes of fiddling around. It plays very well with
Plugins I Didn’t Use
Obviously there are lots of plugins I didn’t install. Here are a few that I
know are popular, and why I didn’t use them:
- Fugitive: See, I don’t love
everything Tim Pope does. I had this installed for a while, but never found
myself using it. I’m happy on the command line.
- Airline: These kinds of plugins
just strike me as a way to throw lots of distracting information onto the
screen. I don’t see the attraction.
- NerdTree: I’m happy with NetRW the
way I have it.
- Tagbar: I don’t want to have to
install ctags, and I can just search.
- CtrlP: Apparently people have more
trouble than I do finding things?
- Multiple-Cursors: I almost
went for this one, but Christoph Hermann’s article on
convinced me that it didn’t do anything you can’t just do with built-in
gvimrc is simple: I turn everything off, and set my fonts:
set guioptions-=m " Turn off menubar
set guioptions-=T " Turn off toolbar
set guioptions-=r " Turn off right-hand scrollbar
set guioptions-=R " Turn off right-hand scrollbar when split
set guioptions-=L " Turn off left-hand scrollbar
set guioptions-=l " Turn off left-hand=scrollbar when split
set guicursor+=a:blinkon0 " Turn off blinking cursor
set guifont=Inconsolata\ 12
Vim keeps its files in a
.vim folder on Linux, and a
vimfiles folder on
Windows. Happily, in new versions of vim, the
gvimrc can live
inside this folder, which makes keeping everything in git easier.
To ensure that my directories for undo, backup, and swap exist but aren’t
versioned, I put a
.gitignore in each with this content:
I also have a
.gitignore in the root directory, to ignore both my netrw
history, my spelling files, and my plugins.
I leave the autoload directory versioned, which means
VimPlug itself gets versioned. This saves me a step when I move to a different
machine and it’s not too terrible to update the repositiory when I occasionally
update VimPlug itself. So here’s the gitignore.
With all that done, all I need to do to get set up on a new box (with git
installed) is clone my vimfiles repository, fire up vim or Gvim, run
:PlugInstall and restart, which take almost no time at all.
I should disclose that this post has taken me an absurd amount of time to
write. I’ve spent hours now comparing plugins, trying things out, reading
through documentation, and changing my mind. I know Vim far better than I did
when I started, no doubt about it. If your
vimrc has gotten a bit stale, it
might be a good time for you to do a Vim Zero experiment yourself. Or, feel
free to build off my setup, which you can find on GitHub
here. If you decide to give it a
go, be sure to let me know on Twitter.