The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Authoring Emacs Packages

August 04, 2015

Have you extended Emacs in a novel way? Do you want to share your creation with the wide world of Emacs users? Well then, you will need to learn how to create a proper Emacs package.

Packaging for Emacs is generally pretty easy and there is a lot of help available, both within Emacs itself and obviously on the Internet. There are a few things, though, that are conspicuously and annoyingly hard to find help with so I decided to document them for you.

Come with me and learn how to create an Emacs Package from scratch.

An Emacs package, at its most basic level, is just an Elisp file. For a long time, authors simply distributed “.el” files via their own websites or FTP sites and you were on your own to download them, put them somewhere on your local drive, and make sure that Emacs could find them.

As you probably know, this isn’t how it’s done today. Now we have interactive package management built right into Emacs. Thanks to Tom Tromey, who originally wrote package.el, there is a standard and it has been broadly adopted. Which brings me to…

Package Repositories

If you already know about repositories and want to get down to it, skip over this section.

If you want to build a package for Emacs right now, you probably want to target a popular Emacs package repository. The “official” repository is ELPA (Emacs Lisp Package Archive), but contributing to ELPA requires that you complete a Free Software Foundation copyright assignment document and also requires your software to comply with FSF copyright and licensing rules. If you wind up writing something that is amazingly popular and could end up being packaged within Emacs, you will have to cross that bridge. Until then, there are alternatives.

The two other most popular repositories are MELPA and Marmalade. I will very briefly explain the difference.

MELPA, or “Milkypostman’s Emacs Lisp Package Archive,” was started by Donald Curtis (milkypostman on Github and elsewhere) but is also maintained by Steve Purcell. The great benefit of MELPA is that all submissions are reviewed by Steve or Donald and must meet some bare minimum of packaging standards before being merged. I’ve submitted two packages to MELPA and found the experience helpful and even pleasurable.

Marmalade was started by Nic Ferrier and is a bit more like the wild west; you can get an account on the site, which then gives you access to upload packages. Provided that you meet some formatting requirements (which I’ll explain below), your package is in.

I suppose you could think of Marmalade as a self-service repository and MELPA as a bit more of a curated collection. MELPA strives to offer packages that don’t overlap and that provide meaningful and useful functionality to Emacs. Marmalade is an infrastructure for centralizing the distribution of packages for authors who don’t want to go through the ELPA legal process.

Anatomy of a Package

As I said at the start, the bare minimum Emacs package is a single Elisp file, ending in the file extension .el. To distribute a single Elisp file, though, is impolite in this modern world; you should probably have at least:

  1. One or more Elisp files (both of my packages are single files).
  2. A README file; if you use Github, this is your Github landing page content.
  3. An Info manual.

Of course, you may not need nor want a full Info manual if your package is quite simple, but figuring out how to author and distribute my package documentation in Info format was one of the most frustrating experiences that I encountered, so I will explain how it can be done.

Before I get to that, though, let’s talk about basic packaging requirements.

Package Formatting

Elisp scripts included in a package have some annotation requirements. These requirements, mostly concerning comments at the top of the files, are described in the Packaging chapter of the Emacs Info documentation. You can find it by pressing C-h i to open the Info reader and navigating to the “Elisp” manual, then the “Packaging” chapter within it. For the quite lazy, you can also read the manual online

One of the things that Emacs documentation isn’t great at is providing examples of real use. To save you a bit of time decrypting the standards, here is the bare minimum annotation you should add to your script files, lifted from my Octopress package:

;;; octopress.el --- A lightweight wrapper for Jekyll and Octopress.

;; Copyright (C) 2015 Aaron Bieber

;; Author: Aaron Bieber <aaron@aaronbieber.com>
;; Version: 1.0
;; Package-Requires ((cl-lib "0.5"))
;; Keywords: octopress, blog
;; URL: https://github.com/aaronbieber/octopress.el

;;; Commentary:

;; Octopress.el is a lightweight wrapper script to help you interact
;; with Octopress blog site and the related Jekyll programs. This
;; package is designed to be unobtrusive and to defer to Octopress and
;; Jekyll as often as possible.

;; This package was built with the assumption of Octopress 3.0 and
;; will probably not work with previous (non-gem) versions of
;; Octopress. Specifically, it expects to be able to use commands like
;; `octopress new post` rather than the old-style `rake new_post[]`.

;; Full documentation is available as an Info manual.

;;; Code:

Quite often, package authors include a license in this preamble. In this case, I opted for the simple copyright statement and will add specific license text later. If you submit your package to MELPA, the build system will lift a few bits from this heading to create your package’s landing page on melpa.org. The URL and “Commentary” section are important in that respect.

Here is what this looks like on melpa.org. (NB: I might have changed the actual file since this post was written, but you can always read the real source code.)

