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Rethinking Vim as a tool for writers



The pencil plugin aspires to make Vim as powerful a tool for writers as it is for coders by focusing narrowly on the handful of tweaks needed to smooth the path to writing prose.

  • For editing prose-oriented file types such as text, markdown, mail, rst, tex, textile, and asciidoc
  • Agnostic on soft line wrap versus hard line breaks, supporting both
  • Auto-detects wrap mode via modeline and sampling
  • Adjusts navigation key mappings to suit the wrap mode
  • Creates undo points on common punctuation during Insert mode, including deletion via line <C-U> and word <C-W>
  • Buffer-scoped configuration (with a few minor exceptions, pencil preserves your global settings)
  • Support for Vim’s Conceal feature to hide markup defined by Syntax plugins (e.g., _ and * markup for styled text in _Markdown_)
  • Support for display of mode indicator ( and , e.g.) in the status line
  • Pure Vimscript with no dependencies

In addition, when using hard line break mode:

  • Makes use of Vim’s powerful autoformat while inserting text, except for tables and code blocks where you won’t want it.
  • NEW Optional key mapping to suspend autoformat for the Insert.

Need spell-check, distraction-free editing, and other features? Vim is about customization. To complete your editing environment, learn to configure Vim and draw upon its rich ecosystem of plugins.

Why use Vim for writing?

With plenty of word processing applications available, including those that specifically cater to writers, why use a modal editor like Vim? Several reasons have been offered:

  • Your hands can rest in a neutral ‘home’ position, only rarely straying to reach for mouse, track pad, or arrow keys
  • Minimal chording, with many mnemonic-friendly commands
  • Sophisticated capabilities for navigating and manipulating text
  • Highly configurable, enabling you to build a workflow that suits your needs, with many great plugins available
  • No proprietary format lock-in

But while such reasons might be sound, they remain scant justification to switch away from the familiar word processor. Instead, you need a compelling reason—one that can appeal to a writer’s love for language and the tools of writing.

You can find that reason in Vim’s mysterious command sequences. Take cas for instance. You might see it as a mnemonic for Change Around Sentence to replace an existing sentence. But dig a bit deeper to discover that such commands have a grammar of their own, comprised of nouns, verbs, and modifiers. Think of them as the composable building blocks of a domain specific language for manipulating text, one that can become a powerful tool in expressing yourself. For more details on vi-style editing, see...


You can install using your favorite Vim package manager. (E.g., Pathogen, Vundle, or Plug.) If you are using a recent version of vim or neovim, you can also use native package support. (See :help packages.)

For those new to Vim: before installing this plugin, consider getting comfortable with the basics of Vim by working through one of the many tutorials available.


Initializing by command

You can manually enable, disable, and toggle pencil as a command:

  • Pencil - initialize pencil with auto-detect for the current buffer
  • NoPencil (or PencilOff) - removes navigation mappings and restores buffer to global settings
  • TogglePencil (or PencilToggle) - if on, turns off; if off, initializes with auto-detect

Because auto-detect might not work as intended, you can invoke a command to set the behavior for the current buffer:

  • SoftPencil (or PencilSoft) - initialize pencil with soft line wrap mode
  • HardPencil (or PencilHard) - initialize pencil with hard line break mode (and Vim’s autoformat)

Initializing by file type

Initializing pencil by file type is optional, though doing so will automatically set up your buffers for editing prose.

Add support for your desired file types to your .vimrc:

set nocompatible
filetype plugin on       " may already be in your .vimrc

augroup pencil
  autocmd FileType markdown,mkd call pencil#init()
  autocmd FileType text         call pencil#init()
augroup END

You can initialize several prose-oriented plugins together:

augroup pencil
  autocmd FileType markdown,mkd call pencil#init()
                            \ | call lexical#init()
                            \ | call litecorrect#init()
                            \ | call textobj#quote#init()
                            \ | call textobj#sentence#init()
augroup END

For a list of other prose-oriented plugins, consult the See also section below.

Hard line breaks or soft line wrap?

Coders will have the most experience with the former, and writers the latter. But whatever your background, chances are that you must contend with both conventions. This plugin doesn’t force you to choose a side—you can configure each buffer independently.

