Ben Scheirman


My Vim Journey

For my Rails work, I’ve largely leaned on TextMate. It’s used by many Rubyists, looks sexy, and is easily extended.

I still use TextMate frequently, but I’ve been ramping up on my Vim skills and I’ve recently come to a point where I think I’m pretty productive in it.

My initial frustrations with Vim were that it was too configurable. Talk to any Vim power-user and you’ll find a completely different set of plugins & keyboard shortcuts. If you snag a friend’s set of Vim configuration files (like I did) you might find yourself frustrated that there’s too much to learn and it’s difficult to know where various behaviors are coming from.

In this post, I’ll attempt to demonstrate a very sane Vim setup that newcomers can use to get started and not be too overwhelmed.

Why Vim?

Before I get started with the basics of Vim, why would you use it in the first place?

For me it boils down to this: I love staying on the keyboard. Vim may not make you faster (in fact initially you’ll be a lot slower) but it can fit your workflow better.

Another big differentiator of Vim is Command Mode. The notion here is that you spend more time wrangling text rather than creating it from scratch. That’s certainly true of my code.

It is important, however, that in the larger software ecosystem, typing is not the bottleneck. Don’t expect Vim to make you build the right software faster.

Vim enables a keyboard-optimized workflow that may make you faster. YMMV. If you’re fast with TextMate or Emacs or don’t want to spend the time to learn something new, then Vim may very well not be for you.

Lastly, Vim is ubiquitous. It’s on every platform and you can carry your configuration (or a very large set of it) everywhere. People frequently put their vim configurations on Github for themselves and others to utilize.

Getting MacVim

Almost all Unix-based systems (like Mac) include a terminal version of Vim. The version included on OS X isn’t compiled with Ruby support, so some plugins won’t work. In addition, it doesn’t have OS-level integration like Copy & Paste in the same buffer.

Most Vim users I know use MacVim, which comes pre-compiled with Ruby support, has tabs, and more.

If you have homebrew installed, just type:

brew install  macvim

If you’d rather grab a pre-built binary, then head on over here.

You’ll also want to make sure that the mvim binary is in your path.

Basic Vim Navigation

I won’t cover everything you can do in Vim here, but here’s just enough to get you started:

In Command Mode:

  • Press h, j, k, l to move the cursor around. It will feel weird, but you start to appreciate not lifting your hand off of the home row to reach for the arrow keys.
  • Press G to go to the end of a document, gg to go to the top of the document.
  • Press i to go to insert mode at the current position
  • Press I to insert at the beginning of the line
  • Press a to “append” content after the cursor
  • Press A to “append” content at the end of a line
  • Type cw (“change word”) to replace the current word and go into insert mode
  • Type dta to (“delete ‘til the letter a”) in a line

In Insert Mode:

  • Press esc to go back to command mode.


  • In Command Mode, you can type commands by prefixing them with :.
  • To write the changes to the current buffer (save) type :w and hit enter. Often times you’ll write & quit in one command, with :wq.

Feel free to use the mouse & arrow-keys while you’re getting used to everything. It will feel weird.

For more Vim-fu, definitely check out this PeepCode screencast.

Installing a Base Set of Plugins with Janus

The real power of Vim is in the plugins, and fortunately Yehuda Katz & Carl Lerche have put together an opinionated and useful set of plugins that are pre-configured and work well together. Take a look at the plugins it includes here.

Getting Janus installed is easy. If you are super trust-worthy and don’t mind running a script blindly (I don’t recommend it) you can simply run:

curl -o - | sh

More explicit instructions for the paranoid can be found on the github page.

Once you have Janus installed, your Vim will be on steroids. Don’t worry though, I’ll try to cover the most important things you’ll be using.

Getting a Decent Theme installed

MacVim installs a hundred nasty looking themes, but a few of them are worth taking a look at. Here are some that I like:

  • molokai
  • railscasts
  • vividchalk
  • vibrantink

If you want to install other themes (like this nice github one) then you simply download it & copy the theme.vim (or whatever the theme is called) to ~/.vim/colors.

To switch between the themes that are installed, you can use the menu, or you can type :colorscheme <scheme>.

To set defaults for your installation, you’d normally add commands to ~/.vimrc however Janus has taken that file over. It instead reads your settings from ~/.vimrc.local. In order to provide settings for graphical Vim installations (like MacVim) there’s also a ~/.gvimrc file.

Open up that file (:edit ~/.gvimrc) and add the following commands:

colorscheme github
set guifont=Menlo:h14

Feel free to tweak this to contain your favorite color scheme & font. In order to see these changes you have to “source” the file:

:source %

(% here means “current file”)

You should see the changes take effect immediately.

Opening MacVim with a “Project”

One common thing in TextMate is to cd into a project and then type mate . which will open TextMate’s project drawer with all of the files in that directory loaded up.

In MacVim, you can do the same. Navigate to a folder with some content (like a Rails app) and type: mvim .

You should see something resembling a file navigator. You can navigate these with the same movement commands from above.

Once you’ve chosen a file, press enter to open it in the buffer.

Janus comes with NERDTree, which has similar behavior to TextMate’s Project Drawer. Open up the NERDTree pane by typing <leader>-n or \n. By default the leader key is set to backslash. The leader key is a special, configurable key used to create quick shortcut combinations.

The NERDTree window can be collapsed by typing <leader>-n again.

You might want to instead find the file by searching for it by name. For that, the aptly-named Command-T plugin can be hepful.

Command-T can be activated (by default) with <leader>-t. Start typing and it will auto complete the results.

Scared Yet?

Writing this reminds me of how hard it was to get started. I can only offer some encouragement that with practice, Vim does start to feel like you can leverage your fast typing skills to really.

Practice only a couple of commands at a time. Really learn what they are doing and then move one to the next command. Print out a cheet sheet. Pair with someone else who uses Vim.

I hope you found this intro useful. I’ll cover some more Vim tricks as time goes on.