Getting started with Vim

A few days ago a friend asked me: “How do I get started with Vim?” She explained to me she tried Vim out for a few days and enjoyed the idea of working inside the terminal, as well as the consistency of the experience across different servers. Good reasons, no doubt. I collected some notes and some links for her which I decided to turn into the article you’re reading.

My goal is to suggest a path for starting out with Vim without the anxiety and the frustration this process usually brings about - the editor is not famous for being easy to start with. As I will focus on the path, I won’t be getting into the details of the topics I will cover. There are awesome resources on this matter and I will link them at the end of each section.

vimtutor

Vim ships with an awesome little tutorial. I suggest you start from there even if you think you already know the basics. It is supposed to take 25-30 minutes and I suggest you do it in one session. If you have Vim on your machine, you can type vimtutor and start right away. The tutorial is designed to teach you all the basic commands and concepts. Vim is a modal editor with a variety of modes. Its nature may be new to you and the tutorial will proceed slowly. Take your time to complete it.

Vim has no shortcuts

The next natural step would be to use Vim on a daily basis. But it’s not an easy goal, because editing text in Vim will feel clumsy, there’s too much to remember and most commands are not represented by a mnemonic sequence. For these reasons, I want to share my understanding of the “Vim way”. I wish someone explained this to me when I started, as I’m convinced the approach makes Vim more approachable.

I ran into Vim during a lab lesson about C programming and operating systems back when I was at university. It was overwhelming. Nothing in Vim made sense to me, and my professors were neither friendly nor helpful. All those dd, yy, A made me wonder why on earth anyone would use Vim. How could I possibly remember all the shortcuts? I was used to an IDE with all sorts of shortcuts, but they were easier to remember. Moreover, there were menus with intuitive labels to help me in case I had forgotten how to do something. Vim commands were not mnemonic and the problem hunted me for weeks. I ended up just being scared by Vim and went back to my IDE.

A couple of years after this traumatic experience I gave Vim another try. I was working with Perl and Ruby at the time, and an IDE did not fit my terminal emulator centric workflow. Then one day I ran into text objects: it was the turning point. Nowadays, text objects are the reason why I wouldn’t be able to edit code with any other editor. They let you describe regions of text, here are a few examples:

  • A word
  • A sentence
  • A paragraph
  • A HTML tag
  • A function

Vim has a command for deleting text, one for pasting and so on. You can combine those with text objects and get a powerful small language for text editing. You can say things like:

  • Remove the next three words
  • Copy this paragraph
  • Change the content of this HTML tag

This is why I say Vim has no shortcuts. I like to describe it this way:

Vim is a small language for editing text that ships with a small user interface.

That small user interface is your editor. Looking at it from this perspective can be enlightening. You can focus on learning how the language works instead of learning its standard library by heart. You can focus on thinking about editing text the “Vim way”. I think this way Vim becomes easier to approach and its learning curve is more gradual.

One other aspect of Vim I wish someone had explained to me when I started is to focus on normal mode. Vim has multiple modes but one stands out because of its name. It’s called “normal” mode because it’s normal to use Vim in that mode. You do most of your editing in that mode: moving text around, pasting it, deleting it. All in normal mode. You can combine the focus on normal mode, the idea of Vim being a small language and text objects:

Vim has a normal mode to operate on text via text objects.

Links:

Vim plugins

Vim does not ship with all you need and finding your way around the ecosystem can be hard. There are many plugins that try to solve the same problems and it’s difficult to pick one. I wrote about how to configure Vim in the past and I still agree with the approach of doing things on your own so you can learn about Vim. However, if I’d be writing the same article today, I would focus more on plugin management; things became easier in that regard. Now I use Vundle.vim and I couldn’t be happier about it. I suggest you go ahead and use Vundle too. It comes with a few commands that make installing, updating and removing plugins so simple that you do not need to remember anything. Simplicity is the key: you will play around with many plugins, so adding and removing them has to be as easy as it can get.

People’s workflow differs a lot so I’m not going to compile a list of the “100 Vim plugins you can’t miss”. I will try, however, to provide you with the bare minimum to get you started.

fugitive.vim

You can skip this part if you’re not a git user.

fugitive.vim is your perfect companion when it comes to git. Using its author’s words:

I’m not going to lie to you; fugitive.vim may very well be the best Git wrapper of all time

It may sound like a bold claim, but I do not think it is. The plugin is really awesome and has delightful features. The best way to learn how to use it is to watch a good series of screencasts. I can’t recommend it enough.

tpope plugins

tpope is not only the author of fugitive.vim. He writes and maintains an incredibly long list of must-have plugins. My suggestion is to skim his repository lists and try all the plugins you think you may need. If I had to pick one, it would be surround.vim. Editing code often means dealing with “surroundings”: parenthesis, brackets, quotes and so on. Surround.vim helps a great deal with those.

Links:

Practical Vim

Drew Neil wrote Practical Vim and I recommend it every time I can. It’s a perfect book for people that want to deepen their Vim knowledge. As soon as you get comfortable with using Vim on a daily basis, I suggest you read this book. It’s a wonderful collection of tips and it will speed up your learning path. I can’t imagine a better resource for Vim, I think there’s a before and after reading “Practical Vim”.

Drew Neil published quite some screencasts at vimcasts and I recommend them as well. Drew’s explanations are clear and easy to follow. I watched them all and I suggest you do the same.

Again, how do I get into Vim?

Here are the steps I suggest you take:

  • Complete the tutor
  • Think about text the vim way
  • Get to learn the plugin ecosystem
  • Read the best book out there and watch all the author’s screencasts
  • Happy editing!

Thank you for reading and stay tuned!

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