Writing Vim Plugins

Posted on September 6th, 2011.

A while ago I wrote a post about switching back to Vim. Since then I've written two plugins for Vim, one of which has been officially "released".

A couple of people have asked me if I'd write a guide to creating Vim plugins. I don't feel confident enough to write an official "guide", but I do have some advice for Vim plugin authors that might be useful.

  1. Other People Who Know More Than I Do
    1. Tim Pope
    2. Scrooloose
  2. Be Pathogen-Compatible
  3. Please, For the Love of God, Use normal!
  4. Mapping Keys the Right Way
    1. When to Map Keys
    2. imap and nmap are Pure Evil
    3. Let Me Configure Mappings
  5. Localize Mappings and Settings
    1. Localizing Mappings
    2. Localizing Settings
  6. Autoload is Your Friend
  7. Backwards Compatibility is a Big Deal
    1. What Matters for Backards Compatibility?
    2. Use Semantic Versioning So I Can Stay Sane
  8. Document Everything
    1. Pick Some Requirements and Stick to Them
    2. Write a README
    3. Create a Simple Website
    4. Write a Vim Help Document
    5. Keep a Changelog
  9. Making Vimscript Palatable
    1. Wrap. Everything.
    2. Scripting Vim with Other Languages
    3. Unit Testing Will Make You Drink
  10. TL;DR

Other People Who Know More Than I Do

Writing two decently-sized Vim plugins has given me some experience, but there are a lot of people that know far more than I do. There are two in particular that come to mind. I'd love for them to write some guides (or even books) about modern-day Vim scripting.

Tim Pope

The first is Tim Pope. He's written a ton of Vim plugins like Pathogen, Surround, Repeat, Speeddating and Fugitive. Each of those is clear, focused and polished.

It would be awesome to read a guide on the ins and outs of Vim scripting by him.


The other person that comes to mind is Scrooloose, author of NERDTree, NERDCommenter and Syntastic.

His plugins are large and full-featured but work incredibly well, considering how tricky and painful Vimscript is to work with. I'd love to read a guide on writing large-scale Vim plugins by him.

Be Pathogen-Compatible

It's 2011. When writing your plugin, please make its source compatible with Pathogen. It's very easy to do this — just set up your project's files like this:


This will let users use Pathogen (or Vundle) to install and use your plugin.

The days of "unzip and drag the files into the right directories" and the horror of Vimballs are over. Pathogen and Vundle are the right way to manage plugins, so let your users use them.

Please, For the Love of God, Use normal!

My first piece of actual scripting advice is something simple but important. If you're writing a Vim plugin and need to perform some actions, you might be tempted to use normal. Don't. Instead, you need to use normal!.

normal! is like normal, but ignores mappings the user has set up. If you use plain old normal dd and I've remapped dd to do something else, the call will use my mapping and probably not do what your plugin expects. Using normal! ensures that the call will do what you expect no matter what the user has mapped.

This is a single instance of a more general theme. Vim is very customizable and users will do lots of crazy things in their .vimrc files. If a key can be mapped or a setting changed, you have to assume that some user of your plugin will have mapped or changed it.

Mapping Keys the Right Way

Most plugins add key mappings to make them easier to use. Unfortunately this can be tricky to get right. You can never tell what keys your users have already mapped themselves, and shadowing someone's favorite key mapping will break their muscle memory and annoy them to no end.

When to Map Keys

The first question to ask is whether your plugin needs to map keys itself at all.

My Gundo plugin has only one feature that needs to be mapped to a key in order to make it useful: the "toggle Gundo" action.

Gundo doesn't map this key itself, because no matter what "default" mapping I pick someone will have already mapped it. Instead I added a section right in the README file that shows how a user can map the key themselves:

nnoremap <F5> :GundoToggle<CR>

By making users add this line to their .vimrc themselves it shows them which key is used to toggle Gundo (which they would have to know anyway) and also makes it obvious how to change it to suit their taste.

imap and nmap are Pure Evil

Sometimes forcing the user to map their own keys won't work. Perhaps your plugin has many mappings that would be tedious for a user to set up manually (like my Threesome plugin), or its mappings are mnemonic and wouldn't really make sense if mapped to other keys.

I'll talk more about how to deal with this in a moment, but the most important thing to remember when mapping your own keys is that you must always, always, always use the noremap forms of the various map commands.

If you map a key with nmap and the user has remapped a key that your mapping uses, your mapped key will almost certainly not do what you want. Using nnoremap will ignore user mappings and do what you expect.

