Creating elisp packages

February 11, 2018


Last week my first elisp package elcontext was published on melpa. It was the first time I have published a non-JavaScript package. Now I would like to share the differences between the elisp and the JavaScript ecosystem I experienced.

Learning elisp

The first step for creating a package is obviously to learn elisp. Resources which helped me were the Introduction to Programming in Emacs Lisp, the Emacs Lisp Reference Manual and Practical Emacs Lisp. A big difference to my usual JavaScript development experience was Emacs’ built-in help system. I discovered many useful elisp snippets in other packages by browsing through their help buffers and sources. It is important to know many elisp packages and to learn from their code since there are fewer online resources about elisp compared to JavaScript.

Writing lisp was intimidating at first but paredit was a great help to stay sane with hordes of parentheses. The Animated Guide to Paredit and Emacs Rocks! are great introductions for paredit. Today I cannot imagine writing any code (including JavaScript) without slurping & barfing.


After writing elcontext I published it on melpa which is elisp’s equivalent to npm. Instead of a one simple npm publish you have to perform several steps for melpa. First, you need to use package-lint which informs you about common issues of your package. Then, you must run M x checkdoc which verifies a consistent usage of documentation strings. The steps before opening a PR to melpa are to ensure your code byte-compiles cleanly and to test whether you are able to install your package by using melpa locally. Now you can create a recipe that looks similar to this one:

(elcontext :repo "rollacaster/elcontext"
           :fetcher github)

After submitting your PR, melpa’s maintainers review your code and suggest some improvements. I learned a lot about elisp by applying the reviews’ comments and I checked some other PRs on melpa to learn even more.

Adding a package to melpa is definitely more work compared to npm but I am also much more confident about the quality of my package.


Getting out of my usual JavaScript development was a valuable lesson. Looking at other programming languages and communities seems to be one of the fastest ways to evolve as a programmer. I hope I will be doing this at least once a year.