This post is part three of a series of 3 posts. View the other parts:

In this post, we’ll make the command more useful by:

  • Having it prompt us for a file to preview when running interactively.
  • Adding documentation
  • Having Emacs run it automatically whenever we save a Markdown file

We’ll discuss the following Emacs Lisp concepts:

  • Optional arguments
  • interactive code characters
  • progn forms
  • if forms
  • Docstrings
  • Hooks
  • Buffer-local variables
  • What it means that Emacs Lisp is a Lisp-2

Prompting for a file to preview

Here we’ve broken out cam/preview-markdown a bit further.

This version of the command works the same as before when run programmatically, but when executed interactively (e.g. via M-x) it will prompt you for the file to preview, complete with autocomplete; it defaults to the current file.

(defun cam/-scroll-percentage ()
  (/ (float (line-number-at-pos (window-start)))
     (float (line-number-at-pos (point-max)))))

(defun cam/-set-window-start-to-percentage (scroll-percentage)
  (goto-char (point-min))
  (let ((target-line-number (truncate (* (line-number-at-pos (point-max)) scroll-percentage))))
    (forward-line (1- target-line-number)))
  (set-window-start nil (point)))

(defun cam/-render-markdown-preview-current-buffer ()
  (message "Rendering Markdown preview of %s" buffer-file-name)
  (shell-command-on-region (point-min) (point-max) "pandoc -f gfm" "*Preview Markdown Output*")
  (switch-to-buffer-other-window "*Preview Markdown Output*")
  (let ((document (libxml-parse-html-region (point) (point-max))))
    (shr-insert-document `(base ((href . ,url)) ,document))
    (setq buffer-read-only t)))

(defun cam/-preview-markdown-file (filename)
    (find-file filename)
    (let ((url (concat "file://" filename))
          (scroll-percentage (cam/-scroll-percentage)))
      (cam/-set-window-start-to-percentage scroll-percentage))))

(defun cam/preview-markdown (&optional filename)
  "Render a markdown preview of FILENAME (by default, the current file) to HTML and display it with `shr-insert-document'."
  (interactive "fFile: ")
  (if filename
        (cam/-preview-markdown-file filename)
        (switch-to-buffer (current-buffer)))
    (cam/-preview-markdown-file buffer-file-name)))

There are a couple of new concepts to introduce here:

  1. &optional arguments
  2. arguments to the (interactive) declaration
  3. progn
  4. Emacs Lisp docstrings

Optional arguments

In function definitions, &optional is used to denote optional positional arguments. If an optional argument is not passed, its value will be nil in the body of the function:

(defun my-filename (&optional filename)

(my-filename "x.txt") ; -> "x.txt"
(my-filename)         ; -> nil


(defun cam/preview-markdown (&optional filename)

we are making the filename argument optional, because we’d like to be able to call this function with a specific file to preview, but default to the current file when it is called with no argument (such as when it is called as part of a hook, as discussed below).

Specifying a prompt in the interactive declaration

The interactive declaration can optionally take an argument that tells Emacs how to prompt for values to use as the command’s arguments:

(interactive "fFile: ")

The f code character tells Emacs to prompt for an existing filename, defaulting to the name of the file in the current buffer. The rest of the string is the text of the prompt to show the user in the minibuffer ("File: "). Note that we have to include the space after the prompt ourselves.

The string name of the file the user chooses will be passed in as the filename argument. When the function is invoked programmatically, Emacs will not prompt the user for a value of filename.

if forms

In Emacs Lisp, if forms have the syntax

(if condition

For example:

;; t means true and nil means null/false
(defun my-> (x y)
  (if (> x y)

(my-> 3 2)
;; -> t

The if form in the example is roughly equivalent to this Algol-style if form:

if (x > y) {
} else {

progn forms

progn can be used to execute multiple statements as a single form. (If you’re familiar with Clojure, this is the classic Lisp equivalent of do). Each form is evaluated in order, and the result of a progn form is the result of the last form contained by it:

  (message "We are adding some numbers.")
  (+ 3 4))
;; -> 7

Because only the value of the last form is returned, forms other than the last are usually executed for side effects.

Understanding the updated cam/preview-markdown

Now that we’ve discussed the new concepts, Let’s take a deeper look at our simplified cam/preview-markdown function:

(defun cam/preview-markdown (&optional filename)
  "Render a markdown preview of FILENAME (by default, the current file) to HTML and display it with `shr-insert-document'."
  (interactive "fFile: ")
  (if filename
        (cam/-preview-markdown-file filename)
        (switch-to-buffer (current-buffer)))
    (cam/-preview-markdown-file buffer-file-name)))
  1. If a filename argument was passed:
    1. Call cam/-preview-markdown-file with that filename
    2. Switch back to the current buffer (save-selected-window, called in cam/-preview-markdown-file, also restores the current buffer, but doesn’t necessarily bring it to the top).
  2. If no filename argument was passed:
    1. Call cam/-preview-markdown-file with the filename of the current buffer.

Opening a file/switching to existing buffer for a file

In cam/-preview-markdown-file we’ve added a call to find-file.

(find-file filename)

switches to a buffer containing filename. In cases where we’re already looking at that file, find-file doesn’t change anything, so this code continues to work normally when rendering the file in the current buffer. For other files, it will switch to a buffer for that file, creating a buffer (opening the file) if needed.

