Emacs Starter Kit

Table of Contents

Emacs outshines all other editing software in approximately the same way that the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just bigger and brighter; it simply makes everything else vanish.

– Neal Stephenson, "In the Beginning was the Command Line"


This should provide a saner set of defaults than you get normally with Emacs. It's intended for beginners, but provides a good elisp initialization structure for all levels of users.

The main advantage of this Emacs Starter Kit are

  • better default settings
  • inclusion of many useful libraries and configurations
  • "literate" customization embedded in Org-mode files
  • an organizational directory structure
  • git provides for version control, backup, and sharing

The latest version is at http://github.com/eschulte/emacs24-starter-kit/


This won't teach you Emacs, but it'll make it easier to get comfortable. To access the tutorial, press control-h followed by t from within Emacs.

The Emacs Wiki is also very handy.


  1. Install Emacs version 24 or greater. Use your package manager if you have one and it has an install candidate for Emacs 24, otherwise install it directly from source, or Mac binaries may be downloaded from the nightlies section of http://emacsformacosx.com/builds
  2. Checkout a version of the starter kit using git – if you're new to git checkout this git-tutorial, also we'd highly recommend that you try out magit the Emacs mode for git interaction.
    git clone http://github.com/eschulte/emacs24-starter-kit.git
  3. Move the resulting directory to ~/.emacs.d 1
  4. Launch Emacs!

After setup you may need to restart Emacs one or twice while it downloads packages from ELPA – errors parsing html from *tromey.com:80* can generally be safely ignored.

If you are missing some autoloads after an update (should manifest itself as void function: foobar errors) try M-x regen-autoloads.

If you want to keep your regular ~/.emacs.d in place and just launch a single instance using the starter kit, try the following invocation:

emacs -q -l ~/path/to/emacs24-starter-kit/init.el \
    --eval "(run-hooks 'after-init-hook)"

Note that having a ~/.emacs file might override the starter kit loading, so if you've having trouble loading it, make sure that file is not present.


The init.el file is where everything begins. It is loaded automatically by Emacs on startup, its sole purpose is to load the elisp code embedded in this file. This file then loads some minimal configuration which should be generally useful, and goes on to load user-specific configuration files from the following locations mentioned in customizations immediately below.


The defaults built into the starter kit are only the beginning of most users customization of Emacs to suit their needs. The starter kit provides a number of places for additional user and system specific customization. These are designed in such a way that it will be easy for you to continue tracking your own personal customization inside the starter-kit while retaining your ability to pull down general starter-kit updates without conflict.

git branch
The first step to user-specific customization is (like in any git project) to MAKE A BRANCH FOR YOUR LOCAL CHANGES. Save the master branch for pulling down new versions of the starter kit, and save all of your personal information in a personal branch. That way you never have to worry about accidentally git push'ing up a patch with all of your gnus email passwords.
User specific config
Your personal configuration information can be stored in a user-specific-config file. This is the file named after your user with the extensions .el or .org 2. If you're unsure of your user name evaluate the following code block to find out.
echo $USER # note: on windows this is the USERNAME variable

If your configuration starts to feel cramped in a single file (although with the nested headlines of an Org-mode file, that could take a while) and you want to stretch your config's legs, you can also create a directory named after your system user name. If a such a directory exists, it will be added to the load-path, and any elisp or org-mode w/embedded elisp files in it will be loaded.

System specific config
Finally, you may want to configure different settings for different machines. The Starter Kit will look for a file named after the current hostname ending in .el or .org which will allow host-specific configuration. If you're unsure of your hostname the following can be executed to find out.
Activating more of the starter kit
By default, the starter kit only includes customizations which are likely to be useful across nearly any Emacs install (the only automatically loaded external files are those listed in Load the rest of the starter kit core). You may have noticed that there are many other starter-kit-*.org files located in this directory. A good first step is to browse these files and begin optionally loading those that look relevant to your workflow. For example, if you often work with Python source code you will probably want to load starter-kit-python.org either by directly copying the sections that look useful into your personal config, or simply by loading the entire file directly with the following.
(starter-kit-load "python")

Alternately you can load only one particular subsection of an included file, for example to load just the "pretty-summary" section of starter-kit-gnus.org run the following.

