In the spirit of How can I explain the meaning of LaTeX to my grandma?

Emacs is wonderful editor for any text-based purpose—this much is clear to those of us who use it. Often times I'm trying to explain to one of my friends why I use something that 'looks so old' and I struggle to find a good answer. I'm not necessarily interested in 'converting' them to use Emacs; like I said—they don't necessarily have a reason to. I just want to explain why I use Emacs as opposed to Visual Studio, Sublime, Atom, or any of the flashy-and-featureful graphical editors. What makes it the best choice among these?

  • 5
    "It is a highly-customizable text editor." If you feel the need to say more than that, it is probably because you want them to get a sense for how powerful it can be. However, if the first thing that comes to their mind when you say "text editor" is MS Word, then you are probably fighting an uphill battle.
    – nispio
    Oct 27 '14 at 18:33
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    Seeing your question on the question list, I immediately thought about that famous question on TeX.SE...;-)
    – mbork
    Oct 27 '14 at 21:40
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    As cute as it was, I changed the tag to learning. :-) If desired, we could discuss in the meta what's the right tag here.
    – Malabarba
    Oct 27 '14 at 23:12

Emacs is a popular text editor used mainly on Unix-based systems by programmers, scientists, engineers, students, writers, and system administrators. It is popular because of its functionality and is highly extensible.

In other words, it is a text-editor built around you, extended by you, made for you. Unlike other text editors where you have to adjust to it. Emacs can be adjusted by you to suit your needs.

In my opinion: Yes, Emacs is basically like a personal text-editor conforming to your needs/specifications but it so much more! But it is so much more than just a text-editor, you can:

And so much more! I believe that no one uses Emacs the same way and that we all use it differently. Meaning no two Emacs user or Emacs application are the same.

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    Also, writers: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/4549/…
    – mbork
    Oct 27 '14 at 21:58
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    @mbork, thanks for the comment. I also really enjoyed that question. Oct 27 '14 at 22:06
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    IMO, it's unfair to say that emacs adjusts to you; the thing I find wonderful about emacs is that you can adjust it (as opposed to other editors, excluding vim/etc.) rather than learn to work around its quirks. Oct 27 '14 at 23:20
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    Well this is opinion oriented question. It depends on your outlook on it. If I was a writer, I would surely have a different definition of Emacs then a programmer would have. Oct 27 '14 at 23:24
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    I'm a writer, and what I like about Emacs is that I can program it to adjust to me and my needs. Aug 13 '15 at 16:47

I don't usually try to explain tools I use to other people, unless they made an explicit request as to how they could improve their workflow. I don't see a benefit in converting people to Emacs.

That said, when people in IT who don't use Emacs but are quite familiar with a web browser ask me why I would use something as "bloated" as Emacs for text editing, I usually describe it as a platform for anything that can "reasonably" (this is up for interpretation) be mapped to buffers of text.

A text buffer could be the trail of a shell session (shell-mode), an email (message-mode), a TODO list (org-mode), a directory listing (dired), a text file on disk, a web page (eww), the output produced by an external command, etc. Just like a modern web browser represents an environment in which a programming language can be used to manipulate and interact with HTML documents, Emacs is an environment for text buffers with a language that can be used to manipulate and interact with text buffers. It is my main user agent, much like the browser is the main user agent for documents and applications on the web to many people.

Understanding Emacs as a generic tool providing a text interface (one of which may be an editor) usually clears up any confusion (or at least reduces mockery). I would not explain Emacs to people who do not understand their web browsers, which is my interpretation of "non-technical".

  • I love this answer (and your definition of "non-technical";-))!
    – mbork
    Oct 29 '14 at 12:30
  • Good answer, except in my case I actually do explain my tools to people, especially non-technical people, and never to try to convert them to Emacs. Aug 13 '15 at 16:50

To a non-initiate, I used to say: "Emacs is more than an editor. It is actually a powerful tool which lets you build your own editor."

This actually scared many away from Emacs, because they felt like it was something too complex to being worth the effort.

So now I just say: "Emacs is a powerful editor that can make your text writing better in many different ways. Editing and creating text documents with Emacs is more efficient."

