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Using the Text Editors

Linux distributions include a number of applications known as text editors that you can use to create text files or edit system configuration files. Text editors are similar to word processing programs, but generally have fewer features, work only with text files, and might or might not support spell checking or formatting. The text editors range in features and ease of use, but are found on nearly every Linux distribution. The number of editors installed on your system depends on what software packages you’ve installed on the system.

Some of the console-based text editors are

  • emacs—The comprehensive GNU emacs editing environment, which is much more than an editor; see the section “Working with emacs” later in this chapter

  • joe—Joe’s Own Editor, a text editor, which can be used to emulate other editors

  • nano—A simple text editor similar to the pico text editor included with the pine email program

  • vim—An improved, compatible version of the vi text editor (which we call vi in the rest of this chapter because it has a symbolic link named vi and a symbolically linked manual page)

Note that not all text editors described here are screen oriented. Some of the text editors for the X Window System, which provide a graphical interface, such as menu bars, buttons, scrollbars and so on, are

  • gedit—A GUI text editor for GNOME

  • kate—A simple KDE text editor

  • kedit—Another simple KDE text editor

A good reason to learn how to use a text-based editor, such as vi, is that system maintenance and recovery operations generally never take place during X Window sessions (negating the use of a GUI editor). Many larger, more complex and capable editors do not work when Linux is booted to its single-user or maintenance mode. If anything does go wrong with your system, you probably won’t be able to get into the X Window system, making knowledge and experience of using both the command line and text editors such as vi important. Make a point of opening some of the editors and playing around with them; you never know—you might just thank me someday!

Another reason to learn how to use a text-based editor under the Linux console mode is so that you can edit text files through dial-up or network shell sessions because many servers do not host graphical desktops.

Working with vi

The editor found on nearly every Unix and Linux system is, without a doubt, the vi editor, originally written by Bill Joy. This simple-to-use but incredibly capable editor features a somewhat cryptic command set, but you can put it to use with only a few commands. Although more experienced Unix and Linux users continue to use vi extensively during computing sessions, many newer users might prefer learning an easier-to-use text editor such as pico or GNU nano. Die-hard GNU fans and programmers definitely use emacs.

That said, learning how to use vi is a good idea. You might need to edit files on a Linux system with a minimal install, or a remote server without a more extensive offering of installed text editors. Chances are better than good that vi will be available.

You can start an editing session by using the vi command like this:

$ vi file.txt

The vi command works by using an insert (or editing) mode, and a viewing (or command) mode.

When you first start editing, you are in the viewing mode. You can use your cursor or other navigation keys (as shown later) to scroll through the text. To start editing, press the i key to insert text or the a key to append text. When finished, use the Esc key to toggle out of the insert or append modes and into the viewing (or command) mode. To enter a command, type a colon (:), followed by the command, such as w to write the file, and press Enter.

Although vi supports many complex editing operations and numerous commands, you can accomplish work by using a few basic commands. These basic vi commands are

  • Cursor movement—h, j, k, l (left, down, up, and right)

  • Delete character—x

  • Delete line—dd

  • Mode toggle—Esc, Insert (or i)

  • Quit—:q

  • Quit without saving—:q!

  • Run a shell command—:sh (use 'exit' to return)

  • Save file—:w

  • Text search—/

Working with emacs

Richard M. Stallman’s GNU emacs editor, like vi, is included with Ubuntu and nearly every other Linux distribution. Unlike other Unix and Linux text editors, emacs is much more than a simple text editor—it is an editing environment and can be used to compile and build programs, act as an electronic diary, appointment book and calendar, compose and send electronic mail, read Usenet news, and even play games. The reason for this capability is that emacs contains a built-in language interpreter that uses the Elisp (emacs LISP) programming language. emacs is not installed in Ubuntu by default; instead you’ll need to install it using apt-get or synaptic. The package you need is simply emacs.

You can start an emacs editing session like this_FIRST:

$ emacs file.txt

The emacs editor uses an extensive set of keystroke and named commands, but you can work with it by using a basic command subset. Many of these basic commands require you to hold down the Ctrl key, or to first press a meta key (generally mapped to the Alt key). The basic commands are listed in Table 4.2.

Table 4.2. Emacs Editing Commands





Cursor left


Cursor down


Cursor right


Cursor up


Delete character


Delete line


Go to start of line


Go to end of line





Ctrl+x, Ctrl+c

Save As

Ctrl+x, Ctrl+w

Save file

Ctrl+x, Ctrl+s

Search backward


Search forward


Start tutorial

Ctrl+h, t


Ctrl+x, u

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