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Org-mode outside Org-mode


Once one gets used to Org-mode, it's hard to live without it. Even its most basic feature, the hierarchical tree-like structuring of files, can be missed badly when editing files in other GNU Emacs major-modes, not to mention the convenient navigation, structure-editing and visibility-cycling functionality Org-mode offers for these tree-like structures.

One especially important case where Org-mode users might miss Org-mode functionality is their .emacs configuration file. These Emacs Lisp files might become huge, for example Fabrice Niessen's .emacs has some 9720 lines, and structuring them only using Emacs Lisp comments (;) easily becomes a creative nightmare (many approaches for structuring a .emacs file can be found on the very unofficial dotemacs home page).

Another typical case where Org-mode's editing facilities are missing is writing the comment-header sections of Emacs Lisp source code files. These sections often contain extensive explanations of the development-history, installation-process and usage of the library, but are just that - Emacs Lisp comment-sections. Sometimes even the comment-strings of important and complex Emacs Lisp functions contain long and complicated text parts that are not easy to edit as comments.

Last not least, anybody who has used C-c C-j (org-goto) for looking up a different location in the current org-file, keeping current visibility, might have wondered if a kind of 'remote-buffer-control' via an associated read-only buffer might not be a generally useful idea.

Org-mode everywhere

File Structuring


One possibility to enjoy Org-mode's structure-editing and list-formatting facilities outside Org-mode buffers is Orgstruct minor mode. Let's cite from the Org-mode manual:

If you like the intuitive way the Org mode structure editing and list
formatting works, you might want to use these commands in other modes like
Text mode or Mail mode as well. The minor mode orgstruct-mode makes this
possible. [...]

When this mode is active and the cursor is on a line that looks to Org like a
headline or the first line of a list item, most structure editing commands
will work, even if the same keys normally have different functionality in
the major mode you are using. If the cursor is not in one of those special
lines, Orgstruct mode lurks silently in the shadows. When you use
orgstruct++-mode, Org will also export indentation and autofill settings
into that mode, and detect item context after the first line of an item.

orgstruct currently does NOT work with outorg and navi-mode (see below for a description of these libraries). To make both libraries work with orgstruct-buffers just like with outshine-buffers, it would be necessary to:

  1. Structure the file with outshine-style headings (e.g. ;; * Header)
  2. Make Orgstruct calculate and set file-local variable outline-regexp the way outshine does.
  3. Make Orgstruct calculate and set file-local variable outline-level the way outshine does.
  4. Make Orgstruct calculate and set file-local variable outline-promotion-headings the way outshine does.

Then, maybe after a few minor tweaks in the libraries themselves, outorg and navi-mode wouldn't care if they deal with an orgstruct-buffer or an outshine-buffer.

Outline with Outshine

History and Credits

outshine is a merge and extension of older extensions for outline-minor-mode. More exactly, outshine developed out of the now obsolete outxxtra.el, Thorsten Jolitz's modified extension of Per Abrahamsen's out-xtra.el. With the blessing of it's (well-known) author Carsten Dominik, Thorsten Jolitz could merge the (slightly modified) outline-magic.el with outxxtra.el and extend them into the new outshine.el library. Thus, if you use outline with outshine, you don't need outline-magic and out-xtra anymore. However, outshine does not make either of these two obsolete libraries, since it has a more specialized approach and might not be able to replace them in all cases.

Furthermore, `outshine.el' includes functions and keybindings from outline-mode-easy-bindings. Unfortunately, no author is given for that library, so I cannot credit the person who wrote it.

So what is outshine? It's an extension library for outline-minor-mode that gives buffers in different major-modes the 'look-and-feel' of Org-mode buffers and enables the use of outorg and navi-mode on them.

To sum it up in one sentence:

Outline with Outshine outshines Outline


Download outshine.el (or clone the github-repo) and copy it to a location where Emacs can find it:

git clone git@github.com:tj64/outshine.git

Use this in your '.emacs' to get started:

(require 'outshine)
(add-hook 'outline-minor-mode-hook 'outshine-hook-function)

If you like the functions and keybindings for 'M -' navigation and visibility cycling copied from `outline-mode-easy-bindings', you might want to put the following code into your Emacs init file to have the same functionality/keybindings available in Org-mode too, overriding the less frequently used commands for moving and promoting/demoting subtrees (but clashing with 'org-table' keybindings):