(starter-kit-load "gnus" "pretty-summary")

Finally you can load just those subsections of a file which have a specific tag, so to load just the two sections of starter-kit-misc-recommended.org which are tagged visual add the following to your personal initialization. Note: header id's take priority over tags.

(starter-kit-load "gnus" "visual")
Installing more elisp libraries
The easiest way to install new libraries is through the Emacs Lisp Package Archive (see Emacs Lisp Package Archive below). When a library is not available through ELPA you can grab it's source and place it directly in the src directory. Any packages found there will automatically be added to your load-path when Emacs starts up, and are guaranteed not to conflict with future starter-kit updates.
Some additional miscellaneous configuration and getting started suggestions
  • First see the Customization node in the Emacs manual. Available online or through the info command (run with C-h i).
  • grep'ing through the starter-kit-* files in this directory can provide useful examples for how to do things like install major modes, define keybindings, etc..
  • read the following Key-Binding-Conventions before defining too many personal key bindings

Optional starter kit packages

The following customization packages are shipped with the starter kit but are not loaded by default. If you have code which you find generally useful please submit it to the starter kit core!

Emacs Lisp Package Archive

Libraries from ELPA are preferred when available since dependencies are handled automatically, and the burden to update them is removed from the user. ELPA is now an official part of Emacs so no special configuration is required to download and install packages. Packages installed through ELPA will be stored in the elpa/ sub-directory of this directory.


If you know your way around Emacs, please try out the starter kit as a replacement for your regular dotfiles for a while. If there's anything you just can't live without, add it or let me know so I can add it. Take a look at what happens in init.el to get started.

Files are licensed under the same license as Emacs unless otherwise specified. See the file COPYING for details.

The latest version is at http://github.com/eschulte/emacs24-starter-kit/


This section contains all code implementing the Emacs Starter Kit. It is probably safe to stop reading at this point unless you are interested in the actual code implementing the starter kit.

Starter kit basics

  • Load path etc.
    (let ((elisp-dir (expand-file-name "src" starter-kit-dir)))
      ;; add the src directory to the load path
      (add-to-list 'load-path elisp-dir)
      ;; load specific files
      (when (file-exists-p elisp-dir)
        (let ((default-directory elisp-dir))
    (setq autoload-file (concat starter-kit-dir "loaddefs.el"))
    (setq package-user-dir (concat starter-kit-dir "elpa"))
    (setq custom-file (concat starter-kit-dir "custom.el"))
  • Ubiquitous Packages which should be loaded on startup rather than autoloaded on demand since they are likely to be used in every session.
    (require 'cl)
    (require 'cl-lib)
    (require 'saveplace)
    (require 'ffap)
    (require 'uniquify)
    (require 'ansi-color)
    (require 'recentf)
  • Function to check if a packages exist in the load path. This may be used to preempt the installation of ELPA versions of packages whose source may already be found in the load path.
    (defun starter-kit-loadable-p (package)
      "Check if PACKAGE is loadable from a directory in `load-path'."
      (let ((load-file (concat (symbol-name package) ".el")))
        (catch 'file-found
          (dolist (dir load-path)
            (let ((path (expand-file-name load-file dir)))
              (when (file-exists-p path)
                (throw 'file-found path)))))))
  • ELPA archive repositories and two packages to install by default.
    (setq package-archives
          '(("gnu"         . "http://elpa.gnu.org/packages/")
            ("org"         . "http://orgmode.org/elpa/")
            ("melpa"       . "http://melpa.milkbox.net/packages/")
            ("marmalade"   . "http://marmalade-repo.org/packages/")))
    (defvar starter-kit-packages nil
      "Libraries that should be installed by default (currently none).")
    (defun starter-kit-install-if-needed (&rest packages)
      "Install PACKAGES using ELPA if they are not loadable or installed locally."
      (when packages
        (unless package-archive-contents
        (dolist (package packages)
          (unless (or (starter-kit-loadable-p package)
                      (package-installed-p package))
            (package-install package)))))
  • Function for loading other parts of the starter kit
    (defun starter-kit-load (file &optional header-or-tag)
      "Load configuration from other starter-kit-*.org files.
    If the optional argument is the id of a subtree then only
    configuration from within that subtree will be loaded.  If it is
    not an id then it will be interpreted as a tag, and only subtrees
    marked with the given tag will be loaded.
    For example, to load all of starter-kit-lisp.org simply
    add (starter-kit-load \"lisp\") to your configuration.
    To load only the 'window-system' config from
    starter-kit-misc-recommended.org add
     (starter-kit-load \"misc-recommended\" \"window-system\")
    to your configuration."
      (let ((file (expand-file-name (if (string-match "starter-kit-.+\.org" file)
                                      (format "starter-kit-%s.org" file))
         (if header-or-tag
             (let* ((base (file-name-nondirectory file))
                    (dir  (file-name-directory file))
                    (partial-file (expand-file-name
                                   (concat "." (file-name-sans-extension base)
                                           ".part." header-or-tag ".org")
               (unless (file-exists-p partial-file)
                 (with-temp-file partial-file
                      (insert-file-contents file)
                        (condition-case nil ;; collect as a header
                              (org-link-search (concat"#"header-or-tag))
                          (error ;; collect all entries with as tags
                           (let (body)
                              (lambda ()
                                  (setq body (concat body "\n" (buffer-string)))))
  • Work around a bug on OS X where system-name is FQDN.
    (if (or
        (eq system-type 'darwin)
        (eq system-type 'berkeley-unix))
        (setq system-name (car (split-string system-name "\\."))))

