Emacs, Git, Business & Pleasure

By Jason Filsinger
  • emacs
  • git

Emacs is an amazing editor; it can be simple, complex, overwhelming, and powerful.

The Motivation

Every emacs user I know (all both of them) has, at one point, lost their emacs configuration. After ‘misplacing’ my config (for the 3rd time) I decided to do something about it. My solution: use Dropbox.

For months I thought I had a workable solution; Two dropbox accounts (work and home) linked with folder sharing between the two emacs config folders. Then came the Monday morning a couple weeks ago; I showed up to work and realized the fancy emacs modifications I made over the weekend were missing. After some investigation I realized it wasn’t a recent desync, it had been out of sync for a while. The Dropbox folder sharing had failed me (and I still don’t know exactly when or why).

My outdated configs made me pull the trigger on something I’ve wanted to do for a while; switch to Git. It’s the perfect solution for managing my emacs config.

The Structure

Currently, my emacs config folder exists in ~/.emacs.git/ on OS X, and in %USERPROFILE%/.emacs.git/ on Windows. (I might change this in the near future; place everything within the ~/.emacs.d folder)

Let’s take a look at the directory structure I have in my ~/.emacs.git/ folder (it’s a pretty simple structure).

~/.emacs.git/ $ ls -la
drwxr-xr-x   9 jfilsinger  staff   306 25 Dec 23:16 .
drwxr-xr-x+ 54 jfilsinger  staff  1836 28 Dec 05:46 ..
drwxr-xr-x  16 jfilsinger  staff   544 29 Dec 02:47 .git
-rw-r--r--   1 jfilsinger  staff   114 23 Dec 04:34 .gitignore
-rw-r--r--   1 jfilsinger  staff  1048 25 Dec 22:54 .gitmodules
-rw-r--r--   1 jfilsinger  staff  8601 25 Dec 22:57 common-init.el
drwxr-xr-x  11 jfilsinger  staff   374 25 Dec 22:54 submodules

I made the decision early-on to take advantage of git submodules; every emacs extension I use has a git repository somewhere (so why not take advantage). Submodules also allow me to make my config public by moving work-related things into a private submodule.

The common-init.el is loaded from my ~/.emacs file (with an extra variable, emacs-sync-path, defined before loading the common-init.el.

Here is my ~/.emacs:

(defvar emacs-sync-path (if (or (eq system-type 'cygwin)
			     (eq system-type 'gnu/linux)
			     (eq system-type 'linux)
			     (eq system-type 'darwin))
			  (concat (getenv "HOME") "/.emacs.git/")
			  (concat (getenv "USERPROFILE") "/.emacs.git/"))
  "emacs sync directory")
(add-to-list 'load-path emacs-sync-path)
(load "common-init.el")

Take note of the emacs-sync-path variable, it’s used later in the common-init.el.

The Submodules

The power of my emacs setup comes from the hard work of others, let’s take a look at how I harness their genius.

I will use markdown-mode.el as an example of how I use the submodule paradigm with emacs extensions (The steps are roughly the same for all submodules).

Initializing the Submodule

From within the ~/.emacs.git/ folder we run the following command:

git submodule add git://jblevins.org/git/markdown-mode.git submodules/markdown-mode

git submodule add git://jblevins.org/git/markdown-mode.git submodules/markdown-mode” - adds a markdown-mode submodule repository to the ~/.emacs.git/submodules/ folder and adds information about the submodule to .gitmodules.

Using the Submodule

Taking advantage of the emacs-sync-path variable that was defined within the ~/.emacs file, I add the markdown-mode submodule path to the emacs load-path within my common-init.el file.

(add-to-list 'load-path (concat emacs-sync-path "/submodules/markdown-mode"))
(setq auto-mode-alist
	(cons '("\\.\\(md\\|markdown\\)$" . markdown-mode) auto-mode-alist))
(autoload 'markdown-mode "markdown-mode" "Markdown editing mode." t)
(add-hook 'markdown-mode-hook 'turn-on-font-lock)
(add-hook 'markdown-mode-hook 'hs-minor-mode)

Updating Submodules

Using submodules allows me to easily update the emacs extensions I use with a little bit of shell magic.

git submodule foreach git checkout master
git submodule foreach git pull

git submodule foreach git checkout master” - loops through all of the submodules the git superproject knows about and tells each of those submodules to checkout their master branch. (we need to do this because when we first add a submodule we get a floating head, submodules don’t initialize to a branch)

git submodule foreach git pull” - loops through all of the submodules and pulls in the latest changes from their remote repository (I pull because I don’t make changes to the submodules)


Eventually you might need to clone your emacs config superproject on a new computer. There are a couple extra steps that need to be executed when cloning a repository that contains submodules.

git clone <source_repository> <target_directory>
git submodule update --init

git clone <source_repository> <target_directory>” - Just your standard issue git clone. “git submodule update --init” - Tells git to initialize and update the submodules required by the superproject.

More Information about Submodules

Git submodules are powerful but they can be a little confusing when you’re just starting out. If you’re new to submodules I highly recommend taking the time to learn and understand them. ProGit has a chapter dedicated to submodules.

The Remainder of the Config

For the most part my common-init.el emacs config just loads extensions from submodules and modifies some settings. If you’re interested in seeing it, you can find it here.

The Work/Life Balance

Like I mentioned earlier, one of the submodules is a private repository containing all of my work-related emacs config options.

Here is a summary of what it contains:

  • snippets (I use yasnippet)
  • modes (A mode for parsing TTY output as well as a mode for the scripting language we use)
  • auto-completion dictionaries (For the scripting language we use at work)
  • functions (for calling external work tools/scripts from within emacs)

I might talk about some of the things I do at work with emacs in a future post.

Wrapping It Up

Overall, I’m content with my emacs setup. Using submodules allows me to take advantage of various emacs extensions on all the computers I use with minimal maintenance. I’m able to update all of the submodules with just a few shell commands which leaves me with just one file (the common-init.el) to maintain.

You can find my emacs config repository on GitHub.

Thank you for reading.