(when (require 'outshine nil 'NOERROR)
  (add-hook 'org-mode-hook
            (lambda ()
              ;; Redefine arrow keys, since promoting/demoting and moving
              ;; subtrees up and down are less frequent tasks then
              ;; navigation and visibility cycling
                (org-defkey org-mode-map
                            (kbd "M-<left>") 'outline-hide-more)
                (org-defkey org-mode-map
                            (kbd "M-<right>") 'outline-show-more)
                (org-defkey org-mode-map
                            (kbd "M-<up>") 'outline-previous-visible-heading)
                (org-defkey org-mode-map
                            (kbd "M-<down>") 'outline-next-visible-heading))

Add this if you (e.g.) always want outline/outshine for emacs-lisp buffers (recommended):

(add-hook 'emacs-lisp-mode-hook 'outline-minor-mode)  

If you want a different prefix key for outline-minor-mode, insert first (e.g.):

(defvar outline-minor-mode-prefix "\C-c") 

or whatever you like best to replace the (quite unusable) original prefix "\C-c @". The prefix can only be changed before outline (minor) mode is loaded.

Outshine's fundamental idea

outshine is based on a very simple yet powerful idea, that enables its use in any Emacs major-mode (in theory at least):

Outshine headlines are Org-mode headlines out-commented with comment-region

Thus, the file at hand must be outline-structured 'the outshine way', i.e. with the headlines being proper Org-mode headlines, marked and outcommented with comment-region. As an example, to generate a 3rd level outshine-headline in an Emacs Lisp file, write down

| *** Third Level Header 

mark the header line, and apply comment-region on it:

| ;; *** Third Level Header 

In a LaTeX file, an adequate header will look like this:

| % *** Third Level Header 

and in a PicoLisp file like this (always depending of the major-mode specific values of comment-start, comment-end, comment-add and comment-padding):

| ## *** Third Level Header 

outshine.el, outorg.el and navi-mode.el are all examples of how to structure emacs-lisp source files with outshine-style headlines.

Fontification, Navigation and Structure Editing

After structuring a source code file the 'outshine-way' and loading outline-minor-mode with outshine-extensions, the file will have a very Org-mode like 'look-and-feel'. The headlines (up to level 8) are fontified the same way Org-mode headlines are fontified, and the very specific navigation and structure editing commands of outline-minor-mode as well as their more general Org-mode style counterparts are available:

outline-minor-mode Minor Mode Bindings:

key binding
C-c PrefixCommand
<M-down> outline-next-visible-heading
<M-left> outline-hide-more
<M-right> outline-show-more
<M-up> outline-previous-visible-heading
<tab> outshine-cycle-subtree
<backtab> outshine-cycle-buffer
C-c C-a show-all
C-c C-b outline-backward-same-level
C-c C-c hide-entry
C-c C-d hide-subtree
C-c C-e show-entry
C-c C-f outline-forward-same-level
C-c TAB show-children
C-c C-k show-branches
C-c C-l hide-leaves
C-c RET outline-insert-heading
C-c C-n outline-next-visible-heading
C-c C-o outline-hide-other
C-c C-p outline-previous-visible-heading
C-c C-q outline-hide-sublevels
C-c C-s show-subtree
C-c C-t hide-body
C-c C-u outline-up-heading
C-c C-v outline-move-subtree-down
C-c C-^ outline-move-subtree-up
C-c ' outorg-edit-as-org
C-c @ outline-mark-subtree
C-c I outline-previous-visible-heading
C-c J outline-hide-more
C-c K outline-next-visible-heading
C-c L outline-show-more
C-c C-< outline-promote
C-c C-> outline-demote

Subtree and Comment Editing


Once a (outshine) source code buffer looks and behaves like an Org-mode buffer, it would be nice to have the full editing power of Org-mode available when editing the (comment) text parts or overall structure of the buffer.

Think "reverse Org-Babel": editing of comment-sections or entire subtrees from source code files in temporary Org-mode buffers instead of editing of Org-mode source-blocks in temporary source-code buffers.

There are two new libraries available for editing with Org-mode in other major-modes, outorg and poporg. Although developed independently with very different implementations, both libraries complement each other very well in their functionality.


Introduction and Installation

outorg is a library written by Thorsten Jolitz on top of his outshine library. Thus, outorg needs outshine, and files that are structured with outshine-style headers, otherwise it won't work (note that 'oldschool' Emacs Lisp files with headers matched by ^;;;+ are a special case where outorg works too).

