I threw this post together because I couldn’t decide where my notes to myself on using Spacemacs should go. So here they are.

Updates will frequently happen to this page, and if you’re really curious, you can view those here.


Spacemacs usage notes. Note that if you find a modal seems to have trapped you and you’re not sure how to escape it, try q first, then ESC, and C-g (hold CTRL and press g). My frustration when starting out with Spacemacs revolved primarily around my fingers moving faster than my brain, and I wound up opening prompts and terminals without understanding how to get out of them.

Text Navigation

This is the primary feature that drew me to Spacemacs in the first place - efficiently navigating text. I’m not going to include all of the movements you find in :evil-tutor-start

Move between characters, lines, words, and paragraphs

h j k l to move left one character, down one line, up one line, or right one character

w move forward to the beginning of the next word

W move forward one WORD (non-whitespace characters)

B move backward one WORD (non-whitespace characters)

b move backward to the beginning of the last word

( move backward one sentence

) move forward one sentence

{ move backward one paragraph

} move forward one paragraph

0 move to the start of the current line

^ move to the first non-whitespace character on the current line

$ move to the end of the current line

H move to the top of the screen

M move to the middle of the screen

L move to the bottom of the screen

| move to the first column on the line

Prepend a number to the front of these movements to move that number of times. e.g., 10j moves down 10 lines, 70| moves to the 70th column, etc.

For a more complete reference, see this article on the Vim Wiki


d) deletes from cursor to the end of the sentence

d( deletes from cursor to the beginning of the sentence

d} deletes from cursor to the end of the paragraph

d{ deletes from cursor to the beginning of the paragraph


SPC r y views the Emacs kill ring allowing for rapid selection of recently cut/yanked text

gh moves up a header

gl moves to the next header

gj moves to the next header at the same level (i.e., from one # to the next # in markdown)

gk moves to the previous header at the same level (i.e., from one # to the previous # in markdown)

Using avy timer

avy-goto-char-timer is functionally equivalent to the wonderful feature of Vimium which allows for very rapidly moving to a specific location. It’s brilliant in Spacemacs! It works like this:

  • Identify where you want the cursor to jump.
  • SPC j j then press the character you want to jump to.
  • All occurrences of that character will change to different characters. These changed characters are what you press on the keyboard to instantly put cursor at the location you wanted to jump to.

Using Marks

Set a mark using mp where p is the name of the mark.

'p moves to the beginning of the line of mark p

``pmoves to the cursor position of markp` (this is a back-tick-p)

'' return to cursor’s location prior to the last jump (two single quotes)

`` undo last jump (two back ticks)

File Navigation

SPC f f to use helm-find-file - start typing a filename to match flies in the current helm project

SPC f g for rgrep. If you want to search a directory for files containing a string, try SPC f g to specify the string to search for, the filetypes to search in, and the directory in which to look.

Note:The Silver Searcher must be installed for this to work!

SPC s a f for helm-do-ag - this is like rgrep but much faster! Will prompt for the directory to search in and the pattern to look for in files within that directory. (Note: permissions issues will display in the resulting buffer, potentially clogging up results).


Be sure to check out the Treemacs documentation for more information

SPC f t show/hide the treemacs pane

M-0 (with OSX layer enabled, this is alt-0) Focuses the treemacs pane

SPC SPC treemacs-switch-workspace changes the treemacs workspace

SPC SPC treemacs-edit-workspaces edits treemacs workspaces (use SPC SPC treemacs-finish-edit when done)

Using the silver searcher (ag)

Note:The Silver Searcher must be installed for this to work!

Use helm-ag to search within the current file with SPC s a a (space, search, ag, helm-ag-this-file). This a very fast way to find all occurrences of a pattern within the current file. Note: You need to save the file (SPC f s) prior to using this search for it to work.

Use helm-ag to search for the first occurrence of a pattern in files within a directory with SPC s a d (space > search > ag > helm-dir-do-ag). This can very rapidly to, say, locate text you know is within a blog post. An alternate way to do this is with SPC s a f (space > search > ag > helm-do-ag) and then enter the directory manually you want to search. If you’ve opened a file from a project in Spacemacs, it should auto-populate the project’s directory for you.

Error Checking

flycheck-mode is used to check certain major modes for errors. I use flycheck-mode, for example, to catch markdown linting errors as I type blog posts. This mode can be invoked with SPC e and then the corresponding keys:

SPC e b runs flycheck mode on the current buffer

SPC e c clears flycheck errors in the current buffer

SPC e l lists all flycheck errors in the current buffer (Note: keeping this buffer open as you type can impose a performance hit)

SPC e n moves to the next flycheck error

SPC e p moves to the previous flycheck error


flycheck-mode is also used for spell checking. Spelling errors in Spacemacs live under the SPC S tree. Some of the useful ones include:

SPC S b run flycheck spelling on the buffer

SPC S n moves to the next flyspell error

SPC S t enables the flyspell transient state, from which you can enable or disable flyspell

Getting Help

SPC h l get help with the various layers installed and running

SPC h k define top-level keys. This is useful for learning what all of your key-bindings are

Note: This will open the helm buffer with pagination. Press C-h n to move forward one page, C-h p to move backward one page

SPC h d k describes what the key does. This is helpful for discovering how to use emacs. Note that this only shows what the key does in the current mode.

SPC h d l describe the last keys pressed. This is helpful for when you’re not sure what you pressed to cause an action. Text from this command will be placed in the Messages buffer, which you can access with SPC b b and then C-p or C-n to move lines.

SPC h d f describes the help information for a function. Helpful if you know the name of a function, but you want to know what the function does. Also helpful for discovering how much of emacs works :)

SPC ? show key bindings for the current major mode and minor modes

OSX Layer

SPC x w d define the word under cursor


Spacemacs configuration notes

Understanding how Spacemacs modifies Emacs can be accomplished by reviewing several files/directories:

~/.emacs.d/init.el to see how Spacemacs modifies init.el

~/.spacemacs is the Spacemacs configuration file that is likely the first place investigated to better understand what Spacemacs offers

~/.emacs.d/layers/LAYERS.org provides a list of the layers offered by Spacemacs

~/.emacs.d/layers/* review the various layer folders to view the code and implementation of various functions

Add new packages to Spacemacs

New packages can be installed in ~/.spacemacs in the dotspacemacs-additional-packages() list.

Additional Components

Some functionality in Spacemacs requires additional tools. For instance:

gem install mdl is required to install the markdown linter gem used by flycheck

Setting visual line movement

I prefer to have j and k move by visual rather than logical lines. To do so, I added the following at the end of (defun dotspacemacs/user-config ():

  (define-key evil-normal-state-map (kbd "j") 'evil-next-visual-line)
  (define-key evil-normal-state-map (kbd "k") 'evil-previous-visual-line)