Staying the hell out of insert mode

April 24th 2010

Back in the day, the first thing I learnt about vi was how to get into insert mode. It was really quite essential, because without knowing how, you couldn’t actually type anything.

The secret was in the `i` command. The i command was what made vi useable, it was the alpha and the omega, vi’s be-all end-all—and whenever the editor would magically exit insert mode, panic would ensue and I’d frantically press ’i’ to go back to insert-land.

I mean, what else would you want to do in a text editor, besides entering text? It puzzled me for a long time.

The i key turned this rather archaic and obtuse program into a text-editor which would respond predictably to keystrokes. I remember being asked from time to time: So what’s the deal with vi?; I’d answer in the lines of: Vi? you have to press `i` to start typing. Also, try not to press `Esc`.

But that was then, and this is now. Today, vi (vim actually) is my primary editor. What I’d like to show you, is how to stay the hell out of insert mode.

Why stay out?

Insert mode is vi’s weakest mode. In this mode, it’s no better than any other editor, and you may as well be using any other editor. Vi’s true power lies in its ‘Normal mode’. Yes, inserting text is not normal in vi-land. The more time you spend in Normal mode, the more super-powers you will have. Trust me, it doesn’t get any less normal than Normal mode.

Someone once argued that insert mode was actually vi’s most powerful mode, because it was the only mode in which you could insert text. He obviously wasn’t familiar with :r.

How do you get the frack out?

Common knowledge states that pressing the Esc key will get you out of insert mode. This is correct. This is also not very useful. If you’re going to move in and out of insert mode all the time, you’re going to want it to be as seamless as possible. There are two other ways to get out of insert mode:

Ctrl-[

and

Ctrl-C

The other alternative, which I have chosen, is to map a key sequence to Esc. Vi lets you map arbitrary sequences of keys to anything you like. For instance, you could map jj to Esc. j is on the home row, so you don’t need to move your fingers to exit insert mode. I tried this out for a while, as well as a couple of other alternatives. In the end, I settled for kj, as it was the fastest to type. To create this mapping, add this to your .vimrc file:

inoremap kj <Esc>

So what if I actually wanted to write jj or kj? For example if I wanted to write a blog post such as this one? Well, I’d just have to wait for the first letter in the sequence to be inserted. The length of time vi waits for you to complete such a sequence of characters is controlled by the timeoutlen setting, which defaults to 1000 ms. You can change this as such:

set timeoutlen=200

Another really useful trick is switching to normal mode for a single command. You can do this with Ctrl-O. For instance, say you’re typing away and you want to quickly save your work, you can type Ctrl-O :w, which will write the file and put you back in insert mode.

Learning, the hard way

How do you stop yourself from spending too much time in insert mode? Well, you could add these key mappings to your .vimrc:

inoremap <Left>  <NOP>
inoremap <Right> <NOP>
inoremap <Up>    <NOP>
inoremap <Down>  <NOP>

This would make sure you don’t get your little fingers on the arrow keys, and start navigating (gasp) in insert mode.

During your stay

Even though staying out of insert mode is safest, knowing what you can do in this mode can be useful for the duration of your stay. I know I criticized it a little, but it deserves some recognition for these useful commands:

I hope I didn’t put you off of insert mode too much. After all, as someone once said: it is the only mode in which you can insert.