In most cases you can set a default to suit your preference and let auto-detection figure out what to do.

let g:pencil#wrapModeDefault = 'soft'   " default is 'hard'

augroup pencil
  autocmd FileType markdown,mkd call pencil#init()
  autocmd FileType text         call pencil#init({'wrap': 'hard'})
augroup END

In the example above, for buffers of type markdown this plugin will auto-detect the line wrap approach, with soft line wrap as the default.

For buffers of type text, it will initialize with hard line breaks, even if auto-detect might suggest soft line wrap.

Automatic formatting

The ‘autoformat’ feature affects HardPencil (hard line break) mode only.

When inserting text while in HardPencil mode, Vim’s powerful autoformat feature will be enabled by default and can offer many of the same benefits as soft line wrap.

To set the default behavior in your .vimrc:

let g:pencil#autoformat = 1      " 0=disable, 1=enable (def)

You can override this default during initialization, as in:

augroup pencil
  autocmd FileType markdown call pencil#init({'wrap': 'hard', 'autoformat': 1})
  autocmd FileType text     call pencil#init({'wrap': 'hard', 'autoformat': 0})
augroup END

...where buffers of type markdown and text will use hard line breaks, but text buffers will have autoformat disabled.

Suspend automatic formatting for the Insert

There are two useful exceptions where autoformat (when enabled for the buffer) will be temporarily disabled for the current Insert:

First is pencil’s ‘blacklisting’ feature: if used with popular prose-oriented syntax plugins, pencil will suspend autoformat when you enter Insert mode from inside a code block or table.

Second, where blacklisting falls short, you can optionally map a buffer-scoped ‘modifier’ key to suspend autoformat during the next Insert:

let g:pencil#map#suspend_af = 'K'   " default is no mapping

Using the above mapping, with Ko you’ll enter Insert mode with the cursor on a new line, but autoformat will suspend for that Insert. Using o by itself will retain autoformat.

By default no modifier key is mapped.

(See the advanced section below for details on how blacklisting is implemented and configured).

Manual formatting

Note that you need not rely on Vim’s autoformat exclusively and can manually reformat paragraphs with standard Vim commands:

  • gqap - format current paragraph (see :help gq for details)
  • vapJgqap - merge two paragraphs (current and next) and format
  • ggVGgq or :g/^/norm gqq - format all paragraphs in buffer

Optionally, you can map these operations to underutilized keys in your .vimrc:

nnoremap <silent> Q gqap
xnoremap <silent> Q gq
nnoremap <silent> <leader>Q vapJgqap

Or you may wish to ‘unformat’, (i.e., remove hard line breaks) when using soft line wrap.

  • vipJ - join all lines in current paragraph
  • :%norm vipJ - unformat all paragraphs in buffer

Default textwidth

You can configure the textwidth to be used in HardPencil (hard line break) mode when no textwidth is set globally, locally, or available via modeline. It defaults to 74, but you can change that value in your .vimrc:

let g:pencil#textwidth = 74

Sentence spacing

By default, when formatting text (through gwip, e.g.) only one space will be inserted after a period(.), exclamation point(!), or question mark(?). You can change this default:

let g:pencil#joinspaces = 0     " 0=one_space (def), 1=two_spaces

Cursor wrap

By default, h/l and the left/right cursor keys will move to the previous/next line after reaching first/last character in a line with a hard break. If you wish to retain the default Vim behavior, set the cursorwrap value to 0 in your .vimrc:

let g:pencil#cursorwrap = 1     " 0=disable, 1=enable (def)

Concealing __markup__

pencil enables Vim’s powerful Conceal feature, although support among Syntax and Colorscheme plugins is currently spotty.

You can change pencil’s default settings for conceal in your .vimrc:

let g:pencil#conceallevel = 3     " 0=disable, 1=one char, 2=hide char, 3=hide all (def)
let g:pencil#concealcursor = 'c'  " n=normal, v=visual, i=insert, c=command (def)

For more details on Vim’s Conceal feature, see:

:help conceallevel
:help concealcursor

Concealing styled text in Markdown

Syntax plugins such as tpope/vim-markdown support concealing the markup characters when displaying _italic_, **bold**, and ***bold italic*** styled text.

To use Vim’s Conceal feature with Markdown, you will need to install:

  1. tpope/vim-markdown as it’s currently the only Markdown syntax plugin that supports conceal.

