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Why invest time into text editing

While discussing with fellow developers, I was asked the following question a few times: We spend most of our time as developers thinking, not editing code; so, why invest time into mastering a complicated code editor, and why lose some cognitive resources on thinking about text editing instead of about the real programming problem?

I think this point of view is misguided, for a few reasons:

  • Despite their name, code editors are not only about editing, but also about code navigation. Programming is a hard task partly due to the huge amount of context we have to keep in mind, and being able to quickly navigate code helps us refresh that context, by looking at definitions, implementations, and comments.

  • Although code editing itself is not the most important part of programming, it still takes non-negligible time to perform, and can be optimized by using better tools.

  • Finally, a programming career spans a few decades, so investing a few weeks to improving our editing and navigating speed is definitely worth it.

Why a modal text editor

What is modal text editing

Now that we have established that investing time into mastering text editing is worth it, let’s focus on why I think modal text editors are the way to go.

A modal text editor can be, as its name implies, in different modes. Depending on the current mode, keys have different effects: in insert mode most keys insert their character in the buffer, as in non-modal editors, but in normal (default) mode, keys have a different effect. For example, w can move the cursor to the next word, y can yank (copy) the current selection, p can paste, u can undo, g followed by f can open the filename under the cursor…​

Some commands from normal mode would change the mode, for example i would enter insert mode, from which the <esc> key would return to normal mode.

The first thing to realize is that non-modal text editors are extremely biased towards insertion. They make insertion easy (by making the default behaviour of most keys to insert a character into the buffer) at the expense of making most other operations suboptimal, by requiring hard to reach keys or modifiers (or, even worse, moving your hand all the way to your mouse).

Insertion is a key part of text editing, and is worth optimizing, which is the whole point of completion systems. But it is only a small part of text editing, we spend a huge amount of our editing time navigating, moving code around, copying, pasting and reformating.

A modal text editor makes all these operations much more accessible, and easier to express. But they are not only about having convenient shortcuts.

Modal editing as a text editing language

Many vi users have an epiphany when they realize that vi does not just provide a set of modes making various text editing shortcuts easier to type, but actually provides a text editing language.

Commands are composable in order to express complex changes, dw in vi is not just a shortcut to delete a word, it is the combination of a verb: d for delete, with an object w for word. There are more complex objects like ib (inside block) refers to the content of the parenthesis surrounding the cursor, so yib would yank (copy) the text inside the surround parenthesis.

This language allows the programmer to express their intent much more closely than in other editors; most editors can express "delete the word after the next parenthesis", but more often than not, expressing that intent is more cumbersome than simply doing an ad-hoc edit. Text editing as a language changes that, by making clearly expressing your intent the fastest and easiest way to do your edit.

This is a desirable property because a lot of text editing operations are repetitive, but only on structurally similar text: the subject text are different, but they follow the same structure. Being able to express the text editing at the structural level allows for reusable commands, and makes the computer do the repetitive job.

Another often overlooked property of using a text editing language is that it’s fun. Programmers are problem solvers, we enjoy solving problems, and we enjoy even more solving them with a clean and efficient solution. This kind of text editor transform a dull and repetitive edition task into an interesting puzzle to solve, and that is an engaging thing.

Think about it this way: Yes, programming is about thinking, concentrating on a design problem, or on a bug, understanding what needs to be done, designing a solution, and then writing it. More often that not, once you get to the writing phase, most of the thinking, problem solving, part is done, now the remaining task is just editing the code. Modal editors make this phase both faster, and more fun.

Why Kakoune

Up to now, I have used vi as an example for modal text editor, mostly because I expect most programmers have at least heard of it. However, I dont believe vi and clones are the best modal text editor out there.

I have been working, for the last 5 years, on a new modal editor called Kakoune. It first started as a reimplementation of Vim (the most popular vi clone) whose source code is quite dated. But, I soon realized that we could improve a lot on vi editing model.

Improving on the editing model

vi basic grammar is verb followed by object; it’s nice because it matches well with the order we use in English, "delete word". On the other hand, it does not match well with the nature of what we express: There is only a handfull of verbs in text editing (delete, yank, paste, insert…​), and they don’t compose, contrarily to objects which can be arbitrarily complex, and difficult to express. That means that errors are not handled well. If you express your object wrongly with a delete verb, the wrong text will get deleted, you will need to undo, and try again.

