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Some tips for learning Org Mode for Emacs

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series A Visual Guide to Emacs

When I learn something new, I always find myself wishing there was some kind of map to help me figure out where to start, how to track progress, and what to learn next. So now I’m making them. Here’s one for learning Org Mode, a popular outline/TODO/everything-else mode for the Emacs text editor. You can probably figure out the relevant manual sections to read based on the keywords, but feel free to ask in the comments if you need more help.

2014-01-07 Map for learning Org Mode for Emacs

Map for Learning Org Mode for Emacs

Here’s another short guide with suggestions for evolving your Org file organization:

2014-01-09 Tips for organizing your Org-mode files

Tips for organizing your Org-mode files

And here’s the one-page cheat sheet I made before helping someone dig into tracking time with Org. It’s a great way to measure your time on specific tasks.

2014-01-06 Tracking time with Org mode

Tracking time with Org Mode

Eventually I’ll get around to writing/drawing a book on thinking with Emacs. If you want it to happen, keep asking questions! =)

(Images are shared under the Creative Commons Attribution license, so reshare/reuse/remix away! Click on the images for larger versions.)

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Emacs Org Mode Customization Survey

Org Mode is an outlining and TODO tool for Emacs. Except it’s so much more than that, since people have written all sorts of code to make it do way more than an outliner (or even a text editor!) usually does. Seriously, it even has a Sudoku solver. (The code is optional, so you don’t lose memory if you don’t load it.)

If you use Emacs and you haven’t tried out Org Mode yet, check it out.

If you’ve made Org Mode a part of your life, you’ve probably customized lots of little things about it. Please help the developers by submitting the customization survey to Mike McLean!

As discussed a few days ago on this list, Carsten and the other developers are interested in what and how us users are customizing Org mode. This was first done in 2009, so a re-do of the survey is useful as is for how people are using Org now, as well as a comparison to the past.

Carsten provided the function that was used before to collect the raw data and I am working on the data collection and summarization this time around.

I have place the function on Github,
The raw elisp is at:

All you need to do is:
1. Load and eval the function
2. Execute (interactive) org-customization-survey
3. Review the buffer, cleanse for sensitive information if any
4. Email the buffer to [email protected] (If your Emacs is configured for email, C-c C-c will send)

I’m looking forward to the results, which will most likely be posted to the Org Mode mailing list.

Curious about my Org configuration? Check out my annotated Emacs config.

When I blog with Emacs and when I blog with other tools

English: org-mode logo:

English: org-mode logo: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Updated 2014-10-29: I no longer use Windows Live Writer. I now use Org2blog (thanks to this thumbnail code!) or the WordPress web interface to write and update my posts.

I would love to be able to write all of my blog posts within Emacs. I like the outline tools and simple markup of Org Mode. Org Mode and org2blog are invaluable when I’m writing a post with lots of code or keyboard commands, because it’s easy to set up syntax highlighting or add teletype text. Here’s an interesting self-referential example of org2blog’s power that uses #INCLUDE to include the Org blog post source in the post itself.

If I expect that a post will have lots of images, I tend to use Windows Live Writer because it takes care of resizing and aligning images, linking to the original size. Because it uses my blog’s stylesheet, I can get a sense of how the text will flow around it. I can quickly draw an idea in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, copy and paste it into Windows Live Writer, and then resize it until it feels balanced on the page. Sometimes I draft a post in Emacs and then open it in Windows Live Writer or ScribeFire so that I can add images.

Org Mode also supports images, but it’s not as easy to resize things there. If I wrote a function that used ImageMagick to save the clipboard image to a file, resize it to the appropriate dimensions, and link it to the full-size image, maybe that would do the trick. Still, that sounds like it would be a fair bit of work. Maybe someday. Hmm – any chance someone reading this blog happens to already have that snippet handy? =)

If I need to edit an existing post, I either use the WordPress web interface or I use ScribeFire. That way, I don’t have to fill in the post publishing date again.

It’s a bit of a patchwork system of different tools, but it does the job. What’s your workflow like?

Helping someone get started with Emacs and Org Mode through Org2Blog and LaTeX; troubleshooting steps

Update 2013-08-30: By the way, here’s the link to Christopher Olah’s first post using org2blog. Neato!

The LaTeX logo, typeset with LaTeX

The LaTeX logo, typeset with LaTeX (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Org2Blog is an awesome geek-friendly way of writing posts and publishing them to a WordPress-based blog. When Christopher Olah told me that he’d gotten convinced to try Org Mode thanks to the enthusiastic recommendations from Michael Nielsen and me, we figured that getting him sorted out with taking notes in Org and publishing them through Org2Blog to his blog would be an excellent way to start – especially with inline images and LaTeX.

