Vim Zero

21 August 2017


I’ve been using Vim as my editor for over ten years1. 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 Python, and a decent amount in HTML, JavaScript, CSS and SCSS, 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 screen2. 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 possible.

Built-in Functionality

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.

General Functionality

First I set the mapleader to comma so that it applies for all my mappings. I set 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
"" General
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
set textwidth=79
set colorcolumn=80
set nowrap

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 ignorecase and 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 of here.

"" Search and Substitute
set gdefault " use global flag by default in s: commands
set hlsearch " highlight searches
set ignorecase 
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 can3. The following combo will do that, and should be required by law.

"" Tabs
set tabstop=4
set softtabstop=4
set shiftwidth=4
set expandtab

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
if has("win32")
    set directory=$HOME\vimfiles\swap,$TEMP
    set backupdir=$HOME\vimfiles\backup,$TEMP
    set undodir=$HOME\vimfiles\undo,$TEMP
    set directory=~/.vim/swap,/tmp
    set backupdir=~/.vim/backup,/tmp
    set undodir=~/.vim/undo,/tmp


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 useful4. 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.

""" NetRW
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>

General Mappings

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.

"" Mappings
nnoremap ; :
nnoremap <C-H> :bp <enter>
nnoremap <C-L> :bn <enter>
nnoremap <Leader>w :w <enter>
nnoremap <Leader>q :bd <enter>

noremap <Leader>x "+

Python Version

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
augroup python3
    au! BufEnter *.py setlocal omnifunc=python3complete#Complete
augroup END


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.

Plugin Manager

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 rtp 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:

" Plugins 

"" Installation with VimPlug
if has("win32")
    call plug#begin('~/vimfiles/plugged')
    call plug#begin('~/.vim/plugged')

""" Basics
Plug 'tpope/vim-sensible'
Plug 'sheerun/vim-polyglot'
Plug 'flazz/vim-colorschemes'

""" General Functionality
Plug 'lifepillar/vim-mucomplete'
Plug 'scrooloose/syntastic'
Plug 'sirver/ultisnips'
Plug 'honza/vim-snippets'
Plug 'tpope/vim-commentary'
Plug 'chiel92/vim-autoformat'

""" Particular Functionality
Plug 'junegunn/goyo.vim'
Plug 'junegunn/limelight.vim'
Plug 'vim-pandoc/vim-pandoc-syntax'
Plug 'godlygeek/tabular'

call plug#end()

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-Polyglot and 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 am5. I turn on gui-style colors for the terminal and use the Darth style:

"" Colors
set termguicolors
colorscheme darth

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:

"" Autocompletion
set completeopt=menuone,noinsert,noselect
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 docstrings6. 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 gc to to toggle comments, and that’s about it. That’s all I want here.

Syntax Checking

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 flake8 and 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.

"" Autoformat
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 full .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 like this:

augroup markdown_flavor
    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".
augroup END

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

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 nicely:

"" Goyo & Limelight
autocmd! User GoyoEnter Limelight
autocmd! User GoyoLeave Limelight!

Pandoc Syntax

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 named Vim-Pandoc-Syntax.

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:

"" Pandoc
augroup pandoc_syntax
    au! BufNewFile,BufFilePre,BufRead *.md set filetype=markdown.pandoc
    au! BufNewFile,BufFilePre,BufRead *.markdown set filetype=markdown.pandoc
augroup END

let g:pandoc#syntax#conceal#use = 0
let g:pandoc#syntax#codeblocks#embeds#langs = ['python', 'vim', 'make',
            \  'bash=sh', 'html', 'css', 'scss', 'javascript']

Table Formatting

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 Pandoc.

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 it convinced me that it didn’t do anything you can’t just do with built-in functionality.


My 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

if has("win32")
    set guifont=Consolas:h11
    set guifont=Inconsolata\ 12

Implementation Notes

Vim keeps its files in a .vim folder on Linux, and a vimfiles folder on Windows. Happily, in new versions of vim, the vimrc and 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.

Final Thoughts

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.

  1. Yes, I’ve heard of Sublime and PyCharm and Atom and all of them. No thank you. Too much noise. You have fun, though.↩︎

  2. I mean, just look at this website. I like things clean and simple.↩︎

  3. Makefiles are the exception, which is infuriating.↩︎

  4. The only real problem I have with it is that if you try to edit a directory path, you get a NetRW buffer that doesn’t go away. So don’t do that.↩︎

  5. My requirements here include: black background and nothing else, not too much yellow, not too much orange, no neon-type colors (the hot pink completion menu just ruins the Ocean family of schemes, and my old vimrc had code to manually replace it), &c, &c.↩︎

  6. Oh, don’t judge, you don’t write them either.↩︎