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Dionysia Lemonaki
Dionysia Lemonaki

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Don't fear the command line: Text Editors

One topic that can be pretty intimidating when learning the command line is text editors. Their interface looks different and they have all these new commands that we need to use in order to enter text, make changes to the text and save all of our work. What I find the most scary part and where I fear that things could go wrong, is not knowing how to exit those editors.So I make sure that is the first command I learn.

trying to find a way out

So in this post I'll give a basic overview of two of the most frequently used and most popular command line text editors in Linux and Unix like systems : nano and Vim. My goal is to show you how to do basic editing and saving.

Text Editors. What is that?

Text editors are programs used to edit files. Those files could be text files we have written ourselves or our shell's startup and configuration files where we could make certain changes if we wanted to. So, text editors can be similar to word processors like Google Docs or Microsoft Word in a way, as they allow us to edit words on a screen and move the cursor around.
The main difference of text editors with word processors is the fact that text editors only support pure text and they contain features that allow us to write and run programs.

Hermit the frog typing

Types of text editors

There are two basic categories when it comes to text editors. Those are Graphical GUI editors and Text Based command line editors .
Some of the most popular graphical editors in Linux are KDE and GNOME. GNOME comes with a default editor called gedit or if we search in the GNOME menu it's called 'text editor'.KDE comes with three, which are : kedit,kwrite and kate. Graphical editors have the advantage of a friendlier user interface.
Now for the text-based console ones, the most popular are nano,vi and emacs. Emacs is not usually installed on most Linux Systems by default.
It's important to note that there are so many editors available to choose from and Linux Distributions have several already installed.
so many possibilities

Their Purpose

It is useful to know how to do the most basic text editing in the command line as there will be times where the command line will just throw us into a text editor without any warning. So it's important to know how to get stuff done when these unexpected events happen.Nano and/or Vim are most likely to be installed by default on your system and you may be thrown in one of these accidentally.
For example ,I was learning about the less command, which allows us to view the contents of files(less filename.txt). I could view the contents but at some point wanted to edit something out, pressed v on my keyboard to start editing but ended up thrown in nano ,a completely new environment.First instinct was to panic and then close the terminal window.

where am I?

It can look intimidating at first sight. So my goal was to learn basic text editing and saving of my work.


As a bit of background history, nano was designed as a replacement for the pico text editor that was supplied with the PINE email suite therefore it is quite short on editing features. Nano is a tiny sized open source editor, light weight, fast and included by default on practically every Linux and Unix-like system.

  • To get started make sure you are in your home directory(if not type cd ~).
  • Type the name of the editor followed by the name of the file you want to edit.If the file does not exist already, the editor will create it. So for example type nano textfile.txt to create an empty text file in your home directory. Once nano starts you will see a screen like this :

Alt Text

  • At the bottom bar we see a list of commands with various available options:

Alt Text

  • As mentioned earlier the most important command is the exit one. To do so, we press ^x. The ^ represents the CTRL(Control) command.This will make nano exit entirely.If we want to re-open the file, we have to press the up arrow for the last command(nano textfile.txt) used and then enter.
  • The "write out" option means to save the file, so use the ^o command.
  • We will be prompted about the filename at this point, so we press Enter.

With that knowledge we can start typing.




When you first come across Vim, it is for sure much scarier looking than nano ,the interface is more intimidating to say the least.The learning curve can be steep and it feels like more could go wrong, maybe even feels like you are trapped there forever, at least I did at first. After reading a bit about it, people either love it or hate it and have quite strong opinions about it. I would like to invest some of my time to learn this tool in a bit more depth and customise it in different ways but to get started you only need the absolute basics.

Initially there was the vi editor which has been replaced by a program called vim ,short for vi improved.It's an enhanced replacement, almost always available on Unix systems, lightweight and allows for fast typing speed.There are many improvements over the traditional vi editor and it is easier to use with more features.If we run vi on macOS or Ubuntu it just runs vim.

Openning Vim

you can do it

Typing vim will make the startup screen appear and look something like this

Alt Text

Thankfully, it let's us know how to exit that, by typing :q.

