Regardless of how you feel about using Emacs as an editor, it is one of the oldest actively developed text editors. Emacs is also LISP centric and because of this its native features already support the interactions we want when we are working on Clojure code.

Learn more about why Emacs is sexy.

Emacs can support LISP editing and REPL interaction natively, without installing any extra packages or libraries, but the experience is sub optimal. The CIDER library provides a comprehensive set of features to help us edit Clojure code. I’m going to focus on setting up CIDER from scratch in this guide.

Installing Emacs

You can follow the instructions on the Emacs site to download and install Emacs.

If you are on MacOS don’t miss the Emacs for OSX link at the bottom of the page as downloading the pre-compiled binary is by far the easiest way to install Emacs on OSX.

Emacs is universally available in most package managers and if you can’t find an expedient way to install it on your current OS, I would be very very surprised.

Learning to use Emacs

There is a lot to know about Emacs but you can get by with a relatively small amount of information at the start.

When Emacs starts it will display a link to a tutorial. Click on that link and learn enough so that you can get around in the buffer and execute some commands. Also, make sure that you know how to open and save files and how to switch from one editor buffer to another. With this small bit of information you will be able to do a lot of editing.

Some good visual guides on how to learn Emacs.

Emacs rocks is a great resource of helpful videos once you want to do more advanced editing.

Personally, I am not an Emacs expert, I tend to use a very small set of commands when I’m using Emacs. I tend to use the commands that are available universally in text buffers and shell line readers. I do tend to use more commands when I’m creating Emacs macros to automate an otherwise repetitive operation to transform some text.

Installing CIDER

Now we are going to start installing some Emacs packages. We will use package.el to install some Emacs lisp packages.

First we need to add a snippet to the top of our ~/.emacs.d/init.el file. If you don’t have an ~/.emacs.d/init.el you should create one and make sure that it has the following code at the top.

(require 'package)
(add-to-list 'package-archives
	     '("melpa-stable" . "https://stable.melpa.org/packages/") t)

This will initialize the package system and add the melpa-stable package repository to the list of repositories to fetch packages from.

If you are editing init.el in Emacs you can now either restart Emacs or you can call the eval-last-sexp with Ctrl-x Ctrl-e at the end of each of these expressions one at a time. Either way will work to execute the code.

Now that we have initialized the package system we can install and setup some packages.

If you are using MacOS you will want to install a package to import and use the PATH of your terminal environment in Emacs.

Type M-x (meta x) then package-install and hit ENTER. You will be prompted for a package name. At the prompt type the name exec-path-from-shell and hit ENTER.

This will quickly download and install the exec-path-from-shell library.

Almost every Emacs package you install will contain instructions that provide some code to add to your init.el file. You can normally find these instructions in the comments at the top of the .el file.

You can find the source code of the installed packages in the ~/.emacs.d/elpa directory. With my current system I can see the docs for exec-path-from-shell in ~/.emacs.d/elpa/exec-path-from-shell-1.11/exec-path-from-shell.el

When I look there I learn that I should add the following snippet to my init.el:

(require 'package)
(add-to-list 'package-archives
	     '("melpa" . "https://melpa.org/packages/") t)

;; setup exec-path-from-shell here
(when (memq window-system '(mac ns))

Now let’s install CIDER following a similar procedure.

Type M-x then package-install then ENTER then cider and finally hit ENTER. This will install cider and clojure-mode.

Using CIDER from ClojureScript

To prepare to use CIDER in Emacs for the first time you will want to make sure all the libraries you need to start Figwheel are available when you call lein repl or clojure to start a REPL.

If you are using Clojure CLI tools all the libraries you need to compile and start your Figwheel build should be in the top level :deps map, don’t place your com.bhauman/figwheel-main and other libraries in an alias.

In a simple hello-world example this means that your deps.edn file would look like this:

{:deps {org.clojure/clojure {:mvn/version "1.9.0"}
        org.clojure/clojurescript {:mvn/version "1.10.773"}
        com.bhauman/figwheel-main {:mvn/version "0.2.18"}}
 :paths ["src" "resources" "target"]}

For Leiningen there is less of a problem because folks normally put development time dependencies in the :dev profile which will be available on the classpath when we run lein repl. Just make sure that when you run lein repl that you can require (require 'figwheel.main.api) and run your build via (figwheel.main.api/start %build-name).

To start editing ClojureScript with CIDER integration, you should navigate (in Emacs) to a ClojureScript source file in one of your ClojureScript source directories (For example src/hello_world/core.cljs). Now we will start our Figwheel build from inside Emacs, with our cursor in the ClojureScript source code buffer type M-x cider-jack-in-cljs. When you type this it will prompt you for the type of tool you want to start a Clojure REPL with. If you are using Leiningen type lein if you are using the Clojure tools type clojure.

Cider will now ask you what type of ClojureScript REPL you want to start. You should answer figwheel-main.

Next it will ask you for the name of your build. It should list build configurations available (such as “dev” build corresponding to the dev.cljs.edn file) with one selected by default so you can just hit enter if its correct.

At this point you will see Figwheel start up in a REPL buffer in Emacs.

Now you can use this REPL buffer like you would any other REPL. This is handy in itself because you will be able to copy and paste code from an editor buffer to the REPL quite easily.

The real magic happens when you experience evaluating ClojureScript code from a buffer that holds a ClojureScript source file.

If you return to the buffer that contains the ClojureScript file (where you launched Figwheel from). You can for example at the bottom of the file you can add a line (+ 1 2 3) and then put your cursor at the end of the line and hit Ctrl-x Ctrl-e to evaluate it. You should see an inline evaluation of you code appear at the end of the line.

CIDER can provides many features to help you as a Clojure/Script developer. You should take some time to read the documentation especially the parts about interactive programming and using the REPL.


Structural editing makes editing LISP based languages a breeze and in my opinion much better than editing languages that have an irregular approach to delimiting expressions or that favor statements over expressions.

Learning Paredit is an essential part of understanding the LISP programming experience.

You will want to install paredit just like you installed cider above.

Type M-x package-install hit enter then type paredit. Once it is installed you want to make it start whenever you are editing a Clojure/Script file. To do this add the following line to your .emacs.d/init.el file after the (package-initialize) line:

(add-hook 'clojure-mode-hook #'paredit-mode)

Checkout this great animated guide to using Paredit


CIDER is under active development and it’s not uncommon to run into troubles when you try to set this up.

You will find helpful folks on the #cider and #emacs channels on the Clojurians Slack. You can sign up for the Clojurians Slack here.

If you are just starting to use Emacs my best advice is to keep your configuration simple at first. Trying to add a ton of functionality to Emacs without understanding the ramifications of what your are doing will most likely lead to thrashing about and not having anything work.

At first focus on getting things to work, not on getting them to work perfectly.