This is the same principle as normal and normal!: never trust your users' configurations.

Let Me Configure Mappings

If you feel that your plugin must map some keys, please make those mappings configurable in some way.

There are a number of ways to do this. The easiest way is to provide a configuration option that disables all mappings. The user can them remap the keys as they see fit. For example:

if !exists('g:yourplugin_map_keys')
    let g:yourplugin_map_keys = 1

if g:yourplugin_map_keys
    nnoremap <leader>d :call <sid>YourPluginDelete()<CR>

Normal users will get the mappings automatically set up for them, and power users can remap the keys to whatever they wish to avoid shadowing their own mappings.

If your plugin's mappings all start with a common prefix (like <leader> or <localleader>) you have another option: allow users to configure this prefix. This is the approach I've used in Threesome. It works like this:

if !exists('g:yourplugin_map_prefix')
    let g:yourplugin_map_prefix = '<leader>'

execute "nnoremap"  g:yourplugin_map_prefix."d"  ":call <sid>YourPluginDelete()<CR>"

The execute command lets you build the mapping string dynamically so your users can change the mapping prefix.

There is a third option for solving this problem: the hasmapto() Vim function. Some plugins will use this to map a command to a key unless the user has already mapped that command to something else. I don't personally like this option because it feels less clear to me, but I know other people feel differently so I wanted to mention it.

Localize Mappings and Settings

The next step in being a good Vim plugin author is to try to minimize the effects of your key mappings and setting changes. Some plugins will need to have global effects but others will not.

For example: if you're writing a plugin for working with Python files it should only take effect for Python buffers, not all buffers.

Localizing Mappings

Key binding are easy to localize to single buffers. All of the noremap commands can take an extra <buffer> argument that will localize the mapping to the current buffer.

" Remaps <leader>z globally
nnoremap <leader>z :YourPluginFoo<cr>

" Remaps <leader>z only in the current buffer
nnoremap <buffer> <leader>z :YourPluginFoo<cr>

However, the problem is that you need to run this command in every buffer you want the mapping active. To do this your plugin can use an autocommand. Here's a full example, using this concept plus the previously mentioned configuration options:

if !exists('g:yourplugin_map_keys')
    let g:yourplugin_map_keys = 1

if !exists('g:yourplugin_map_prefix')
    let g:yourplugin_map_prefix = '<leader>'

if g:yourplugin_map_keys
    execute "autocommand FileType python" "nnoremap <buffer>" g:yourplugin_map_prefix."d"  ":call <sid>YourPluginDelete()<CR>"

Now your plugin will define a key mapping only for Python buffers, and your users can disable or customize this mapping as they see fit.

This mapping command is quite ugly. Unfortunately that's the price of using Vimscript and trying to make a plugin that will work for many users. Later I'll talk about one possible solution to this ugliness.

Localizing Settings

Just as you should make mappings local to buffers when appropriate, you should do the same with settings like foldmethod, foldmarker and shiftwidth. Not all settings can be set locally in a buffer. You can read :help <settingname> to see if it's possible.

You can use setlocal instead of set to localize settings to individual buffers. Like with mappings you'll need to use an autocommand to run the setlocal command every time the users opens a new buffer.

Autoload is Your Friend

If your plugin is something that users will be using all the time you can skip this section.

If you're writing something that will only be used in specific cases, you can help your users by using Vim's autoload functionality to delay loading its code until the user actually tries to use it.

The way autoload works is fairly simple. Normally you would bind a key to call one of your plugin's functions with something like this:

nnoremap <leader>z :call YourPluginFunction()<CR>

You can use autoloading by prepending yourplugin# to the name of the function:

nnoremap <leader>z :call yourplugin#YourPluginFunction()<CR>

When this mapping is run, Vim will do the following:

  1. Check to see if YourPluginFunction is already defined. If so, call it.
  2. Otherwise, look in ~/.vim/autoload/ for a file named yourplugin.vim.
  3. If it exists, parse and load the file (which presumably defines YourPluginFunction somewhere inside of it).
  4. Call the function.

This means that instead of putting all of your plugin's code in plugin/yourplugin.vim you can put just the key mapping code there and pull the rest out into autoload/yourplugin.vim.

If your plugin has a decent amount of code this can reduce the startup time of Vim by a significant amount.

Check out the full documentation of autoload by running :help autoload to learn much more.

