Focused Writing in Vim

I've been working on getting an improved focus environment to write blog posts in. There's a lot of "Focus mode" features out there in pretty much every editor. But in Vim, I wanted to piece together a few different things, and also make some additions of my own.

I use a 4K monitor, which is great for gaming & programming, but kind of overkill for writing blog posts. I don't want all that real estate.

The end result

So here's the gist of what I achieved (or a video right below, showcasing the final thing). Running :Focus on Vim does a bunch of different things:

All of this is achieved with a few existing vim plugins, all tied together in a single Focus() function. There's also some bits that need to go beyond Vim, such as increasing font size, for instance.

The road towards it

Let's start with the easy stuff. Creating a :Focus command is pretty straightforward.

let g:focused = 0
function! Focus()
  if g:focused == 0
    " magically enable focus stuff
    let g:focused = 1
    " disable all of it again
    let g:focused = 1

We can even have our function work as a toggle. Calling it a second time will (ideally) undo all the evil we did.

Let's now go through all the stuff we can enable in that if statement. Feel free to cherry-pick whichever ones work for you. That's the beauty of using custom vim code instead of a one-size-fits-all solution.

PS: For each section, I'll include the vimscript code necessary to enable it. For disabling it (the else part of the if statement), check out the full code in this gist.

1. Goyo - Distraction-free mode

This plugin adds a distraction-free mode to Vim, which hides most the of clutter already.

" enable distraction-free with a 120 column wide buffer
:Goyo 120

2. Limelight - for even more focus

Built by the same author, this goes one step further, and dims down all content but the currently highlighted paragrah.


3. VOoM

Yet another package. This one adds a Table of Contents to the left of your content buffer. It builds an index for markdown and other standard content formats, making it pretty useful for navigating large files.

" enable sidebar TOC for a markdown file
:VOoM markdown

4. Disable additional vim clutter

Now for the actual custom stuff. These are a few small settings that I normally use on Vim, but wanted to disable while in focus mode:

" disable highlighting of the current line
set nocursorline

" disable highlighting of the current column
set nocursorcolumn

" even though Goyo hides the status bar, a small `-- INSERT --`
" was still showing up in the corner.
" This gets rid of that as well
set noshowmode

5. Always-centered cursor

This one is probably the most hacky thing on this list. Sorry, but I couldn't resist

I wanted the current line to always be vertically centered as well.

Using set scrolloff=20 would tell vim to scroll 20 lines past the End-of-File. But while writing, the current text would still end at the bottom of the screen, unless I manually scrolled down those extra lines.

The trick is to override the default navigation mappings, and combine them with zz which brings the cursor current line to the vertical center of the screen:

:nmap j jzz
:nmap k kzz
:nmap G Gzz

j, k and G are the movements I use most often. Appending zz to them automatically keeps my current focus right at the center. It's not perfect, but it's close enough.

6. Hiding tmux's status bar

Since I always run Vim inside a tmux session, I wanted to hide that as well. This one is actually pretty simple:

:silent !tmux set status off

7. Increase font size

This was the final piece, and another trick I had to use. However, without a bigger font size, everything before this would really suck. 14pt fonts centered on a 4K monitor isn't really that useful, nor comfortable

I use alacritty. Like most other terminals, there are shortcuts to zoom in/out, and reset. In my case, I have those set to Ctrl+', Ctrl+- and Ctrl+0, respectively. In alacritty.yml's config file, that translates to:

  - { key: Key0,       mods: Control, action: ResetFontSize    }
  - { key: Apostrophe, mods: Control, action: IncreaseFontSize }
  - { key: Subtract,   mods: Control, action: DecreaseFontSize }

As far as I could tell, there is no command line API that I could call to achieve the same effects, so I went with the keyboard shortcuts. Using xdotool, it's easy to send those keystroke signals to the terminal window, with a single command:

:silent !xdotool key --repeat 10 Ctrl+apostrophe

This is using xdotool to send a zoom-in shortcut signal to the active window, 10 times. A similar xdotool key Ctrl+0 can be used to get back to the default zoom level at the end.

10 was just an arbitrary number that got me to a visually comfortable level.

Wrapping up

I used this full setup for the first time while writing this post. It has a few rough edges that I'll still be improving on in the future, but it's already proven extremely helpful. Check out the full vim code here, or let me know on twitter if you have any thoughts on how to improve this.