You can download the file (or clone the github-repo) here:

git clone git@github.com:tj64/outorg.git

outorg requires Org-mode too, thus should be loaded after Org-mode. Insert

(require 'outorg)

in your .emacs and you are done.


outorg's main command is

| C-c ' (outorg-edit-as-org)

used in source-code buffers where `outline-minor-mode' is activated with `outshine' extensions. The Org-mode edit-buffer popped up by this command has `outorg-edit-minor-mode' activated, a minor-mode with only 2 commands:

| M-# (outorg-copy-edits-and-exit)
| C-x C-s (outorg-save-edits-to-tmp-file)

If you want to insert Org-mode source-code or example blocks in comment-sections, simply outcomment them in the outorg-edit buffer before calling `outorg-copy-edits-and-exit'.

Thus, with point inside a subtree or on a subtree header, pressing C-c ' (outorg-edit-as-org) will open this subtree in a temporary Org-mode edit buffer, with all out-commented parts in the original buffer uncommented, and all source code parts enclosed in Org-mode source blocks.

When outorg-edit-as-org is called with a prefix C-u, the whole source-code buffer will be transformed into Org-mode and offered for editing in a temporary Org-mode buffer, all headlines folded except the subtree where point was in.

If the original-buffer was read-only, the user is asked if he wants to make it writable for the Org-mode editing. If he answers yes, the buffer can be edited, but will be set back to read-only again after editing is finished.

To avoid accidental loss of edits, the temporary outorg-edit-buffer is backed up in the OS /tmp directory. During editing, the outorg-edit-buffer can be saved as usual with save-buffer via C-x C-s. Even when killed by accident, that last state of the outorg-edit-buffer will be saved and can be recovered.

When done with editing in Org-mode, M-# (Meta-key and #) is used to call outorg-copy-edits-and-exit, a command that orderly exits the edit-buffer by converting the (modified) comment-sections back to comments and extracting the source-code parts out of the Org-mode source-code blocks.

Please note: outorg is line-based, it only works with 'one-line' comments, i.e. with comment-sections like those produced by `comment-region' (a command that comments or uncomments each line in the region). Those special multi-line comments found in many programming languages are not recognized and lead to undefined behaviour.

Outorg vs Poporg

outorg works on subtrees (or whole buffers).

One advantage of this is that there is always a complete subtree (-hierarchy) in the outorg-edit-buffer, thus not only the Orgmode editing functionality can be applied, but also its export facilities and many other commands that act on headlines or subtrees. As an example, in order to produce the nice README.txt files for the github-repos of outshine, outorg and navi-mode, I simply called outorg-edit-as-org on the first 1st-level-headline of the source-code files (the file header comment-sections) and exported the subtree to ASCII.

One disadvantage of this is that comment-strings of (e.g. emacs-lips) functions cannot be edited comfortably, since after transformation of the source-code buffer they end up inside Org-mode source-code blocks - as comment-strings, just like before.

Enters poporg. It will be described in much detail in the next section, but it can already be mentioned here that it does exactly what outorg cannot do well - Org-mode editing of atomic, isolated comment-strings, no matter where they are found in the source code buffer. And it is, in contrast to outorg, completely independent from outline structuring with e.g. outshine or orgstruct.


[NOTE: This section of the tutorial is copied from https://github.com/QBobWatson/poporg, where you can find the poporg.el file too, and only slightly modified]


poporg is a small Emacs lisp project written by François Pinard to help editing program strings and comments using Org mode (or any other major mode). This can be useful as it is often more convenient to edit large pieces of text, like Emacs lisp or Python docstrings, in an org-mode buffer instead of in a comment or a string.

Emacs does not easily handle multiple major modes in a single buffer. So far many solutions have been implemented, with varying degrees of success, but none is perfect. The poporg approach avoids the problem by extracting the text from the comment or the string from a buffer using a major programming mode, into a separate buffer to be edited in a text mode, but containing only that comment or that string. Once the edit is completed, the modified comment or string gets re-integrated in the buffer containing the program, replacing the original contents.

The main utility of this package is its ability to handle prefixes automatically. For comments, it finds all contiguous nonempty comments on their own line, and strips the common prefix before inserting into the editing buffer (see poporg-comment-skip-regexp). For strings, it checks if there is consistent indentation for the whole string (the opening delimiter of the string can only have whitespace before it), and uses that as the common prefix. For regions, it just uses a naive common prefix. When placing the edited text back in context, it adds the common prefix again, potentially stripping any trailing whitespace (see poporg-delete-trailing-whitespace). It can even adjust the fill column in the editing buffer to account for indentation (see poporg-adjust-fill-column).


To install poporg, move file poporg.el to a place where Emacs will find it. You might byte-compile the file if you want. There are also El-Get and MELPA recipes.