Now, to open or create a file in vim from our home directory, we can type vim textfile.txt. If it exists already it will open it, if not it will create a new file called textfile.txt.

Vim has different modes and the default one is the command mode.That is what we'll see when we first open a file in vim. Do not type in this mode as it will just mess things up and nothing that you typed will appear. We need insert mode and we achieve this by typing i. The bottom of the screen will look like this

Alt Text

This lets us know that it's ok to type now, so we can add the text we want.In this case, my file is a new one and therefore empty, those tildes at the side ~ represent empty lines.Once done with writing ,hit esc and it's back to command mode, the insert at the bottom of the screen will disappear.

Exiting Vim 😨

After we have made changes to our file, finished our work, and are in command mode , the next step is to save what we have done.We do that with :w. Then we can quit without a warning showing up, with :q as we saw before.That can be also done in one step with :wq.We save and exit at the same time.

:q does not work when trying to quit with unsaved changes.If we made changes to a file but don't want to save, just exit then we do :q! for quitting without saving.

There will be times when :q doesn't work and to exit vim no matter what we type :qa!. This basically says

Alt Text

Extra Reading 📚

Learn Interactively

This was a very basic overview of nano and vim and how to get started using them.Thanks for reading.😃

Top comments (16)

phantas0s profile image
Matthieu Cneude • Edited

Nice article!

I never really understood why the learning curve of Vim is considered steep. It's different than modern editors for sure, but learning it is not that bad. It took me two weeks to be able to modify any text file I wanted, and maybe three weeks to one month to ditch my IDE.

Oh and you can type vimtutor anywhere, not only from the home directory.

deniselemonaki profile image
Dionysia Lemonaki

Thanks for reading and for the tip!

schlenges profile image

"First instinct was to panic and then close the terminal window." 😂 So relatable! 😅

I feel as if I am repeating myself here, but that was such a great article again, Denise! I wish you would have been around three years ago already, you would have saved me so many headaches! 😄 I love the way you approach these articles, you deliver exactly the right information in such a beautifully humorous and concise way.
(Ugh, I can already see how if you keep going down this path of vim exploration, you will take me right with you into that rabbit hole again.. 😅)

Thank you for this! Truth be told, I always get confused with nano, so this actually really helped and I learned some new things again 😍 You're a great tech writer!

quasipickle profile image
Dylan Anderson

Emacs FTW!

drhyde profile image
David Cantrell

One topic that can be pretty intimidating when learning the command line is text editors. Their interface looks different and they have all these new commands that we need to use ...

Heh. I'm the other way round. On the few occasions I use a GUI editor I find them so complicated, so hard to navigate. If anyone can write a guide to VS Code for old Unix grey-beards I'd love to read it!

deniselemonaki profile image
Dionysia Lemonaki

Yes, I can also relate to that too. VSCode can be pretty intimidating too at times, especially if you haven't used it before. I'm definitely going to be writing about it in the future :)

quasipickle profile image
Dylan Anderson

I believe that's XEmacs. Without doing any research ;), I think emacs came first as a terminal editor, then it was adapted to a GUI.

voutsider profile image

Exiting Vim - Philanthropy, save someone's psyche)

fennecdjay profile image
Jérémie Astor • Edited

I know I should vim more.

The nano gang

dillonheadley profile image
Dillon Headley

Also checkout Micro

fennecdjay profile image
Jérémie Astor

Just cloned it!
I already tried it before, but it didn't recognize my terminal, kitty.
This is now fixed.
If I can use it with a language server, I might switch (of course nano can't, but that's ok for vim/neovim).

momin profile image
Md Abdul Momin

I'm new on Linux environment and just start exploring centos on cloud, maybe I should try vim.

ardunster profile image
Anna R Dunster

Helpful article, but so many animated gifs made it difficult to concentrate on the text.

bramburn profile image
Bhavesh Ramburn

vim is ok i only use it on my server but use IntelliJ for EVERYTHING ELSE