Kakoune’s grammar is object followed by verb, combined with instantaneous feedback, that means you always see the current object (In Kakoune we call that the selection) before you apply your change, which allows you to correct errors on the go.

Kakoune tries hard to fix one of the big problems with the vi model: its lack of interactivity. Because of the verb followed by object grammar, vi changes are made in the dark, we dont see their effect until the whole editing sentence is finished. dtf will delete to next f, if you then realize that was one f before the one you targeted, you need to undo, go back to your initial position, and try again with d2tf. In Kakoune, you would do tf, see immediately that that is not the f you were looking for, type Tf to extend the selection until the correct f, then d to delete. At each step you get visual feedback, and have the opportunity to correct it.

At the lower level, the problem is that vi treats moving around and selecting an object as two different things. Kakoune unifies that, moving is selecting. w does not just go to the next word, it selects from current position to the next word. By convention, capital commands tend to expand the selection, so W would expand the current selection to the next word.

Multiple selections

Another particular feature of Kakoune is its support for, and emphasis towards the use of multiple selections. Multiple selections in Kakoune are not just one additional feature, it is the central way of interacting with your text. For example there is no such thing as a "global replace" in Kakoune. What you would do is select the whole buffer with the % command, then select all matches for a regex in the current selections (that is the whole buffer here) with the s command, which prompts for a regex. You would end up with one selection for each match of your regex and use the insert mode to do your change. Globally replacing foo with bar would be done with %sfoo<ret>cbar<esc> which is just the combination of basic building blocks.

Global replace

Multiple selections provides us with a very powerfull to express structural selection: we can subselect matches inside the current selections, keep selections containing/not containing a match, split selections on a regex, swap selections contents…​

For example, convert from snake_case_style to camelCaseStyle can be done by selecting the word (with w for example) then subselecting underscores in the word with s_<ret>, deleting these with d, then upper casing the selected characters with ~. The inverse operation could be done by selecting the word, then subselecting the upper case characters with s[A-Z]<ret> lower casing them with ` and then inserting an underscode before them with i_<esc> This operation could be put in a macro, and would be reusable easily to convert any identifier.

Camel case to snake case

Another example would be parameter swapping, if you had func(arg2, arg1); you could select the contents of the parenthesis with <a-i>(, split the selection on comma with S, <ret>, and swap selection contents with <a-">.

Swapping arguments

It is as well easy to use multiple selections for alignment, as the & command will align all selection cursors by inserting blanks before selection start

Aligning variables

Or to use multiple selections as a way to gather some text from different places and regroup it in another place, thanks to a special form of pasting <a-p> that will paste every yanked selections instead of the first one.

Regrouping manager objects together

Interactive, predictible and fast

A design goal of Kakoune is to beat vim at its own game, while providing a cleaner editing model. The combination of multiple selections and cleaned up grammar shows thats its possible to have text edition that is interactive, predictible, and fast at the same time.

Interactivity comes by providing feedback on every commands, the inverted object then verb grammar makes that possible, every selection modification has direct visual feedback, regex based selections incrementally show what will get selected, including when the regular expression is invalid, and even yanking some text displays a message notifying how many selections were yanked.

Predictibilty comes from the simple effect of most commands. Each command is conceptually simple, doing one single thing. d deletes whatever is selected, nothing more. % selects the whole buffer, s prompts for a regex and selects matches in the previous selection. It is the combination of these building blocks that allows for complex, but predictible, actions on the text.

Being fast, as in less keystrokes, is provided by carefully designing the set of editing commands so that they interact well together, and by sometimes sacrificing beauty for useability. For example, <a-s> is equivalent to S^<ret>, they both split on new lines, but this is a so common use case that it deserves to have its own key. As shown in http://github.com/mawww/golf, Kakoune manages to beat Vim at the keystroke count game in most cases, using much more idiomatic commands.

Discoverability

Keyboard oriented programs tend to be at a disadvantage compared to GUI applications because they are less discoverable; there is no menu bar on which to click to see the available options, no tooltip appearing when you hover above a button explaining what it does.