Backwards Compatibility is a Big Deal

Once you've written your Vim plugin and released it into the wild, you have to maintain it. Users will find bugs and ask for new features.

Part of being a responsible developer of any kind, including a Vim plugin author, is maintaining backwards compatibility, especially for tools that users will use every day and burn into their muscle memory. Users rely on tools to work, and tools that break backwards compatibility will quickly lose users' trust.

Maintaining backwards compatibility will cause your plugin's code to get crufty in spots, but it's the price of maintaining your users' happiness.

What Matters for Backards Compatibility?

For a Vim plugin the most important part of staying backwards compatible is ensuring that key mappings, customized or not, continue to do what users expect.

If your plugin maps key X to do Y, then pressing X should always do Y, even if you change how Y is called by renaming Y to Z. This may mean changing Y into a wrapper function which simply calls Z.

There are many other aspects of backwards compatibility that you will have to consider, depending on the purpose of your plugin. The rule of thumb you should follow is: if a user uses this plugin on a daily basis and has its usage burned into their muscle memory, updating the plugin should not make them relearn anything.

Use Semantic Versioning So I Can Stay Sane

A fast, simple, easy way to document your plugin's state is to use semantic versioning.

Semantic versioning is simply the idea that instead of picking arbitrary version numbers for releases of your project, you use version numbers that describe the backwards-compatible state in a meaningful way.

In a nutshell, these rules describe how you should select version numbers for new releases:

This simple scheme makes it easy for users to tell (in a broad sense) what has changed when they update your project.

If only the bugfix number has changed they can update without fear and continue on without worrying about changes unless they're curious.

If the minor version number has changed they might want to look at the changelog to see what new features they may want to take advantage of, but if they're busy they can simply update and move on.

If the major version number has changed it's a major red flag, and they'll want to read the changelog carefully to see what is different.

Some people don't like semantic versioning for the following reason:

If I have to increment the major version number every time I make backwards-incompatible changes, I'll quickly be at ugly versions like 24.1.2!

To this I say: "Yes, but if that happens you're doing things wrong in the first place."

Keep your project in "beta" (i.e. version 0.*.*) for as long as you need to experiment freely. Take your time and make sure you've gotten things (mostly) right. Once you release 1.0.0 it's time to start being responsible and caring about backwards compatibility.

Breaking functionality all the time harms your users by reducing their productivity and frustrating them. Yes, it means adding some cruft to your code over time, but it's the price of not being evil.

Document Everything

A critical part of releasing a Vim plugin to the world is writing documentation for it. Vim has fantastic documentation itself, so your plugins should follow in its footsteps and provide thorough docs.

Pick Some Requirements and Stick to Them

The most important part of your documentation is telling users what they need to have in order to use your plugin. Vim runs on nearly every system imaginable and can be compiled in many different ways, so being specific about your plugin's requirements will save users a lot of trial and error.

If the answer to any of those questions is "yes", you must mention it in the documentation.

Write a README

The first step to documenting your plugin is to write a README file for the repository. You can also use the text of this file as the description if you upload your plugin to the vim website, or the content of your plugin's website if you create one for it.

Some examples of things to include in your README are:

Create a Simple Website

This isn't strictly necessary, but having a simple website for your plugin is an extra touch that makes it seem more polished.

It also gives you a canonical URL that people can visit to get the latest information about your plugin.

I've made simple sites for both of my plugins: Gundo and Threesome. Feel free to use them as an example or even take their code and use it for your own plugin sites if you like.

Write a Vim Help Document

The bulk of your plugin's documentation should be in the form of a Vim help document. Users are used to using Vim's :help and they'll expect to be able to use it to learn about your plugin.

Creating a help document is as easy as creating a doc/yourplugin.txt file in your project. It will be indexed automatically by pathogen#helptags() so your users will have the docs at their fingertips.

Two easy ways to learn the syntax of help files are by reading :help help-writing and using an existing plugin's help file as an example.

Take your time and craft a beautiful help file you can be proud of. Don't be afraid to add a bit of personality to your docs to break the dryness. The syntastic help file is a great example (especially the About section).

Things to include in your documentation:

In a nutshell: your help file should contain anything a user would ever need to know about your plugin.

Keep a Changelog

The last part of documenting your project is keeping a changelog. You can skip this while your project is still in "beta" (i.e. less than version 1.0.0) but once you officially release a real version you need to keep your users informed about what has changed between releases.