If that works, listener will ask for some explanation about how Emacs works. If that doesn't work, I just show some Elisp and scare my listener away forever. ;)

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    I love Emacs and will use it for the rest of my life, but realistically, for most people it actually is too complex to be worth the effort. Most people are fine with Microsoft Word and for them it doesn't make sense to spend the time it takes to learn Emacs and how to extend it. Aug 13 '15 at 16:52

I would insist that Emacs is a tool for professionals in text editing. And here is why (and what I mean by professional):

First of all, the analogy: Windows Movie Maker and Adobe Premiere are both tools for video editing, but the former is not used by industry professionals to make movies. This argument also avoids superlatives and absolutes, which would often render the admirers of certain technology biased. Movie Maker isn't worse than Premier in an absolute sense. It is more suitable for simple video editing of family videos, but Premiere comes with both higher requirements and more features.

There are several definitions of the word professional one is that of sport (where the opposite is the amateur) or in craftsmanship, where the opposite is the apprentice. So, I don't mean it as in sports, where this definition relates only to whether the sportsmen are paid for their performance, and not to the master-apprentice kind, but to the:

Professional \Pro*fes"sion*al\, a.

  1. Of or pertaining to a profession, or calling; conforming to the rules or standards of a profession; following a profession; as, professional knowledge; professional conduct. "Pride, not personal, but professional." --Macaulay. "A professional sneerer." --De Quincey.

    [1913 Webster]

I.e. any person who is required by their trade to be skillful at editing text (which, as has been noticed already, could be a writer, a programmer, a scientist or an engineer) would have chosen this tool as being adequate for their needs. This, would, for example, also explain why Emacs is extensible (because any tool for professional text editing would have to be extensible). This also has a potential to answer questions of a shape: "Why if it is so good, not everyone uses it?" - trivial problems don't require expert level tools to solve them.

I'd also put a side-note saying that there are only as many as two of the kind :)


I would redirect this person to the place where experienced users explain clearly why they are using emacs. Then, I would invite them to have a look at this same page to have a visual outlook of what can be accomplished with emacs.


I would like to give my two cents' worth. First I am not a professional programmer (I am an MD), so I am just an hobbyist or better amateur in this field, but I am using *nix systems from the time of my University studies (back in the end of 90's). I can tell you the first impression when I had using the Emacs was like some of the worst (esthetically speaking) piece of software I had ever seen. Especially after when Apple started make more appealing OS with a lot of fancy software inside. But after I was telling to myself: look at the kitchen in restaurants, actually they are ugly places. The same we can tell about most of the factory working places. So that's the point: Emacs is giving you all you need for your particular job. As someone else pointed Emacs is a professional tool for this reason. It is not necessarily a program for coding. A lot of people are using (myself included) it for writing papers, books, article... and the list could grow.

But what I really understand after using it (but we can tell the same about the CLI land in general) is that in Emacs you are constantly focused on the content of what you are writing/reading/coding.

  • Actually since Emacs is so infinitely extensible, in using it I focus much less on the content of what I'm writing and instead spend way too much time configuring and extending my Emacs-enabled tools. Aug 13 '15 at 17:13
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    Configuring and extending Emacs are the most difficult parts (IMPO). It took me a lot of time to have all the packages configured to suite my needs. But when you think everything is set up there is no need to worry about. It is like building a house on good foundation. I like so much this software that I don't care about the OS, just I need to have Emacs installed on the machine . Aug 13 '15 at 18:24

The best way to explain anything to a non-expert is through giving examples. So the best way to explain what Emacs is is all about to a civilian is to give examples of use cases they can understand and relate to.

I usually start by saying something like this: Emacs is an old-school text-editor from the 70s that was invented before Microsoft Word and all the modern word-processing apps. The reason it's so cool is that it's programmable. It has a programming environment built into it, which means you can write and edit with it the same way you would with Microsoft Word.

But since Emacs is programmable, you can literally program it to do anything. And since it's programmable, you can integrate Emacs with anything else on your computer, including your browser, your email, your contacts, your calendar, Twitter, Evernote, and any other programming languages you use.

Everyone who uses Emacs programs it to do different things based on what they need. So a web developer who uses Emacs might program it to do __ and __. A scientist or academic might program it to do statistical analyses with R and...

