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Getting started in Vim

April 16, 2020

sunrise Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

An introduction

I am by no means an expert in Vim, but I have had my fair amount of attempts at using Vim (and then giving up again), but now have gotten to a point where I think I’m here to stay - at least for the foreseeable future.

These are my top tips and gotchas that worked for me.

Start with Vim tutor

This one isn’t exactly a “hot scoop”, you’ll see this tip in every Vim guide you look at. But it’s there for a reason, in 20 minutes, it’ll take you from zero to being functional in Vim. You’ll be able to open, exit, edit, save. All the basic commands.

To run Vim tutor open up your terminal and type


An interactive guide will guide you through the rest.

Use Vim as often as you can

If you’re like I was and starting from scratch, Vim probably works differently to every other editor you’ve used in your life.

There are a bunch of new keyboard shortcuts that you aren’t used to using.

So if you only use Vim once a week, you’ll need to keep re-learning all those shortcuts over and over. Once you learn something new in Vim, you need to keep re-using it until it becomes locked in memory.

Make your own cheat sheet

It’s tempting to go online and find a complete cheat sheet with all the different Vim bindings on it. For me I just found that overwhelming. Instead, I’d suggest making your own cheat sheet and writing down 5-7 different Vim commands.

Use those commands on your cheat sheet as much as you can, after a week it should be locked into memory - or if you don’t use that command, then replace it with another.

Use Vim plugins for your favourite editor

The hardest part for me when starting in Vim was working with multiple files. It was a massive barrier to entry and meant that using Vim while working in large projects was just not possible.

Both VSCode and Sublime have Vim plugins and I highly recommend using them when starting. It means you’ll be able to concentrate on just the editing aspect of Vim at first, and you don’t have to worry about search, find and replace, working in multiple files, global search, global search and replace…at those extra things that your editor of choice will support out the box.

Try your best to not use the mouse if you can, but at least you’ll have it there if you need it to help you out of a jam.

Don’t use the arrow keys!

It can be real tempting to use the arrow keys to move around. But speed and mastery of Vim comes from being able to keep your fingers on the home row for as much as possible. So use h, j, k and l and after a day you’ll be used to it.

Don’t use h, j, k l!

“Dude, what gives? You totally just told me to use h, j, k, l”.

h, j, k, and l are good starting points to move around, but if you’re pressing those keys more than a few times in a row to get to where you want to be, then there is probably a faster way with less key stokes.

Vim golf

(Vim golf)[] is online source of challenges where you need to convert some given text to what it’s given to you as, to a specified End file.

For example, the top challenge today is titled Prepend * to every non-blank line.

Where this is the start file:

This is a
very short

file, but it is 



And this is the end file:

*This is a
*very short

*file, but it is 



You need to edit the file so that you end up with the contents of the end file.

Vim Golf will record all your keystrokes, and place you on a leader board based on the amount of keystrokes you have. With the least amount of keystrokes the better.

The beauty of Vim Golf from a learning perspective, is that after you submit your attempt, Vim Golf will show you the solutions for other attempts that are in the same range as your score (+/- a few keystrokes). This means that you can look and the keystrokes other people had and see if they are using shortcuts that you didn’t know about.

I found this to be a fun exercise to do, and it’s where I learnt how to do (macros)[].

Vim Adventures

Another fun way to gameify learning was (Vim Adventures)[] The “character” you play is the cursor and you move around the world using the Vim motion keys. You start by only being able to move using the h, j, k, l keys, and then slowly unlock other motion keys.

The pricing model is a bit annoying - its $25 for 6 months of access, but I found the game enjoyable to play and it’ll take you a good few hours to play through the game.

Customising Vim

Once you decide to venture out into running Vim through your terminal, you’re going to want to customise it. Customising Vim is probably one of it’s most powerful features in terms of being able to edit documents really quickly, and it’ll take a life time to constantly tweak it to your needs.

The way you customise vim is to edit your ~/.vimrc file.

In my first attempt at venturing into terminal land, I wanted to be fast straight away so I just copied someone elses .vimrc and away I went. But this is a trap.

The problem with using someone else’s customisations, is that it’s customised to them. There isn’t really a shortcut for customising Vim, you need to do it slowly so that you know what’s going on.

Definitely look at other peoples .vimrc for “dot files”, and try to learn from them. But try to look up the documentation for everything you put in there and add a comment for what it does so you can remember when you come back to it later.

There are tons of well written dot files out there, but one that I stumbled across recently after reading one of his articles was from Nick Janetakis. You can see his .vimrc file (here)[].

I like how it’s laid out and that he has comments explaining what everything does.

Two plugins that I would recommend starting with are (NerdTree)[] and (fzf)[].

I have mine set up the way Nick does and it enables me to work in large projects with fuzzy finding search and file management from inside Vim.

As for the rest, I recommend you slowly build up your .vimrc customisations one by one.


I hope some of these tips are able to help you getting started in Vim. I spent a lot of time doing things that weren’t helpful or made me quit several times and I think having a list like this a couple of years ago would’ve sent me down the right path in starting Vim a lot sooner.

Happy Coding!

Hi, I'm Matthew Burfield. I like writing about cool development stuff.