Starter kit core

The following files contain the remainder of the core of the Emacs Starter Kit. All of the code in this section should be loaded by everyone using the starter kit.

  • Starter kit function definitions in starter-kit-defuns
    (starter-kit-load "starter-kit-defuns.org")
  • Key Bindings in starter-kit-bindings
    (starter-kit-load "starter-kit-bindings.org")
  • Miscellaneous settings in starter-kit-misc
    (starter-kit-load "starter-kit-misc.org")
  • Registers for jumping to commonly used files in starter-kit-registers
    (starter-kit-load "starter-kit-registers.org")

Load User/System Specific Files

System/User specific customizations

You can keep system- or user-specific customizations here in either raw emacs-lisp files or as embedded elisp in org-mode files (as done in this document).

You can keep elisp source in the src directory. Packages loaded from here will override those installed by ELPA. This is useful if you want to track the development versions of a project, or if a project is not in elpa.

After we've loaded all the Starter Kit defaults, lets load the User's stuff.

(cl-flet ((sk-load (base)
         (let* ((path          (expand-file-name base starter-kit-dir))
                (literate      (concat path ".org"))
                (encrypted-org (concat path ".org.gpg"))
                (plain         (concat path ".el"))
                (encrypted-el  (concat path ".el.gpg")))
            ((file-exists-p encrypted-org) (org-babel-load-file encrypted-org))
            ((file-exists-p encrypted-el)  (load encrypted-el))
            ((file-exists-p literate)      (org-babel-load-file literate))
            ((file-exists-p plain)         (load plain)))))
       (remove-extension (name)
         (string-match "\\(.*?\\)\.\\(org\\(\\.el\\)?\\|el\\)\\(\\.gpg\\)?$" name)
         (match-string 1 name)))
  (let ((user-dir (expand-file-name user-login-name starter-kit-dir)))
    ;; load system-specific config
    (sk-load system-name)
    ;; load user-specific config
    (sk-load user-login-name)
    ;; load any files in the user's directory
    (when (file-exists-p user-dir)
      (add-to-list 'load-path user-dir)
      (mapc #'sk-load
             (mapcar #'remove-extension
                     (directory-files user-dir t ".*\.\\(org\\|el\\)\\(\\.gpg\\)?$"))
             :test #'string=)))))

Settings from M-x customize

(load custom-file 'noerror)



If you already have a directory at ~/.emacs.d move it out of the way and put this there instead.


The emacs starter kit uses Org Mode to load embedded elisp code directly from literate Org-mode documents.