Chris has promised to write a blog post about what he’s learned, but he’ll probably find these notes useful. Here’s what we ran into when getting org2blog working on Ubuntu.

Need to install the files and set up the load paths

We downloaded the following and added them to an ~/.elisp directory

We also set up his ~/.init.d/emacs.el to load the libraries, set the blog list, and load ido-mode and icomplete-mode.

Emacs / Org too old

Metaweblog and Org2blog didn’t work well with Emacs 23 and Org 6. We upgraded to Emacs 24 with apt-get install emacs24 in order to get Org 7.

Can’t find library org

It turns out that you also need to apt-get install emacs24-el in order to include those libraries.

Org still too old for org2blog

We were having some problems with the version detection of org2blog, so we replaced the org2blog he downloaded with the version I forked at , which I’ve been using with Org 7.

Then we tested it with org2blog/wp-post-subtree, and that worked. Inline images with org-toggle-inline-images worked too, yay!

Next step: viewing LaTeX fragments, since Chris does a lot of math.

dvipng required

org-preview-latex-fragment wanted dvipng to be installed, so we apt-get install dvipng.

LaTeX fragment preview showed blank images

We looked at the *Messages* buffer and found that the .tex files in /tmp could not be rendered by dvipng because marvosym.sty could not be found. We fixed that with apt-get install texlive-fonts-recommended.

(Doing this on my own, I found that I also needed apt-get install texlive-latex-extra .)

… and then we could see and publish LaTeX fragments, which was awesome. =D double-interpreted LaTeX fragments

Chris was having problems with LaTeX fragments when org-export-with-LaTeX-fragments was set to dvipng. It turns out that also interprets LaTeX, so it was getting confused by the alt tags. To solve this, use M-x customize org-export-with-LaTeX-fragmentsand choose Leave math verbatim. Then the LaTeX fragments are passed to WordPress, which renders them as PNGs.

Hope that helps!

Emacs: How I organize my Org files

Michael Jones wanted to know how I organized my Org Mode files. Here’s how I do things!

Org Mode for Emacs is an outliner that lets you add a little structure to plain text files. Not only can you use it to move around, hide, and show sections of your outline, but you can also:

  • schedule tasks and mark them as complete,
  • add hyperlinks and formatting,
  • estimate effort and track time,
  • export to HTML and other formats,
  • and even include code that you can run in-line.

I started with a single Org Mode file (appropriately called, but I’ve gradually fleshed this out into a number of files. My goals for organizing my files this way are to be able to:


  • Publish some files while keeping other files private,
  • Add or remove groups of tasks from my agenda, or focus my agenda/search on the current file,
  • Simplify processing my weekly review (categorizing accomplishments/tasks),
  • Get a quick overview of important things, and
  • Have file-specific options, like columns.

I often use Org agenda custom commands to jump around. For example, one agenda command lists projects, and pressing RET on an agenda line will take me to that project. I also use org-capture to take a note from anywhere, and I use org-goto to navigate my files. For jumping to a specific file, I use ido-find-file.

I use several Org Mode files. The six files below have a little more than 1.3MB of text in total – tiny! – but they help me tremendously. I also have lots of other Org files like my Emacs configuration and my blog index (I often use Org for publishing), but these are my main files.

Personal tasks and notes:

This is the catch-all for any tasks or notes that don’t belong to the files below. Here’s the rough structure:

  • Quick notes: Tidbits that might not make it into their own blog posts, but which can be included in weekly reviews
  • Reference: Hours, license keys, etc.
  • Open loops: Anything I need to check on every so often
  • Projects: High-level things I’m focusing on
  • Financial goals: Things to save up for
  • Someday/maybe: Projects to do someday
  • Weekly review: Divided by year
  • Monthly review: More summaries
  • Plans: Personal plans
  • 2011, 2012, 2013…: I use org-capture to quickly jot down notes. The datetree option automatically files them by day, which makes older ones easier to archive.
  • Tasks: A bucket for miscellaneous tasks

Anything to do with business:

I organize these by the types of tasks I focus on and the notes I want to keep.

  • Earn
    • Clients
    • Leads
  • Build
    • Projects
    • Research
    • Business ideas
    • Blog
    • Delegation
    • Planning
    • Business hygiene (accounting, etc.)
    • Learning
  • Connect
    • Meetups
    • Hangouts
    • Other
  • Reference
  • Tasks


I organize these by relationships so that I can remember who’s out there.