Kakoune solves this problem through the use of two mechanisms: extensive completion support, and auto-information display.

When a command is written in a prompt, Kakoune will automatically open a menu providing you with the available completions for the current parameter. It will know if the parameter is supposed to be a word against a fixed set of word, the name of a buffer, a filename, etc…​ Actually, as soon as : is typed, entering command prompt mode, the list of existing commands will be displayed in the completion menu.

Additionally, Kakoune will display an information box, describing what the command does, what optional switches it can take, what they do…​

Command discoverability

That information box gets displayed in other cases, for example if the g key is hit, which then waits for another key (g is the goto commands prefix), an information box will display all the recognized keys, informing the user that Kakoune is waiting on a keystroke, and listing the available options.

To go even further in discoverablility, the auto information system can be set to display an information box after each normal mode keystroke, explaining what the key pressed just did.

Extensive completion support

Keyboard oriented programs are much easier to work with when they provide extensive completion support. For a long time, completion has been prefix based, and that has been working very well.

More recently, we started to see more and more programs using the so called fuzzy completion. Fuzzy completion tends to be subsequence based, instead of prefix based, which means the typed query needs to be a subsequence of a candidate to be considered matching, instead of a prefix. That will generate more candidates (all prefix matches are also subsequence matches), so it needs a good ranking algorithm to sort the matches and put the best ones first.

Kakoune embraces fuzzy matching for its completion support, which kicks in both during insert mode, and prompt mode.

Word completion support

Insert mode completion provides completion suggestions while inserting in the buffer, it can complete words from the buffer, or from all buffers, lines, filenames, or get completion candidates from an external source, making it possible to implement intelligent code completion.

Language specific completion support

Prompt completion is displayed whenever we enter command mode, and provides completion candidates that are adapted to the command being entered, and to the current argument being edited.

A better unix citizen

Easily making programs cooperate with each others is one of the main strength of the Unix environment. Kakoune is designed to integrate nicely with a POSIX system: various text editing commands give direct access to the power of POSIX tools, like |, which prompts for a shell command and pipe selections through it, replacing their contents with the command output, or $ that prompts for a command, and keeps selections for which the command returned success.

Using external commands as filters

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Kakoune is very easily controllable from the shell, just pipe whatever commands you like to kak -p <session>, and the target Kakoune session will execute these.

Kakoune command line also supports shell expansion, similar to what $(...) does in a shell. If you type echo %sh{ echo hello } in the command prompt, "hello" will get displayed in the status line. Various values from Kakoune can be accessed in these expand through environment variables, which, along with shell scripting forms the basis of Kakoune extension model.

Interaction with external shell

This model, although a bit less familiar than integrating a scripting language, is conceptually very simple, relatively simple implementation-wise, and is expressive enough to implement a custom code completer, linters, formatters…​

Moreover, combined with support for fifo buffers, that read data from a named fifo, Kakoune ends up with an extension model that easily support asynchronous tasks, by forking a shell in the background to do long lived work (grep or make for example) while displaying the result as they come through the fifo.

Kakoune also tries to limit its scope to code editing: in particular, it does not try to manage windows, and lets the system’s window manager, or terminal multiplexer (such as tmux), handle that responsiblity. This is achieved through a client/server design: An editing session runs on a server process, and multiple clients can connect to that session to display different buffers.

Asynchronous make and multiple clients in tmux

Final Thoughts

Kakoune provides an efficient code editing environment, both very predictible, hence scriptable, and very interactive. Its learning curve is considerably easier than Vim thanks to a more consistent design associated with strong discoverability, while still being faster (as in less keystrokes) in most use cases.

Although easier to learn than Vim, the learning curve is still quite steep, however we have established that investing time into optimizing the text editing workflow is worth it for programmers. Moreover, Kakoune simply makes code editing a fun and rewarding experience.

Kakoune is still evolving, getting better as we get more users, and gathering more use cases to cater for. It’s already a very good code editor, and we need you to use it so that it can be made even better.

Kakoune is available at http://github.com/mawww/kakoune and has a website at http://kakoune.org