To use poporg, you need to pick some unused keybinding and add a few lines to your ~/.emacs file, such as:

(autoload 'poporg-dwim "poporg" nil t)
(global-set-key (kbd "C-c \"") 'poporg-dwim)

It is important that this be a global keybinding, or at least that the command poporg-dwim be available from both the programming and the text editing buffers.


The command poporg-dwim searches for a nearby comment or string (see poporg-find-string-or-comment) and, upon finding one, it opens an empty buffer in a new window with its contents available for editing. If the region is active then poporg-dwim inserts the region into the buffer instead. The original text is grayed out and set read-only to prevent editing in two places at once. After editing, running poporg-dwim again from the editing buffer kills the editing buffer and inserts the edited text back into its original context.

Hopefully poporg-dwim will do what you expect in most situations. It uses the buffer's syntax table for parsing, so it should adapt well to most modes (including sextuple-quoted strings in Python). If you run poporg-dwim in the vicinity of a grayed-out region that you are editing in another buffer, it pops to that buffer. It has the following caveats:

  1. It does not understand empty strings.
  2. It cannot deal very well with comments with ending delimiters.

For example, in c-mode, comments start with /* and end with */. This is a problem because poporg needs a common prefix for all lines. In order to make poporg understand these comments, write them on separate lines like this:

 * Comments go here.  Not on a line with the opening delimiter or the
 * closing delimiter.

In this situation poporg will ignore the first and last lines because they are empty except for comment delimiters, and detect the common prefix __ or __*_ for the middle lines, depending on whether the * character is matched by poporg-comment-skip-regexp.

You will probably want to customize poporg-edit-hook, since that is where the major mode of the edit buffer is set. The minor mode poporg-mode is activated in the edit buffer. It has one keybinding by default, which remaps save-buffer (C-x C-s) to poporg-edit-exit. You can add additional keybindings to poporg-mode-map. To save an edit, from the editing buffer run poporg-edit-exit or poporg-dwim; to abort the edit simply kill the buffer.

Remote Buffer Control

While visibility-cycling and outline-navigation commands make it very convenient to work even with big Org-mode or outshine buffers, it can't be denied that a read-only "twin-buffer" with one-key command-bindings, exclusively for navigation and high-level structure editing of the associated original-buffer, can be even more convenient.

Enters navi-mode, a major-mode by Thorsten Jolitz derived from and inspired by occur-mode (and, to a certain extend, the org-goto command). Just like outorg, navi-mode depends on outshine and works only with source-code files structured with 'outshine-style' outline-headers. It does work with Org-mode files and 'oldschool' Emacs Lisp files too, though.

A navi-buffer is a kind of "remote-control" for its associated original-buffer. It offers a vast amount of views on the original-buffer via predefined occur-searches that combine headlines and (programming-language specific) keywords. It further allows many frequent actions on the subtree at point to be triggered directly from the navi-buffer, without (visibly) switching to the original-buffer where the actions take place.

A special feature of navi-mode is its customizability. It predefines all ASCII printing characters as keybindings for the navi-generic-command, and users can therefore map their user-defined regexp-searches (customizable variable navi-keywords) to any of the many free one-key bindings (in customizable variable navi-key-mappings). These customizations are made by programming-language, thus the Emacs community could work out default 'alists' for many languages that then may be used and modified by the users.

navi-mode's author Thorsten Jolitz already worked out two configurations, one for Emacs Lisp and the other for PicoLisp. You could use them as inspiration for a configuration of your favorite programming language - and send these 'alists' to him so that he can include them in the library. The more predefined sets of keyword searches there are, the easier to use navi-mode with many languages.

About navi-mode

navi-mode implements extensions for occur-mode. You can think of a navi-buffer as a kind of 'remote-control' for an (adequately) outline-structured original-buffer. It enables quick navigation and basic structure editing in the original-buffer without (necessarily) leaving the navi-buffer. When switching to the original-buffer and coming back after some modifications, the navi-buffer is always reverted (thus up-to-date).

Besides the fundamental outline-heading-searches (8 outline-levels) and the 5 basic keyword-searches (:FUN, :VAR, :DB, :OBJ and :ALL), all languages can have their own set of searches and keybindings (see navi-key-mappings and navi-keywords). Heading-searches and keyword-searches can be combined, offering a vast amount of possible 'views' at the original-buffer.


Download (or clone the github-repos of) the three required libraries

`navi-mode.el' https://github.com/tj64/navi
  git clone git@github.com:tj64/navi.git
`outshine.el' https://github.com/tj64/outshine
`outorg.el' https://github.com/tj64/outorg

and put them in a place where Emacs can find them (on the Emacs 'load-path'). Follow the installation instructions in outshine.el and outorg.el.

