Bespoke Vim

September 10, 2012

Carpenters used to make their own applewood saw handles to perfectly fit their hand. The handles outlasted the rest of the saw. When a saw wore out, the carpenter would reattach its handle to a new saw. Using the handle for years only made it smoother.

Vim is my saw, and I have undertaken to fashion a handle. I started with the basic default MacVim installation and arrived at a comfortable, logical, and personal result.

Others have of course done the same, and their configurations illustrate what’s possible. Examples of high-quality configurations include skwp, spf13, janus, vgod, amix, and mmargolis. You should try them and see how they feel. You’ll ultimately discover your own style.

I found that I value two things most in a vin configuration: fast manual control, and logical groupings of commands. Some configs enable vim features that I find unnerving, such as autocompleted suggestions at every keystroke, or unsolicited spell checking, or background ctagging. They provide the features of an IDE but introduce lag and make vim unpredictable. I prefer a lightning fast editor that waits for explicit commands before acting.

The vocabulary of explicit commands should be logical. Basic vim commands require a fair amount of brute memorization and use up most of the available keys. Hence additional commands tend to get mapped to a series of keys beginning with a “leader.” The leader key signals a new meaning for its followers. Whereas some configurations seem to choose key mappings indiscriminately, I prefer to define them in prefix groups. For instance, I assign all git-related commands the “<leader>g” prefix, all the shell and test running commands the “<leader>r” prefix, etc.

When beginning to customize your vim, it helps to create a list of things you wish it could do. What do you find awkward about how you currently work? This was my list:

  • Find definition and uses of functions
  • Send text to a repl
  • Run tests
  • Summarize methods in file
  • Align symbols
  • Manipulate language blocks
  • Interrogate git
  • Clerical conversions
  • Tab completion
  • Syntax closing

Next investigate the many vim plugins available to accomplish these tasks. Certain plugins are clearly champions (generally anything written by tpope), and have been discussed ad nauseum on blogs for years.

You can manage plugins several ways. In the beginning people manually copied them into certain local directories. Then Pathogen came along and simplified the directory structure while leveraging git submodules to keep plugins up to date. Finally there is Vundle, which improves Pathogen and allows you to declare from inside your .vimrc which vim plugin “bundles” you want to use. This is the best option because it’s concise and keeps all your environment choices inside one file.

The best way to learn about vim plugins and configurations is to try them, and I invite you to try mine. It is fairly self-contained, well commented, and should be easy to modify. You can consult the README for installation instructions and list of key mappings.

If you work with text every day then you owe yourself a bespoke vim. Take a cue from craftsmen of old and use a tool that fits you.