Emacs Org mode: Markup for notes and planning

The best markup for notes is plain text. After having looked around for decades, I have found that the only two markup languages worth mastering are Pandoc markdown and Emacs Org mode. They are worth it not only because of their initial proximity to plain text, which makes them simple to start with (if you need extended and advanced features, it quickly gets more complicated of course, yet part of their value is that all the imaginable advanced features are there, too), but also because of the sophisticated and convenient infrastructure that has already been created to back up the user base.

The most important infrastructure is format convertibility. For example, Org mode can be converted (inside Emacs+Org itself) into decent HTML, LaTeX, and PDF. Use Pandoc to convert into all the remaining needed formats.

The starting idea of Emacs Org mode is to write a heading text prefixed with “* ” and then the main paragraph(s) in plain text. Of course, every paragraph starts at a new line and there has to be an empty line between paragraphs – just like in plain text. This format is ideal both for notes and also for larger writing project outlines.

Org presentation

In addition to writing project outlines in terms of headings and paragraphs, Emacs includes a built-in presentation feature. After reopening a ready-written org file (which is a plain text file with .org ending in the file name), Emacs at first displays just the headings. If there are paragraphs following the headings, the headings display three dots at the end. The main text under then heading can be expanded and re-collapsed into the heading with the Tab key while the cursor is on the heading line.

As far as this goes, it is sufficient for any text-based presentation and any skeleton outline for a writing project. However, there is more.

Org lists

In addition to text paragraphs, note-takers may need lists. Org mode supports both ordered (i.e. numbered) and unordered lists, and also checklists. Checklists are useful for shopping, but also to track any other tasks to be completed. Checklists look as follows.

* Checklist [/]
 - [ ] First item
 - [ ] Second item
 - [ ] Third item

The [/] after the checklist heading displays the count of checked items. In the example, nothing is checked yet.

The items are checked by moving the cursor to the brackets of the item and pressing Ctrl+c and Ctrl+c (that is, Ctrl+c twice). When checking the list items, the count point in the list heading is updated automatically. In the heading, also percentage count is possible with [%].

Org planner

Tasks or todo-lists become available by Shift+right arrow on a heading. Pressing Shift+right arrow multiple times on a heading cycles through *TODO* and *DONE* labels, and no label.

Tasks can also have deadlines. To add a deadline, move to a heading and press Ctrl+c and Ctrl+d (or hold down Ctrl and press c and d keys). This pops up the calendar so you can select the date for the deadline. Schedules are a similar calendar feature, available by means of Ctrl+c and Ctrl+s.

If you want the calendar to begin on Monday (as in continental Europe) instead of Sunday (as in the English-speaking world), insert the following in Emacs configuration file.

(setq calendar-week-start-day 1)
(setq column-number-mode 1)


This is just a very superficial scratch of Emacs Org mode. There is a lot more to Org mode, such as agenda view over deadlines, tables with nearly all the functionality of Excel spreadsheets, footnotes, etc. Anyway, I use it in this very superficial way, typing outlines, some lists, tasks, and maybe exporting and converting formats a bit. Now let’s visit Org mode manual website to learn more.

By the way, last three posts in this blog were written in Org, in Emacs. Still typed in plain text, but a significant upgrade given the format convertibility for publishing.

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