On why I use Emacs to write TeX

Posted: Sat 17 October 2020
Filed under Emacs
Tags: emacs LaTeX

An observation I made a while ago while peeking over people's shoulders (with their consent, of course) is that even when they're writing TeX in a powerful text editor, like Emacs or Vim, most people don't really harness the extensive programmability of their text editor (especially MM1). For instance, here's a non-exhaustive list of things you can program Emacs to do for you, rather than doing it yourself.

  • Begin an environment, and place your cursor in the environment, rather than painfully typing out \begin{<environment>} and \end{<environment>}. For more complex environments like figure, Emacs can also prompt you for the required parameters, and suggest sensible defaults.
  • Automatically insert appropriate labels for sections, equations, and the like.
  • Pop up an easily navigable list of labels when you're to reference something. The list of labels also features some of the text following it so that you can tell at a glance what each label corresponds to.
  • When citing something from a BibTeX file, rather than typing out the label of the entry, Emacs lets you fuzzy search by author, words in the abstract, by the journal, etc.
  • Ensure that you never have unmatched parentheses, quotes, and the TeX variants like \langle and \rangle, \left(, and \right), etc.

Some of these features, or approximations thereof, are baked into some of the more TeX specific editors, like TeXStudio, or the Overleaf editor, but they aren't quite as powerful as the Emacs version, neither are they customizable. The features listed above are provided by the packages AuCTeX, RefTeX, and smartparens. As with most Emacs packages, these are written in Emacs Lisp, and as a result, their source code is quite easy to understand, and modify.


Entering a figure environment, and filling in the details. The keyboard shortcut for creating a new environment is `\e`.
Creating a new equation: note that it automatically gets labelled as `eq:1`.
Creating a reference to an equation. The popup shows what equation each label corresponds to.
Citing a book/paper. Note that all I needed to specify was that the author was Thurston.
As soon as I write `\langle`, Emacs automatically creates the matching `\rangle`.

I hope that this video post encourages people to start using Emacs, and writing elisp to customize it. Happy hacking!

  1. If you're reading this, you know what I'm talking about. 


Email to add comments.