Adding a docsting

(defun cam/preview-markdown (&optional filename)
  "Render a markdown preview of FILENAME (by default, the current file) to HTML and display it with `shr-insert-document'."
  (interactive "fFile: ")

Emacs Lisp docstrings come after the argument list but before the interactive declaration, if there is one. Emacs Lisp docstrings conventionally mention arguments in all capital letters (e.g. FILENAME). When viewing the documentation for a function, arguments mentioned this way are highlighted automatically.

You can add hyperlinks to other Emacs Lisp functions or variables using the


syntax. These days you can also use curved single quotes instead, but figuring out how to type them involves too much effort, so I stick with the backtick-single-quote convention, which is the one you’ll encounter most commonly in the wild.

Try it yourself! C-h f cam/preview-markdown to view the documentation for the function cam/preview-markdown.

This page of the Emacs Lisp documentation has a very good explanation of docstrings for further reading.

Adding an after-save-hook

Now all that’s left to do is telling Emacs to automatically run our command whenever we save a Markdown file.

(add-hook 'markdown-mode-hook
  (lambda ()
    (add-hook 'after-save-hook #'cam/preview-markdown nil t)))

Whenever we open a Markdown file, Emacs will set the major mode to markdown-mode. Major modes and most minor modes have hooks that run whenever the mode is entered. When we enter markdown-mode, Emacs will run any functions in markdown-mode-hook.

To markdown-mode-hook we add a lambda (anonymous function) that itself adds the command #'cam/preview-markdown to after-save-hook. Any functions in after-save-hook will run after a file is saved.

A hook is just a variable that contains a list of functions that get ran at a specific point in time. markdown-mode-hook is a list of functions to run when entering markdown-mode and after-save-hook is a list of functions to run after saving a file.

Add-hook and buffer-local variables

add-hook adds a function to a hook (which, again, is just a list), creating the variable if it doesn’t already exist. add-hook has two optional args, append (default nil) and local (default nil). append tells it to add the function at the end of the list, meaning it gets ran last. In some cases, it is preferable to run a certain function after others in the hook have ran. In our case, it doesn’t really matter if our function runs before or after others, so we’ll pass the default value of nil. local tells it to add it to the buffer-local version of the hook rather than the global version. We’ll explore the difference more in the future, but for now suffice to know that variables can have global values as well as values specific to a buffer. Buffer-local values overshadow global values.

(add-hook 'after-save-hook #'cam/preview-markdown)

without the optional args would add the function #'cam/preview-markdown to the global after-save-hook, which means it would run after saving any file, which is not what we want. By adding the local option, the function is only added to the hook for the current buffer, meaning it only runs for the current buffer.

To sum it up: markdown-mode-hook gets ran once for every new Markdown file we open, and we use that to add cam/preview-markdown to the after-save-hook for the newly created buffer. Files that aren’t opened in markdown-mode aren’t affected at all.

Lisp-1s and Lisp-2s

Emacs Lisp is a Lisp-2, which means that variables and functions live in separate “namespaces”. For example, length could refer to both a variable named length and a function named length.

;; Emacs Lisp
(length '(1 2 3))
;; -> 3

;; the length variable doesn't overshadow the length function
(let ((length 4))
  (length '(1 2 3)))
;; -> 3

Contrast this to Clojure, a Lisp-1, where variables and functions share a “namespace”:

;; Clojure
;; count is the Clojure equivalent of length
(count '(1 2 3))
;; -> 3

;; let-bound count overshadows *any* usage of the symbol
(let [count 4]
  (count '(1 2 3)))
;; -> [100 line stacktrace: Integer cannot be invoked as a function]

Using functions passed as arguments is much simpler in Lisp-1s, however:

;; Clojure
(defn call-f [f]
  (f 100))

(call-f (fn [n] (inc n)) 100)
;; -> 101

With Lisp-2s, you have to use funcall to call a function bound to a variable:

;; Emacs Lisp
;; the symbol f refers only to variable, so to use it as a function contained in
;; f, you have to use funcall
(defun call-f (f)
  (funcall f 100))

(call-f (lambda (n) (1+ n)) 100)
;; -> 101

There are pros and cons to both Lisp-1s and Lisp-2s. Lisp-1s lend themselves more elegantly to passing around functions since you don’t need to use special forms like funcall. However you have to be much more careful not to unintentionally overshadow functions in Lisp-1s, which usually means intentionally misspelling function parameter names. You’ll often see nonsense like this in Lisp-1s:

;; clojure
;; so as to not overshadow the "type" function, we have to give our type
;; parameter a different name, such as "typ"
(defn type=
  "True if the type of `x` is equal to `typ`."
  [x typ]
  (= (type x) typ))

There are other differences to explore in the a future post, but let’s get back to tweaking our command!

Quoting function names

Attempting to evaluate cam/preview-markdown will result in an error:

*** Eval error ***  Symbols value as variable is void: cam/preview-markdown

Instead, we can quote the symbol name so the reader doesn’t attempt to evaluate it. Emacs offers an alternative syntax for quoting symbols that refer to functions:


Just as 'x is shorthand for (quote x), #'x is shorthand for (function x).

In many cases, using quote for function names will still work correctly:

(add-hook 'after-save-hook 'cam/preview-markdown)

But function is preferred over quote for symbols that name functions for a couple of reasons: it’s clearer and more explicit, and the compiler is better able to optimize function forms.

Final Thoughts

Complete source for the final version can be found at this GitHub Gist. Please feel free to leave comments or suggestions there, or on this Reddit thread. If there’s enough positive feedback from these posts, I’ll be sure to add more!

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