Install navi-mode.el by adding

(require 'navi-mode)

to your .emacs file.

For navi-mode to work, the original-buffer must be outline-structured 'the outshine way', i.e. with the headlines being proper Org-mode headlines, marked and outcommented with comment-region (but oldschool Emacs Lisp headers like ;;; header level 1 work too) .

The second assumption is that outline-minor-mode is activated in the original-buffer and outshine.el loaded like described in its installation instructions (except for Org-mode files).

When these pre-conditions are fulfilled (outorg.el must be loaded too), you can use M-s n (navi-search-and-switch) to open a navi-buffer and immediately switch to it. The new navi-buffer will show the first-level headings of the original-buffer, with point at the first entry.

You can then:

  • Show headlines (up-to) different levels:
key command function-name
1 … 8 show levels 1 to 8 navi-generic-command
  • Navigate up and down in the search results shown in the navi-buffer:
key command function-name
p previous occur-prev
n next occur-next
DEL down page scroll-down-command
SPC up page scroll-up-command
  • Revert the navi-buffer (seldom necessary), show help for the user-defined keyword-searches, and quit the navi-buffer and switch-back to the original-buffer:
key command function-name
g revert buffer navi-revert-function
h show help navi-show-help
q quit navi-mode and switch navi-quit-and-switch
  • Switch to the original-buffer and back to the navi-buffer, display an occurrence in the original-buffer or go to the occurrence:
key command function-name
M-s n launch navi-buffer navi-search-and-switch
M-s s switch to other buffer navi-switch-to-twin-buffer
M-s M-s    
d display occurrence occur-mode-display-occurrence
o goto occurrence navi-goto-occurrence-other-window
  • Structure editing on subtrees and visibility cycling
key command function-name
TAB cycle subtrees navi-cycle-subtree
<backtab> cycle buffer navi-cycle-buffer
+ Demote Subtree navi-demote-subtree
- promote subtree navi-promote-subtree
\^ move up subtree (same level) navi-move-up-subtree
< move down subtree (same level) navi-move-down-subtree
  • Miscellaneous actions on subtrees
key command function-name
m mark subtree navi-mark-subtree-and-switch
c copy subtree navi-copy-subtree-to-register-s
k kill subtree navi-kill-subtree
y yank killed/copied subtree navi-yank-subtree-from-register-s
u undo last change navi-undo
r narrow to subtree navi-narrow-to-subtree
w widen navi-widen
l query-replace navi-query-replace
i isearch navi-isearch
e edit as org (outorg) navi-edit-as-org
  • Furthermore, there are five (semantically) predefined keyword-searches:
key keyword-symbol searches for
f :FUN functions, macros etc.
v :VAR vars, consts, customs etc.
x :OBJ OOP (classes, methods etc)
b :DB DB (store and select)
a :ALL all
  • And (potentially) many more user-defined keyword-searches

(example Emacs Lisp):

key keyword-symbol searches for
F :defun (defun
V :defvar (defvar
C :defconst (defconst
G :defgroup (defgroup
U :defcustom (defcustom
A :defadvice (defadvice
M :defmacro (defmacro
E :defface (defface
S :defstruct (defstruct
L :defclass (defclass
  • Headline-searches and keyword-searches can be combined, e.g.
| C-2 f 

in a navi-buffer associated to an Emacs Lisp source file shows all headlines up-to level 2 as well as all function, macro and advice definitions in the original-buffer,

| C-5 a 

shows all headlines up-to level 5 as well as all functions, variables, classes, methods, objects, and database-related definitions. The exact meaning of the standard keyword-searches 'f' and 'a' must be defined with a regexp in the customizable variable `navi-keywords' (just like the user-defined keyword-searches).


There are some screencasts on Youtube that show the libraries mentioned in this article in action:

topic url
Modern conventions for Emacs Lisp files https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqE6YxlY0rw
Exploring Bernt Hansen's Org-mode tutorial with 'navi-mode' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqE6YxlY0rw
Exploring my dot emacs file with 'navi-mode' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqE6YxlY0rw
Exploring a PicoLisp source file with GNU Emacs navi-mode https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYJvQ-5dvK8

'Modern conventions for Emacs Lisp files' is probably the video you should watch first, it explores 'navi-mode.el' itself as an Emacs Lisp library structured the 'outshine way', and shows the use of outline-minor-mode, outorg, poporg and navi-mode on such a file. And is has the best background music.

Documentation from the orgmode.org/worg/ website (either in its HTML format or in its Org format) is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License version 1.3 or later. The code examples and css stylesheets are licensed under the GNU General Public License v3 or later.