In my case, since I'm a writer, I've programmed Emacs to do things that help me with research, writing, and editing, including:

  • when I'm doing research and I copy and paste text from the web, automatically format it as a block quote, and automatically copy the name of the page, the URL, and the date and create a bibliography entry
  • search and replace text phrases across multiple files in a directory
  • when I write something, to automatically export to a nicely formatted web page, and, from the same source document, automatically export it to a nicely formatted PDF file, automatically generating a cover page and table of contents
  • help me keep track of my todo lists, appointments, and deadlines
  • help me brainstorm ideas and create mind maps
  • automatically send emails to people, and automate certain kinds of email replies

I generally conclude by saying something like: Basically if there's anything you do on a regular basis as part of your workflow, Emacs can be programmed to do it automatically. So basically it's a tool for programming your text editor to do whatever you want.

  • How would this appeal to a non-technical person? Aug 13 '15 at 16:53
  • Huh? If a non-technical person asks me what Emacs is, it means that by definition, knowing the answer appeals to them. When people see me using Emacs, knowing I'm not a programmer, they're always fascinated. As you said yourself in your question, we're not trying to convert anyone, we're just explaining what Emacs is. Aug 13 '15 at 17:29

Summary: It's not a great question as posed so far: too general. I think it should be closed as too broad or primarily opinion-based. (Just one opinion.)

First, what is a "non-technical person"? Just knowing that (you think) some person is "non-technical" doesn't help much. Non-technical wrt what techniques? And how does that particular lack of technique relate to Emacs?

The answer of how to explain anything to anyone is to first find out who you are talking to, what interests them, and why. If I were to "explain" Emacs to Person X, I would try to find out what use Emacs might be to Person X. And I'd work from there: from Person X's presumed motivation and use cases to how Emacs might fit these.

Yes, of course you can try to characterize a particular set of people as an audience for some presentation: a book, article, video, demo, whatever. But even then, (1) a better characterization of your audience than "non-technical people" would be helpful to you. And (2) it would also help you to be more specific about the presentation itself: what form/medium, how long, how, etc.

IOW, ask yourself who, what, when, how, why,... What do you think Emacs has to offer your audience? What do you think they might be interested in that relates to Emacs?

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    I guess you are not a member of the TeX.SE community. Please look at the linked question (unless you did it already, which you probably did – I'm saying just in case). The thing is, the TeX.SE community is not that strict about the overall SO rules – I would say that the culture of that site is amazing. I am rather confident that Emacs community being also a very nice one, maybe we don't have to be that strict, either, and allow broad questions like this. I'm not against closing duplicates or too-broad questions, but a small percentage of opinion-based ones...
    – mbork
    Oct 28 '14 at 7:38
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    ...seems harmless. (Especially that the whole Emacs vs. Vim affair is so much opinion-based;-).) This particular question might be both opinion-based and too broad, but I think many Emacs users can relate to the problem stated, and hints might be helpful. (Also, a parallel question "How to explain I'm using Emacs and not Sublime Text/Atom/whatever the new shiny editor is might also be of use.) Such questions also promote reflection, which is generally useful.
    – mbork
    Oct 28 '14 at 7:42
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    Also, I don't agree with the last paragraph of your answer. It's not that we are selling Emacs to non-geeks; it's that we want to be able to explain them what and why we are doing with this "ancient" piece of software.
    – mbork
    Oct 28 '14 at 7:45
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    I'm not attacking anyone!!! I got a false impression from your answer, it seems. And I agree with many of your points, it's just that I don't feel that the question is too broad for ESE.
    – mbork
    Oct 28 '14 at 14:40
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    @mbork FWIW- If you ask me, "How should I explain Emacs (or category theory or angling) to my grandmother?", my response is likely to be, "Tell me more about your grandmother!" Grandmothers, like everyone else, are different. "And since you are asking for help, please tell me more about your intention/aim/approach. Will you be spending 6 months living with Grandma and discussing it with her daily, or will you be trying to explain it in a tweet?" Geek, grandmother, and, yes, Emacs are overly broad, IMO. The question can be improved, narrowed. And that will help everyone. That's all.
    – Drew
    Oct 28 '14 at 16:37

"Emacs is a text editor which allows for easy text transformation from one format to another format. It has 10,000 text editing functions built-in."

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