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org-mode quick start

bachmeil profile image Lance Bachmeier ・3 min read

Someone on Hacker News made this comment

A few simple observations:

  • the venn diagram of people using emacs and using org-mode seems to largely overlap. That makes it impractical in non emacs heavy environments (aka. the wider industry).

  • tooling outside of emacs is mostly not there.

  • org mode is a basically similar to other wiki dialects with similar syntax, limitations, tooling, etc. Other than the (emacs) tooling, I don't see a strong reason for preferring it.

The above makes it a non-starter for me personally (not an emacs user) or for teams that have non emacs users (i.e. all teams I've been on, ever). That does not invalidate it as a personal note taking tool of course. But lets indeed not overstate its utility. Some people like post-its, scribbling in a notebook, simply remembering to do stuff, or their super duper emacs setups. Whatever works for you.

I thought it would be worthwhile to elaborate on my reply here. I think it's a myth, promoted by Emacs users, that you have to engage in extensive customization and memorize many weird keyboard shortcuts, in order to use org-mode. That's very wrong. Anyone that uses a computer can use org-mode in Emacs.

org-mode is available by default. That means you only need to open a .org file in Emacs and all of org-mode is waiting for you. It may not be well known, but Emacs has a menu bar. You can click to open a file as in any other GUI program.

Wiki-style hyperlinks without a browser and web server. Hit C-c C-l and it will prompt for the link and description. If you want to link to another .org file, remember to add the path, as in ./anotherfile.org. To edit the link, use the same shortcut. To open anotherfile.org for editing, click the link. None of this is hard. Indeed, this is as easy as any self-hosted personal wiki solution I know of. It's unclear how it could be any easier in the absence of reading your mind.

A full-blown outliner. If you want a top-level heading, start the line with *. If you want a second-level heading, start the line with **. And so on, as deep as you want to go. You can add notes to an item by typing below the heading. You can hide the notes by hitting Tab on the heading. What's really powerful is the ability to move subtrees around using Alt plus arrows. Left and right change the level of the heading. Up and down move the entire subtree up or down. If you want to get REALLY FANCY, you hit Shift along with the right and left arrows to cycle through marking items as TODO, DONE, and unmarked.

I've just outlined a tremendously powerful knowledge management system. I provided one shortcut for hyperlinking. I talked about the Alt-arrow combinations for outlining. I talked about Shift-arrow combinations for TODO functionality. I challenge anyone that reads this to leave a comment demonstrating another system that does all that but with a significant reduction in complexity. No such system exists, because it's close to the lower bound on complexity.

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