How to Learn Vim (Actually)

March 16th, 2013 about vim

When you first start learning Vim, it just sucks. Everyone (except a few lucky people) goes through the "this is stupid" phase, and a lot of those people just give up on Vim because it's so different. Don't. Vim has multitudes of advantages over traditional editors and IDEs; notably, its incredible efficiency and ease of access through remote shells like ssh. Since this article is about actually learning Vim, however, I'll be carrying on now...

Get Comfortable

Seriously. So many hardcore Vim users are dead set on fully immersing yourself immediately: "turn off the arrow keys", "don't use the mouse", etc. Wrong. You have to be comfortable before you can learn. If you're immediately thrown into a completely new editor with no sense of familiarity, you're going to go insane. It's hard to adapt to so much at one time, so take it slow. Start off with the very basics: arrows move, i enters insert mode, <Esc> leaves insert mode. That's it. Get comfortable with those things. If you want to use a mouse, try using the set mouse=a option in your .vimrc. You'll grow out of these habits eventually.

Learn Something New

Once you're comfortable using insert mode and the arrow keys / mouse, learn a few more neat tricks (check the bottom of this post for some starters). Don't try to learn a dozen; just pick one or two. Get comfortable with them. There's no point in learning a dozen commands if you won't remember any of them. Once you've gotten pretty comfortable and mostly mapped them to muscle memory, repeat the process and pick out one or two more. Take it slow and go at your own pace. There's no point to going too quickly because you won't retain as much. Notice a theme yet? Be comfortable.

Keep Out of Insert

You wan't to stay out of insert mode as much as possible. Only enter insert mode if you're actually going to be writing something. If you're just moving around the file, even if it's just a few lines or characters, get out! You're wasting keystrokes. Most of Vim's efficiency lies in normal mode, so spending all of your time in insert mode is just plain wrong. If you have to enter insert mode every time you want to delete a letter, it's a minimum of three keystrokes: i<Backspace><Esc> or a<Backspace><Esc>. If you're rocking out in normal mode, it's one: x. If you want to delete five letters, insert mode will be a minimum of seven keystrokes, while normal mode will be two: 5x. What if you want to delete a whole line? In insert mode, you have to move all the way to the end of the line with the arrow keys, enter insert, and hold backspace until you're done. Or just stay in normal mode and press dd or 0D, depending on whether you want the blank line to stay or not. Stop using insert mode. It's bad.

Make Your Own .vimrc

Don't download a suite of plugins and fully configured files. Instead, just start with a nice color scheme and some "essential" settings like line numbers. Get what you "need" to be effective, but try to keep it to a minimum. Just like learning too many commands, if you configure too many options or plugins you won't remember what you've done. Just start simple and build it up on your own.

Take Notes

Even better, write them using Vim. Open a file in your home directory and write down every new command you learn with a short description of how it's used or what it does. Check back on it every once in while. Alternately, make a cheat sheet or even buy one. Even if you take your learning slowly, you might forget one or two commands after a day off. It's critical to review your notes or have a nice cheat sheet to refer to.

Learn Vim's Grammar

Vim's commands aren't discrete parts designed to be used separately; they were designed to be a fluid language that can be combined and used together to multiply the results. If you're trying to compound commands as one single command, you should take some time to read about Vim's grammar. It'll give you a huge boost once you start getting some of the advanced motions mastered.

Starting Commands


  • i enters insert mode before the cursor
  • I enters insert mode before first non-whitespace character on the line
  • a enters insert mode after the cursor
  • A enters insert mode at the end of the line
  • o inserts a new line below the cursor and enters insert mode
  • O inserts a new line above the cursor and enters insert mode
  • <Esc> leaves insert / visual mode


  • hjkl move the cursor
  • h moves left (it's the leftmost key)
  • j moves down (it looks like an arrow pointing down)
  • k moves up (because)
  • l moves right (it's the rightmost key)
  • Learn these once you're comfortable with a few others.
  • 0 moves to the first character
  • ^ moves to the first non-blank character
  • $ moves to the last character
  • gg moves the cursor to the first line
  • G moves the cursor to the last line
  • :X or XG moves the cursor to line number X
  • e moves to the end of the current word, or the end of the next if you're already at the end of a word
  • w moves to the beginning of the next word
  • b moves to the beginning of the current word, or the beginning of the previous if you're already at the beginning
  • EWB are similar but use whitespace as the word delimeter instead of punctuation (commonly referred to as WORDs instead)
  • tX moves the cursor to the first occurence of character x
  • fX moves the character onto the first occurence of character x
  • TX is the same as tX but searches left
  • FX is the same as fX but searches left
  • /search will search the whole file for the term 'search'
  • n will find the next occurrence of your search term
  • N will find the previous occurrence of your search term
  • starting the search with ?search will automatically start in reverse search mode


  • x deletes the character under the cursor
  • dd deletes the current line
  • D erases everything on the line after the cursor
  • yy yank (copy) the current line into the default register (a register is like a clipboard)
  • p pastes the default register after / below the cursor
  • P pastes the default register before / above the cursor
  • :wq saves and quites; :w just saves; :q just quits; :q! quits and discards unsaved changes.
  • cc or S erases the current line and enters insert mode
  • C erases everything after the cursor and enters insert mode
  • s erases the character under the cursor and enters insert mode
  • ciX erases everthing inside the delimeter X and enters insert mode. X can be several items:
  • ( or ) will select inside the pair
  • [ or ] will select inside the pair
  • { or } will select inside the pair
  • ' or " will select inside the pair
  • w or W will select inside the word or WORD
  • t or T will select inside the HTML/XML tag
  • caX erases everything around the delimeter X (including X) and enters insert mode. You can use the same options as with ciX
  • diX and daX work like ciX and caX
  • rX replaces the character under the cursor with X
  • R enters replace mode, causing any characters typed to replace the character under the cursor

"Essential" .vimrc settings

Just add these to your ~/.vimrc file and Vim will load them every time it starts up. If you're looking for more powerful options, check my GitHub.

  • set number will turn on line numbers
  • set incsearch will turn on incremental search. This jumps to search terms as you type them
  • set hlsearch will highlight all matching search terms
  • set ignorecase will ignore case while searching
  • set smartcase same as ignorecase UNLESS you use a capital letter in your search
  • set tabstop=X set the number of spaces that represent a tab
  • syntax on turns on syntax highlighting