  2. A monospaced font (such as Cousine) featuring the italic, bold, and bold italic style variant for styled text.

  3. A colorscheme (such as preservim/vim-colors-pencil) which supports the Markdown-specific highlight groups for styled text.

You should then only see the _ and * markup for the cursor line and in visual selections.

Terminal users: consult your terminal’s documentation to configure your terminal to support bold and italic styles.

Status line indicator

Your status line can reflect the wrap mode for pencil buffers. For example, to represent HardPencil (hard line break) mode. To configure your status line and ruler, add to your .vimrc:

set statusline=%<%f\ %h%m%r%w\ \ %{PencilMode()}\ %=\ col\ %c%V\ \ line\ %l\,%L\ %P
set rulerformat=%-12.(%l,%c%V%)%{PencilMode()}\ %P

or if using bling/vim-airline:

let g:airline_section_x = '%{PencilMode()}'

The default indicators now include ‘auto’ for when Vim’s autoformat is active in hard line break mode. (If autoformat is suspended for the Insert, it’ll show the ‘hard’ indicator.)

let g:pencil#mode_indicators = {'hard': 'H', 'auto': 'A', 'soft': 'S', 'off': '',}

If Unicode is detected, the default indicators are:

let g:pencil#mode_indicators = {'hard': '', 'auto': 'ª', 'soft': '', 'off': '',}

If you don’t like the default indicators, you can specify your own in your .vimrc.

Note that PencilMode() will return blank for buffers in which pencil has not been initialized.

Advanced pencil

Advanced initialization

You may want to refactor initialization statements into a function in your .vimrc to set up a buffer for writing:

function! Prose()
  call pencil#init()
  call lexical#init()
  call litecorrect#init()
  call textobj#quote#init()
  call textobj#sentence#init()

  " manual reformatting shortcuts
  nnoremap <buffer> <silent> Q gqap
  xnoremap <buffer> <silent> Q gq
  nnoremap <buffer> <silent> <leader>Q vapJgqap

  " force top correction on most recent misspelling
  nnoremap <buffer> <c-s> [s1z=<c-o>
  inoremap <buffer> <c-s> <c-g>u<Esc>[s1z=`]A<c-g>u

  " replace common punctuation
  iabbrev <buffer> --iabbrev <buffer> ---iabbrev <buffer> << «
  iabbrev <buffer> >> »

  " open most folds
  setlocal foldlevel=6

  " replace typographical quotes (reedes/vim-textobj-quote)
  map <silent> <buffer> <leader>qc <Plug>ReplaceWithCurly
  map <silent> <buffer> <leader>qs <Plug>ReplaceWithStraight

  " highlight words (reedes/vim-wordy)
  noremap <silent> <buffer> <F8> :<C-u>NextWordy<cr>
  xnoremap <silent> <buffer> <F8> :<C-u>NextWordy<cr>
  inoremap <silent> <buffer> <F8> <C-o>:NextWordy<cr>


" automatically initialize buffer by file type
autocmd FileType markdown,mkd,text call Prose()

" invoke manually by command for other file types
command! -nargs=0 Prose call Prose()

For highly-granular control, you can override pencil and other configuration settings when initializing buffers by file type:

augroup pencil
  autocmd FileType markdown,mkd call pencil#init()
                            \ | call litecorrect#init()
                            \ | setl spell spl=en_us fdl=4 noru nonu nornu
                            \ | setl fdo+=search
  autocmd Filetype git,gitsendemail,*commit*,*COMMIT*
                            \   call pencil#init({'wrap': 'hard', 'textwidth': 72})
                            \ | call litecorrect#init()
                            \ | setl spell spl=en_us et sw=2 ts=2 noai
  autocmd Filetype mail         call pencil#init({'wrap': 'hard', 'textwidth': 60})
                            \ | call litecorrect#init()
                            \ | setl spell spl=en_us et sw=2 ts=2 noai nonu nornu
  autocmd Filetype html,xml     call pencil#init({'wrap': 'soft'})
                            \ | call litecorrect#init()
                            \ | setl spell spl=en_us et sw=2 ts=2
augroup END

Configurable options for pencil#init() include: autoformat, concealcursor, conceallevel, cursorwrap, joinspaces, textwidth, and wrap. These are detailed above.

Autoformat manual control

The ‘autoformat’ feature affects HardPencil (hard line break) mode only.

To suspend autoformat for the next Insert, see above.

