VIM tips for editing prose

I was transcribing a draft for a manuscript. Using VIM, of course. But, I found my VIM skills to be lacking somewhat, enough to become sufficiently annoyed to investigate the holes.

Word wrapping

The first thing that I wanted to learn to remember was how to control word wrapping and, especially, how to rewrap text.

I had noticed already that on my current machine, VIM enables word wrapping by default for .txt files. I liked this, except I had forgotten long ago (or never properly remembered) how to rewrap lines. This can be done with gq. gq operates on the current selection or on the argument (a number of words/characters/sentences/paragraphs/etc).

Soon, I decided to turn my .txt into a simple TeX file (to be able to add annotations using TeX comments). This disabled the word wrapping, so I had to find the setting to control this. There's actually two settings:

• wrapmargin defines how close the text may approach the right edge of the VIM window before it starts wrapping,
• whereas textwidth tells VIM to start wrapping when a fixed number of characters is approached.

Because VIM doesn't do wrapping by default for .tex files, I added the following modeline to the bottom of my draft:

% vim: set textwidth=80 spelllang=nl:

Note that I find 80 characters way too small for most programming tasks, but very convenient as a width for reading prose from a screen. On occasion, I've even used width: 80ex; in the CSS of a website.

Sentences and paragraphs

A few movement commands that I've never used enough to remember well are {/} and (/). } and { are used to move a paragraph forward or backward, respectively;) and ( are used to move a whole sentence forward or backward. This is particularly useful while editing prose.

To quickly select a paragraph, for example, you can easily move to the beginning of the paragraph using {, press v to start a selection and go to the end of the paragraph with } (or type 2} to also select the next).

If you want to delete a sentence, go to the start of the sentence (using either ( or )) and type d). It’s as easy as that.

If deleting the sentence fucked up the formatting of your paragraph, reformat by going to the beginning of the paragraph and typing gq}.

Proper punctuation and other special characters

TeX offers a method to construct special characters using plain ASCII source files. In the past, in my inability to properly configure everything for UTF-8, I’ve often made use of this. In TeX, \'e will be turned into é, \"i into ï, etc. This can be convenient, but it’s much more convenient to have an environment that’s properly configured for UTF-8. To enter special characters on my US keyboard layout (standard in The Netherlands), I’ve added compose:ralt to my XKB options. Using this option I can press Right Alt followed by a punctuation character, followed by a character to combine it with.

Clearly, constructing special characters on the level of X holds many advantages over having to do this differently for each and every application. This way I can also type in ë in this HTML <textarea> instead of having to type &euml;. (In HTML, it’s actually better to use a numeric character reference, such as &#235; instead of &euml;, because that doesn’t require the loading of the DTD, but that’s another rant altogether.)

If you don’t have an accommodating XKB configuration, it’s still possible to enter the characters directly at the VIM level. In VIM, :help digraph (see also the on-line HTML version) tells you everything about it. In short, use Control+K followed by a punctuation character, followed by a character to compose special characters in a way similar to X.

What’s very nice about VIM’s default setup is that it allows you to also easily create proper opening and closing single and double quotes. In TeX these are traditionally done using combinations of back-ticks () and apostrophes ('). TeX’s default behavior can be problematic, a good reason to switch to Unicode.

char.VIM digraphTeX
Ctrl+K, ", 6
Ctrl+K, ", 9''
Ctrl+K, ', 6
Ctrl+K, ', 9'

Something else that becomes very easy with VIM’s digraphs is entering proper punctuation characters, such as em/en dashes. These are done by following Ctrl+K with a hyphen and a capital N or M. In TeX these could already be done by simply entering two or three hyphens, but if you prefer it that way, you’re probably better of with the UniCycle plugin for VIM, which I personally don’t dig. Anyway, you’re running out of excuses to let -- appear in your production documents.

char.VIM digraphTeX
Ctrl+K, -, N--
Ctrl+K, -, M---

I have to admit that I’ve waited an awful long time before finding this out. I’m ashamed to tell you that I’ve often gone to Alan Wood’s Unicode resources to look up a character and copy/paste it into an application. 😳 Now, at least I don’t have to further embarrass myself when I’m using VIM.

What remains is to configure XKB in such a way that I don’t need to use VIM digraphs for punctuation. Then I will no longer need to use character references for punctuation at times like these, when I’m typing HTML/XML outside of VIM (or, worse, using copy/paste from VIM into this <textarea>, which I just did :oops:). Let’s see if I can get XKB to compose these using the same combinations as VIM. That is where I’ll continue my quest next time.