Finally, the very last line of your file should be:

;;; octopress.el ends here

Where the “octopress.el” piece matches the very first line, of course.

Getting Help

There are many more style conventions that you should follow in your actual Elisp code; too many to describe here. The easiest way to make sure your package fits nicely within the Emacs ecosystem is to install both “flycheck,” the on-the-fly syntax checker, and “flycheck-package,” a checker for Elisp package authors. With “flycheck-mode” activated and “flycheck-package” configured, you will get live warnings in your script files when you’ve done things wrong.

Read Me

Though it’s slightly irritating to keep several versions of documentation in sync, each are important. The “Commentary” block is used by Emacs itself and the packaging systems and repositories; the README file is used by Github, of course; and the Info manual (described in the next section) is read by humans.

It’s polite to include a README file with any source code you distribute. The README has become such an entrenched convention that Neal Stephenson even wrote a book whose title, “Reamde,” parodies the concept. If you use Github, as it seems safe to presume that you do, the README is parsed and displayed on the landing page of your project.

If you don’t use Github, or don’t care what your Github landing page looks like, you can skip the README file if you like. Historically, Emacs packages are documented solely within the “Commentary” sections of their source files, and that seems perfectly adequate to me.

Of course, if you do provide a README file for use by Github, you can hint its format with a file extension like “.md” or “.markdown” so that Github parses the file into rich HTML and give your visitors the pleasure of some actual formatting.

Building Documentation

The standard format for Emacs packages (and Emacs itself, and basically every other GNU package) is Info. You can read about the Info format on the Stand-alone GNU Info manual page.

What Is Info?

Info itself is a text-based format providing cross-referencing, hierarchical organization, and some other features. To create a manual in Info format, you compose it in Texinfo format and use the makeinfo program to convert it to Info. Texinfo was designed to yield many formats, so an added benefit is that you can use makeinfo to make an HTML format manual as well.

All of the GNU manual pages I’ve linked to online are HTML versions of their original Texinfo documents, and can be read directly within Emacs or with the standalone info reader in Info format.

Creating Your First Manual

As I explained above, manuals are distributed in Info format, but the best way to get your manual into the hands of your end user is to insert a directory entry in the main Emacs Info contents page (the page reached with C-h i). To do this requires a little fiddling, but the MELPA build system will take care of it for you if you simply include your manual in Texinfo format.

My recommendation is to target MELPA for distribution and include your manual in Texinfo format. There are two major advantages here:

  • For you, it makes the distribution easier; MELPA’s build system will convert your Texinfo manual to Info format and generate the directory stub file that Emacs looks for when installing packages.
  • For ambitious end users, it allows you to include only the original Texinfo file in your source control repository; anyone could take that and build other formats for themselves if they have preferences about how to read documentation.

It’s also, in my opinion, bad practice to include generated files in source control, especially when the distribution targets platforms that necessarily have the build mechanisms. Emacs ships with makeinfo, so there is really no reason to go do that transformation yourself and bundle its output.

OK, so how do you create this “.texi” file? Easy, just learn Texinfo format! Don’t worry, in spite of its familiar prefix, Texinfo is a lot simpler than LaTeX, and you only need a few pieces of boilerplate to make a manual that converts nicely into Info or HTML formats.

Texinfo Crash Course

Texinfo format provides special keywords that start with “@” symbols. These keywords can be single identifiers, like @settitle, which sets the title of the document, or block pairs, like @titlepage / @end titlepage, where the content between the start and end symbols has some special meaning.

To get started writing a Texinfo manual for your package, create a new file in the root of your package with the extension “.texi”. It’s customary to give it the same base name as your package. For example, if your package is called “superfrobnicator,” your manual would be called “superfrobnicator.texi”.

Great, so what do you put in this file? Texinfo format is described in detail in its online manual. Of particular importance is the section titled “Beginning a Texinfo File.”

If you are authoring your Texinfo file in Emacs itself, which is certainly recommended, you can make use of “Texinfo Mode,” which gives you some handy shortcuts. Provided that you have makeinfo in your path, which you should, you can press C-c C-m C-b to “make” the whole buffer. This will run the contents of the current buffer through makeinfo with an Info format target, and open the resulting Info document in a new buffer within Emacs. You can proofread, navigate, and see what your end-user’s experience will be like.

Once you’re satisfied, just commit the “.texi” file into source control so that it’s included with the package destined for MELPA and let MELPA’s build process take care of the rest! Users who install your package from MELPA will have your package’s documentation linked from the main Emacs Info page.

There are a few caveats to how this all comes together, so make sure to run a local MELPA build as described in the “Contributing to MELPA” section of MELPA’s own README so that you can see any warnings or errors that might be thrown. In particular, there are certain expected values for tags like @dircategory and @direntry and certain acceptable formats. Everything is described in the documentation for Texinfo.

Comments