Transitioning from Scrivener or Word to Emacs for Mac OS Mortals

I came late into this game. I didn’t write python scripts when I was in kindergarten. I didn’t hack into my high school’s camera security system. My aim in this post is to show you that you equally don’t need to be a master hacker or whiz coder to get closer to your writing machine. This isn’t a how-to.

It merely points to the free software and packages you can get to start compiling text into amazing, quality files, into whichever format you want. But to get there keep in mind:

  1. Be patient. This can be a transformative experience if you let it happen.
  2. You’ll have a lot of looking-up online to do, especially if you’re just starting out. Issues will come up. Yet there are wonderful, dedicated groups of people helping out each other online. So far I haven’t had a problem for which there wasn’t at least a hint of a solution proposed.

My main impulses to do this came from

  1. Frustration with Microsoft Word, Scrivener and Adobe InDesign for Mac
  2. Will to productive procrastination.

I liked writing in Scrivener. I followed the tutorial to the “t” with the trial version, then bought my license a couple years ago and never looked back to Microsoft Word. But annoyance still crept up when I exported my dissertation files to a Word document my supervisor could read. Footnote alignment was this bottom of a page hell place. Bibliography management with Zotero was so-so. And images. Don’t even get me started on laying out photos on either Scrivener or Word.

My frustration grew to the point I’m now convinced it must be the mother of all invention — or, to make that statement a little less grandiose: of most free software. That’s also when a genial flash of imperative came in the mental thought form “you must learn Emacs and LaTeX”.

Why Emacs?

Emacs is one of the most stable, extensible text editors out there. It’s been around for more than 30 years and it’s also “free as in freedom” software, meaning among other things that you can customize it to your liking and share those customizations with communities of dedicated peers. Those customizations are the predecessors of things like “preferences” and “settings” menus on most software. Whereas the latter still lock you in by giving you a few options to choose from, with Emacs sky is the limit.

Once you switch to Emacs and realize that the world of super file conversion is at your fingertips with Pandoc, you can write text in the simplest of interfaces and convert it to any of the 40 or so different export formats Pandoc handles. If you write in Markdown, this will give you incredible flexibility. No more fussing with style formatting on any text editor.

First Steps

If you use Linux or Mac OS, Emacs comes pre-installed and all you have to do is call it via Terminal by typing emacs. From there, the best way to start with Emacs is to get familiar with navigation, basic commands, key bindings, adding and deleting text by running the tutorial and typing “C-h t, that is, Ctrl-h followed by t”.

It will take time. The learning curve is steep if you compare this to Microsoft Word or any other graphical text editor. But once you get a few typing habits down and a few packages installed, it all starts going smoother and faster. You don’t have to reach for the mouse as often as you did, and you can start editing all sorts of documents out of one place. As I went on — and will keep — learning emacs, I realized typing with a different system meant I didn’t think the same way about things.

Choosing your Emacs

If you decide you like it, you can choose from any of the many Emacs distributions out there instead of your pre-installed version on Mac OS. I use Aquamacs. I like the way it behaves as an app in Mac OS, I like how it integrates the Mac OS spell-check, and I liked how it came with AUCTeX pre-installed (more on that later).


I’m not sure I would have switched to Emacs for my writing without Pandoc. This “swiss-army knife” of markup conversion does wonders. There are many ways to install it (I downloaded the package. If you’re not sure where it’s been installed once you did that type which pandoc on Terminal and it’ll give you its location in your system). And the commands running it are initially simple.

Going Further

If you’re in grad school, you’ll want to play with LaTeX and get initiated to the wonderful world of type-setting and layout. To do this download MacTeX — the full 3gb version, not the light one. This will get you playing with Emacs and Pandoc very nicely and in little time.

With more looking up online and figuring out, you’ll be able to create templates for every kind of writing and correspondance format you’ll need, and you’ll be able to change these templates however you see fit. This also means you’ll be able to distinguish content from format in new and powerful ways.

It doesn’t mean you have to forego proprietary software forever. But It’ll open up on ways you can create more thinking space for yourself, and on more than one way of doing things on a computer.

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