When you need to manually enable/disable autoformat for the current buffer, you can do so with a command:

  • PFormat - enable autoformat for buffer (can still be disabled via blacklisting)
  • PFormatOff - disable autoformat for buffer
  • PFormatToggle - toggle to enable if disabled, etc.

You can map a key in your .vimrc to toggle Vim’s autoformat:

noremap <silent> <F7> :<C-u>PFormatToggle<cr>
inoremap <silent> <F7> <C-o>:PFormatToggle<cr>

Autoformat blacklisting (and whitelisting)

The ‘autoformat’ feature affects HardPencil (hard line break) mode only.

When editing formatted text, such as a table or code block, Vim’s autoformat will wreak havoc with the formatting. In these cases you will want autoformat suspended for the duration of the Insert.

When entering Insert mode, pencil will determine the highlight group at the cursor position. If that group has been blacklisted, pencil will suspend autoformat for the Insert. For example, if editing a buffer of type ‘markdown’, autoformat will be suspended if you invoke Insert mode from inside a markdownFencedCodeBlock highlight group.

Blacklists are now declared by file type. The default blacklists (and whitelists) are declared in the plugin/pencil.vim module. Here’s an excerpt showing the configuration for the ‘markdown’ file type:

  let g:pencil#autoformat_config = {
        \   'markdown': {
        \     'black': [
        \       'htmlH[0-9]',
        \       'markdown(Code|H[0-9]|Url|IdDeclaration|Link|Rule|Highlight[A-Za-z0-9]+)',
        \       'markdown(FencedCodeBlock|InlineCode)',
        \       'mkd(Code|Rule|Delimiter|Link|ListItem|IndentCode)',
        \       'mmdTable[A-Za-z0-9]*',
        \     ],
        \     'white': [
        \      'markdown(Code|Link)',
        \     ],
        \   },
        \ }

The whitelist will override the blacklist and enable Vim’s autoformat if text that would normally be blacklisted doesn’t dominate the entire line. This allows autoformat to work with inline code and links.

Auto-detecting wrap mode

If you didn’t explicitly specify a wrap mode during initialization, pencil will attempt to detect it.

It will first look for a textwidth (or tw) specified in a modeline. Failing that, pencil will then sample lines from the start of the buffer.

Detect via modeline

Will the wrap mode be detected accurately? Maybe. But you can improve its chances by giving pencil an explicit hint.

At the bottom of this document is a odd-looking code:

<!-- vim: set tw=73 :-->

This is an optional ‘modeline’ that tells Vim to run the following command upon loading the file into a buffer:

:set textwidth=73

It tells pencil to assume hard line breaks, regardless of whether or not soft line wrap is the default editing mode for buffers of type ‘markdown’.

You explicitly specify soft wrap mode by specifying a textwidth of 0:

<!-- vim: set tw=0 :-->

Note that if the modelines feature is disabled (such as for security reasons) the textwidth will still be set by this plugin.

Detect via sampling

If no modeline with a textwidth is found, pencil will sample the initial lines from the buffer, looking for those excessively-long.

There are two settings you can add to your .vimrc to tweak this behavior.

The maximum number of lines to sample from the start of the buffer:

let g:pencil#softDetectSample = 20

Set that value to 0 to disable detection via line sampling.

When the number of bytes on a sampled line per exceeds this next value, then pencil assumes soft line wrap.

let g:pencil#softDetectThreshold = 130

If no such lines found, pencil falls back to the default wrap mode.

See also

Bloggers and developers discuss pencil and its brethern:

Other plugins of specific interest to writers:

Markdown syntax plugins

Markdown users typically won’t need to install a syntax plugin unless they want the latest version of Pope’s syntax highlighting:

  • tpope/vim-markdown - (recommended) the latest version of Pope’s syntax plugin which ships with Vim

Those using tables and footnotes should consider installing this plugin:

Alternatives to Tim Pope’s syntax highlighting include:

Note that the plasticboy and gabrielelana plugins may incorrectly reformat bulleted lists when Vim’s autoformat is active in pencil’s HardPencil mode.

If you find the pencil plugin useful, check out these others originally by @reedes:

Unimpressed by pencil? vim-pandoc offers prose-oriented features with its own Markdown variant.

Future development

If you’ve spotted a problem or have an idea on improving pencil, please report it as an issue, or better yet submit a pull request.