  • Family
  • Extended family
  • Canada friends
  • Hacklab
  • Barkada
  • Letters
  • Meetups
  • Bloggers
  • Family friends
  • Other tasks

Regular tasks:

I organize these by frequency and omit the tasks from my weekly review. This also contains my “In case of…” scenarios and my backup documentation.

  • Every day
  • Once a week
  • Once a month
  • Once a quarter
  • Once a year
  • When…

Outline for future blog posts: sharing/

I organize this by topic. See for the published version

Decision review:

I organize these by status. I also use org-choose markers (ex: CHOSEN, MAYBE) inside the categories, but the headings make it easier to review.

  • Pending
  • Current
  • For review
  • Someday / maybe
  • Archive

Personal finance:

I use John Wiegley’s command-line Ledger program to manage my finances. My financial data is in separate ledger-mode files, and I use an Org file with org-babel to make it easier for me to answer some questions about my finances. For example:

  • Given my average monthly expenses and the amount of money I’ve set aside, how long can I sustain my early-retirement experiment?
  • Am I ahead or behind in terms of household contributions?
  • What did I spend on last month?
  • Are my virtual envelopes balanced?

How do you organize your Org files or outlines?

Everyone’s got different ways of organizing outlines, and people also also change over time. How do you organize yours?

How to present using Org-mode in Emacs

You can do pretty much everything in Emacs, so why not give presentations too? Org-mode is an extensible outliner and Swiss Army knife for the Emacs text editor. Because it’s a great way to organize information, people have written a number of packages for presenting information from Org.

Here are some options for preparing and giving presentations using Org-mode, along with some guidance on what to use when. It may be a good idea to browse through the examples and create a small test presentation using the systems that catch your eye. If you choose your system before drafting your presentation, that can save you a lot of time, since the approaches differ in terms of the code you’ll need to add to your Org file.

Presenting outside Emacs

Do you need to distribute your presentation to non-Emacs users, or do you want to minimize the risk of getting your Emacs configuration confused? You can export your presentation to a number of formats.

Export to Beamer (LaTeX) and generate a PDF: Use this if you need to distribute your presentation as a PDF. You will need to install LaTeX, which could be a bit heavy-weight. Beamer is a slide package for LaTeX, and Org can export an outline to LaTeX code. Check out Writing Beamer presentations in Org-mode for sample screenshots and a tutorial.

Export to HTML and use S5: Light-weight browser-based slideshows are becoming more popular. They can be distributed as ZIPs or .tar.gz, or uploaded to web servers. See the section in the Org tutorials for Non-Beamer Presentations: S5. Here are some sample presentations.

Presenting within Emacs

Presenting within Emacs allows you to edit your presentation, execute code, or do all sorts of other interesting things. And it doesn’t have to be plain text – Org allows you to include inline images. (Microsoft Windows users may need to install additional libraries – see StackOverflow for tips.)

There are several ways to present from Org-mode. They tend to differ on:

  • the markup you need to add to your slides
  • the keyboard shortcuts to help you navigate between slides

so you can choose the one you feel the most comfortable with.

Org-present is simple and defines very few keyboard shortcuts: left for previous slide, right for next slide, C-c C-= or C-c C– to adjust text size, and C-q to quit. This makes it easy to edit your presentation as you go along. You’ll need to edit your ~/.emacs file to include some code. See the documentation in org-present.el for details.

EPresent is a bit more complex. It supports converting LaTeX into images, so you can embed pretty equations. The epresent keybindings include “n” for next and “p” for previous, so don’t use this if you’re planning to edit your presentation on the fly.

Org-presie takes a different approach by showing the outline instead of focusing on just one slide. When you press SPC, the previous headline’s content is hidden, and the next one’s content is expanded. It’s good for always giving people a sense of where they are in your presentation.

And then sometimes you may want to write your own. For my presentation at Emacs Conference 2013, I wanted to be able to:

  • allow me to indicate various headings as slides so that I can organize an outline of slides (why should they all have to be top-level?),
  • for each slide
    • automatically execute pre-written Emacs Lisp code (for animations and demonstrations!), OR
    • display images that fit the full height or width of the window, OR
    • display text if I don’t specify code or images
  • and have globally-set keyboard shortcuts so that I can go forward, backward, or re-do a slide no matter where I am in Emacs (and with AutoHotkey, even when I’m in a non-Emacs window)

You can find my code at

Emacs and Org-mode are wonderfully customizable, so you can probably build something that works just the way you want to work. Enjoy!