Literate Emacs Configuration


Literate programming, proposed by Donald Knuth in 1984 {n}, suggests that

Instead of imagining that our main task is to instruct a computer what to do, let us concentrate rather on explaining to human beings what we want a computer to do.

Literate Emacs configuration? Lets us build our .emacs.d files in .org files instead of .el files, so that with very little extra effort they can look like this.

In case that doesn’t speak for itself:

  • with org-mode’s headers and subheaders, you can quickly find your way around a large file, hiding all but the subheader content you care about
  • with org-mode’s links, the links to the snippets from What the .emacs.d!? or Avdi’s Emacs Reboot are live links
  • with org-mode’s export to html, you can weave an even more readable version of the config.
  • since it’s org-mode, you can put TODO statuses or tags on headers as well, so you can easily record the status of your practice on some shortcuts, or tag parts of the config as :experimental:.


The simplest version really does work out of the box.

In your init.el file, include an org-babel-load-file reference to the org file you’re going to use, in my case ~/.emacs.d/

(org-babel-load-file "~/.emacs.d/")

Then, create the org file, and put whatever bits of config that you want in emacs-lisp source blocks, like so:

#+BEGIN_SRC emacs-lisp
  ... code here ...

What this will do is export the source code using org-babel-tangle (more on that later) into a file ~/.emacs.d/sean.el, and it will then load the resulting file using load-file. It is effectively the same as

(load-file "~/.emacs.d/sean.el")

except that it checks the timestamps of the sean.el and files and if the file was changed later, it re-extracts the sean.el file.

(Since sean.el is a generated file you will probably want to add it to your project’s .gitignore so it isn’t committed.)

And in the file you can put headings and subheadings to make it easy to navigate: in my first try, because my Emacs config had previously been across several files, I used the file names as subheadings, ending up with something like this:

* Emacs Config
** Defaults…
** Mode hooks…
** Global key bindings…
** Project-specific shortcuts…
** Zenburn theme…
** Emacs server and Emacsclient…

Check the Html Output

It is the case that if you export that from org to html right now (C-c C-e h o / org-export-dispatch) the h1 title will be the filename, which is unhelpfully just “sean”. Give it a better name with an explicit title export setting at the top of the file:

#+TITLE: Sean Miller’s Emacs Configuration

Re-export, and the html file has that title, and, by default, a linked table of contents derived from the headers and subheaders. (Other export options are described here.)

Run the Tests: A Catch

The next thing that I did was try to run the tests (tests introduced here, test runner introduced here), after changing the initial load-file line in the test to point to the generated sean.el file:

(load-file "sean.el")

And… I got an abnormal exit from ert-runner because the server-start from another part of my Emacs config prevented ert-runner from starting a server or running any of the tests.

We can fix that by breaking apart the emacs-lisp blocks from into two separate files, one of settings and one of code-under-test, and then in the test we can load the code-under-test file on its own.

To do this, we add a :tangle argument to the #+BEGIN_SRC emacs-lisp blocks in the file, with a filename argument. Code that is not under test gets the begin line:

#+BEGIN_SRC emacs-lisp :tangle ~/.emacs.d/tangled-settings.el

And code under test gets the begin line

#+BEGIN_SRC emacs-lisp :tangle ~/.emacs.d/tangled-code.el

Then, when we make changes to the file, on save we can run the org-babel-tangle command and it will export the emacs-lisp blocks into ~/.emacs.d/tangled-settings.el and ~/.emacs.d/tangled-code.el respectively.

We can then remove the org-babel-load-file line from init.el and replace it with:

(load-file "~/.emacs.d/tangled-settings.el")
(load-file "~/.emacs.d/tangled-code.el")

So that the next time we restart Emacs it will pick up the two built files, and if we change the load in our test file to be

(load-file "tangled-code.el")

And run our tests again, this time they run fine, so we have literate Emacs config and running tests.

(You’ll want to change your project’s .gitignore again to include the new “tangled-” files.)

Why “tangled”? It comes from the terminology of literate programming: the literate source file can be “tangled” to produce machine-readable code (exporting the source code blocks into .el files), and “woven” to produce formatted documentation. Knuth later admitted {n} that the echo of Walter Scott’s “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive” was entirely deliberate.

Automating the Manual Step We Just Introduced

When we fixed the catch we lost the automatic updating of the .el files when we changed the .org file. Now we need to remember to run org-babel-tangle manually after changing the .org file.

Manual steps are invariably forgotten, so let’s automate. The simplest hook would be:

(add-hook ‘after-save-hook ‘org-babel-tangle)

But we only want to tangle if we’ve just saved the Emacs config org file, so let’s build a new function to check that before running tangle, and hook to that instead:

(defun my/tangle-on-save-emacs-config-org-file()
(when (string= buffer-file-name (file-truename "~/.emacs.d/"))

(add-hook ‘after-save-hook ‘my/tangle-on-save-emacs-config-org-file)

buffer-file-name returns the absolute path of the name of the file the buffer is visiting. file-truename converts ~/.emacs.d/ into an absolute path so that the string comparison works.

And with that, we’re done. Commit.