I like to include this log in the README, the plugin's website, and the documentation to make it as easy as possible for users to see what's changed.

Try to keep the language of the changelog at a high enough level for your users to understand without knowing anything about the implementation of your plugin. Things like "added feature X" and "fixed bug Y" are great, while things like "refactored the inner workings of utility function Z" are best left in commit messages.

Making Vimscript Palatable

The worst part about writing Vim plugins is, without a doubt, dealing with Vimscript. It's an esoteric language that's grown organically over the years seemingly without any strong design direction.

Features are added to Vim, then Vimscript features are added to control those features, then hacky workarounds are added for flexibility.

The syntax is terse, ugly and inconsistent. Is " foo a comment? Sometimes.

Much of the time you'll spend writing your first plugin will be learning how to do things in Vimscript. The help documentation on all of its features is thorough, but it can be hard to find what you're looking for if you don't know the exact name. Looking through other plugins is often very helpful in pointing you toward what you need.

There are a couple of ways to ease the pain of Vimscript, and I'll briefly talk about two of them here.

Wrap. Everything.

The first piece of advice I have is this: if you want to make your plugins readable and maintainable then you need to wrap up functionality even more than you would in other languages.

For example, my Gundo plugin has a few utility functions that look like this:

function! s:GundoGoToWindowForBufferName(name)"{{{
    if bufwinnr(bufnr(a:name)) != -1
        exe bufwinnr(bufnr(a:name)) . "wincmd w"
        return 1
        return 0

This function will go to the window for the given buffer name and gracefully handle the case where the buffer/window does not exist. It's verbose but much more readable than the alternative of using that if statement in every place I need to switch windows.

As you write your plugin you'll "grow" a number of these utility functions. Any time you duplicate code you should think about creating one, but you should also do so any time you write a particularly hairy line of Vimscript. Pulling complex lines out into named functions will save you a lot of reviewing and rethinking down the line.

Scripting Vim with Other Languages

Another option for making Vimscript less painful is to simply not use it much at all. Vim includes support for creating plugins in a number of other languages like Python and Ruby. Many plugin authors choose to move nearly all of their code into another language, using a small Vimscript "wrapper" to expose it to the user.

I decided to try this approach with Threesome after seeing it used in the vim-orgmode plugin to great effect. Overall I consider it to be a good idea, with a few caveats.

First, using another language will requires your plugin's users to use a version of Vim compiled with support for that version. In this day and age it's usually not a problem, but if you want your plugin to run everywhere then it's not an option.

Using another language adds overhead. You need to not only learn Vimscript but also the interface between Vim and the language. For small plugins this can add more complexity to the project than it saves, but for larger plugins it can pay for itself. It's up to you to decide whether it's worth it.

Finally, using another language does not entirely insulate you from the eccentricities of Vimscript. You still need to learn how to do most things in Vimscript — using another language simply lets you wrap most of this up more neatly than you otherwise could.

Unit Testing Will Make You Drink

Unit testing (and other types of testing) is becoming more and more popular today. In particular the Python and Ruby communities seem to be getting more and more excited about it as time goes on.

Unfortunately, unit testing Vim plugins lies somewhere between "painful" and "garden-weaseling your face" on the difficulty scale.

I tried adding some unit tests to Gundo, but even after looking at a number of frameworks I was spending hours simply trying to get my tests to function.

I didn't even bother trying to add tests to Threesome because for every hour I would have spent fighting Vim to create tests I could have cleaned up the code and fixed bugs instead.

I'll gladly change my opinion on the subject if someone writes a unit testing framework for Vim that's as easy to use as Cram. In fact, I'll even buy the author a $100 bottle of scotch (or whatever they prefer).

Until that happens I personally don't think it's worth your time to unit test Vim plugins. Spend your extra hours reading documentation, testing things manually with a variety of settings, and thinking hard about your code instead.


Writing Vim plugins is tricky. Vimscript is a rabbit hole of sadness and despair, and trying to please all your users while maintaining backwards compatibility is a monumental task.

With that said, creating something that people use every day to help them make beautiful software projects is extremely rewarding. Even if your plugin doesn't get many users, being able to use a tool you wrote is very satisfying.

So if you've got an idea for a plugin that would make Vim better just sit down, learn about Vimscript, create it, and release it so we can all benefit.

If you have any questions or comments feel free to hit me up on Twitter. You might also enjoy following @dotvimrc where I try to tweet random, bite-sized lines you might like to put in your .vimrc file.